Transient Servitude Update:
The Continuing Efforts to Establish a US Guest Worker Program
to Exploit Labor from the Global South

Richard D. Vogel
Copyright © 2010

Permission to copy granted


(Author's note:  Since the end of the 20th century, the neoliberal sector of US capitalism has relentlessly pursued the establishment of a national guest worker program to import cheap labor from the Global South [primarily Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean].  The failure of the US Congress to implement comprehensive immigration reform that includes provisions for a temporary worker program has not derailed capital's initiative.  The purpose of Transient Servitude Update is to bring Transient Servitude: The US Guest Worker Program for Exploiting Mexican and Central American Workers (Monthly Review, January 2007) up to date by presenting timely analysis of the important developments of this critical issue that will shape the future of all labor in the 21st century.)


The working people of North America are in dire straits under the rule of neoliberal globalization:

  • The offshoring of jobs (manufacturing, service, and professional) to the Global South under free trade agreements (NAFTA, CAFTA-DR, and numerous bi-lateral FTAs) has allowed transnational corporations to extract super-profits from their operations in the Global South while devaluing labor in the North.
  • Offshoring and threats of offshoring jobs from the US and Canada to the Global South have undermined the bargaining position of labor vis-à-vis capital in the North, resulting in growing inequality.
  • The informal onshoring of labor from Mexico and Central America to the USA, facilitated through selective enforcement of immigration laws during the 1990s and early 2000s, has further undercut labor in the North. The widespread exploitation of the undocumented immigrant labor pool in the US was a key factor in the economic growth of the 1990s and the post-2001 so-called "jobless" economic recovery.
  • US capitalism is aggressively seeking legal access to cheap labor from the Global South as a basis for the recovery of the US economy. 

The adoption of a national guest worker program which will legalize the onshoring of labor from the South, an integral part of neoliberal free trade policy, will tighten the stranglehold of transnational corporations on the working people of North America.  The current economic crisis has raised the stakes -- the fight against the establishment of a temporary guest worker program is now a crucial battle in the campaign to combat neoliberal globalization.



The 1990s and early 2000s witnessed the biggest migration of workers and their families (both legal and unauthorized) in history.  By 2005, there were an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants (mostly from Mexico and Central America) living and working the United States.  The grand strategy of US transnational corporations and their allies who are promoting a national guest worker program is to deport all of the undocumented workers (and their families) and replace them with contract workers in order to exploit the cheap pool of labor in the Global South while avoiding political and social liabilities.

Timeline of the Campaign to Establish a Guest Worker Program

2001.  The economic recession triggered by the 9/11 attack on the USA set the stage for repressing the undocumented immigrant community again (see Transient Servitude and Stolen Birthright: the US Conquest and Exploitation of the Mexican People for the historical background of current events).  This time there are millions of people and hundreds of communities at risk, and they have more to lose.  The war on terror instituted after 9/11 facilitated the militarization of immigration enforcement and is providing an effective smokescreen for the neoliberal labor strategy.
2002.  The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was established to consolidate all of the agencies dedicated to domestic security, including the paramilitary Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Detention and Removal Operations (DR0).  The first 287 (g) agreement with DHS which utilizes designated local law enforcement officers as immigration agents, was signed in 2002.  Almost 300 law enforcement agencies across the nation have now signed on to 287 (g).

2003.  DHS announced Endgame, the DRO strategic plan to "remove all removable aliens from the USA by the year 2012", clearly establishing the timeline of the neoliberal labor strategy.  The Endgame policy statement has been removed from the DHS website, but the policy is still in force.  The original document is available as a PDF on the Internet.

2005.  DHS established the Secure Border Initiative (SBI) to secure the borders of the United States.  SBI is focused on the US-Mexico border where it is constantly upgrading its advanced tactical infrastructure including the use of Unmanned Aerial System (drones) and extending the southern border wall.  According to DHS and other public records, not a single terror suspect has been apprehended at the southern US border.

2006.  Six comprehensive immigration reform bills were introduced in the 109th U.S. Congress.  Only one of these bills did not include a provision for a guest worker program (for details of the legislation see Transient Servitude).  Because of political opposition from labor, civic, and religious organizations, Congress failed to act on immigration reform.
In 2006, a massive privatized NAFTA corridor project was proposed and construction began in Texas on IH 35 and IH 69, the two principle corridors from Mexico to Canada.  The NAFTA corridors were slated to become the main conduits of an international guest worker program, transporting an unending stream of transient labor between the heart of Mexico and the United States and Canada.  Both San Antonio and Kansas City have been designated as inland Ports of Entry, a unique status that will allow them to be utilized as guest worker processing centers.
Although the NAFTA corridor project was halted by political opposition at the grassroots level and the economic meltdown of 2008, it has not been abandoned.
2006 also saw the expansion of DRO centers in the USA.  In January, DHS awarded a $385 million contingency contract to KBR, the engineering and construction subsidiary of the Halliburton Company, to establish temporary DRO facilities to supplement the existing ones in case of an “immigration emergency.”  Although the term "immigration emergency" was not defined, the full mobilization of Endgame which targets 12 million undocumented immigrants and their families would produce a huge demand for temporary DRO facilities.

