NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 14, 2007

Germany's guest worker program of the 1950s and 1960s -- which admitted more than a million people -- ended with some 80 percent going home after two years.  Others stayed but still lived on the fringe of society, showing that the temporary versus permanent debate is not the either/or dichotomy it appears to be, says Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

The current debate in the United States mixes several arguments, some more attractive than others, says Jacoby.  There's a case for a circular flow; it's good for the countries the migrants come from, and temporary programs have advantages for the United States as well, safeguarding against the possibility of an economic downturn when we no longer need so many foreign workers.

But we also need a program that recognizes the diversity of U.S. labor needs: slots not just for newcomers with no experience, but also for more seasoned workers, who advance and stay in America, says Jacoby.  For example:

  • One option would be with a point system to allow foreign workers to enter the country on temporary visas, then use a merit-based calculation to determine who can stay.
  • But unlike most point systems, this one would also give credit for enterprise, hard work, job advancement, abiding by the law, learning English and so forth.
  • It could figure in economics; perhaps a limit on the number to be admitted permanently based on the unemployment rate or gross domestic product (GDP) growth.
  • But as much as economics, the annual quota should be based on assimilation; the foreigners we allow to stay permanently should be those already tested by the system.

Ultimately, says Jacoby, Germany's failure was thinking that one size would fit all, not making provision for the relatively small share of workers who wanted stay, and then not encouraging them to assimilate.

Source: Tamar Jacoby, "The American Way on Immigration -- Or Germany's?" Washington Post, May 11, 2007.

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