2007.  The year 2007 presented a sneak preview of transient servitude in action.  In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, Signal International, a US marine fabrication company brought in almost 500 skilled metalworkers from India to Pascagoula, Mississippi on H-2B visas (see Transient Servitude "Plan B" below for an explanation of the H-2B visa program) to work as welders and fitters on hurricane-ravaged offshore oil-rigs.

The arrangement was troubled from the beginning.  As soon as the workers arrived, they realized that they had been recruited under false pretenses.  In India, the men had been told that they would be granted green cards and permanent residency, but upon arrival discovered that they had paid up to $20,000 each (the equivalent to lifetime earnings for many workers in India) to lawyers and recruiters to obtain temporary H-2B visas that might not be extended.  Workers complained that it would take them at least two years wages to recover the money that they paid out.

The conflict escalated and the Indian workers formed a committee, the SIGNAL H2B EMPLOYEES ORGANIZATION, to protect themselves from the company.  As virtual prisoners of Signal, they dictated an urgent message to the outside world by telephone.

The workers reported that they were being housed in shipping containers with only 2 bathrooms available for 300 men, that visitors were not allowed into the camp, and that the company refused to recognize their complaints.  In February one worker died of a stress-induced heart attack and the workers collected money among themselves to send the body back to India.

The conflict quickly came to a head.  Early in the morning of March 11, company officials accompanied by armed security guards conducted a raid on the camp and took away six workers.  That's when the remaining workers made their appeal for outside help.
Ronald Schnoor, the CEO of Signal International, and Darrel Snyder, a manager in the shipyard where the Indians were working and living, have testified in court that they had consulted with ICE agents about the labor unrest and received the following directions:

"Don't give them [the organizers] any advance notice.  Take them all out of the line on the way to work; get their personal belongings; get them in a van, and get their tickets, and get them to the airport, and send them back to India."

When company officials attempted to follow these instructions, they were stopped by immigrant rights advocates who blocked the gates of the shipyard.

Subsequently, hundreds of the Indian workers filed a civil rights suit against Signal International, claiming that they were victims of human trafficking and labor abuse -- a succinct definition of all guest worker programs.

In 2007 the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) published Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States which documented rampant abuses of H-2B hotel workers in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, forestry workers across the American South, and seafood workers on the East Coast. 

Throughout 2007, ICE escalated raids and sweeps at factories, day labor sites, clinics, schools, apartments, homes, and on the streets.  ICE deported 280,000 unauthorized migrants in fiscal year 2007.  ICE also targeted employers of undocumented workers.  The agency reported 4,077 administrative arrests and 863 criminal arrests in 2007.  Ninety-two of those arrested for criminal violations were company supervisors and 771 were other employees.

2008.  DHS launched the Secure Communities Initiative which expanded the 287 (g) program (see 2002) by subjecting all arrestees suspected of being undocumented immigrants to biometric identification (fingerprinting).  In the first year of operation, Secure Communities enabled ICE to identify more than 111,000 undocumented immigrants when they were arrested and booked by state or local law enforcement agencies.  According to ICE's own figures, only 11,200 (10%) of these individuals were wanted for serious criminal offenses.

In April 2008 , Mary Bauer, the director of the SPLC's Immigrant Justice Project and principle author of Close to Slavery (see 2007), testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law that the H-2B program is rife with abuse because there are virtually no labor protections for workers.

2009.  The Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America's Security and Prosperity (CIR ASAP) Act, touted as "a workable solution to our immigration crisis" was introduced by US Representative Luis Guiterrez (D-ILL) in late 2009.  CIR ASAP, endorsed by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the Asian Pacific American Caucus, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, includes several progressive and compassionate reform proposals, but the bill deserves special attention because it advocates setting up the infrastructure for administering a program of managed migration which could include transient servitude for millions of workers from the Global South.

Managed migration has become a euphemism for guest worker programs after the failed legislative efforts of 2006 and 2007 and widely publicized abuses of the H-2B visa program.  Under the managed migration paradigm developed by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), immigration flows will be determined primarily by a standing government commission in order to further "America's strategic economic interests" -- in other words, to meet the demands of neoliberal globalization.

Title V - Strengthening the U.S. Economy and Workforce of CIR ASAP embraces the managed migration paradigm developed by the MPI by advocating a new independent federal Commission on Immigration and Labor Markets that would recommend to Congress and the President the number of workers to be admitted to the country annually.

A key provision of the managed migration paradigm is executive power:

"After a specified period for congressional consultation, unless Congress acted to maintain existing statutory baseline labor market immigration levels, the President would issue a formal Determination of New Levels, adjusting employment-based green-card quotas and preferences and temporary worker visa limits for the coming fiscal year".

The precedent for this extension of executive power can be found in the fast-track authority granted to the President of the US in the pursuance of neoliberal free trade agreements during the last 30 years.  The final outcome of granting the President supreme power over a national program of managed migration that includes temporary worker visas could result in transient servitude for millions of workers and further devalue all labor in North America.

2010.  In early 2010, the opposing sides of the immigration contradiction in the US -- immigrant scapegoating v. managed migration -- clearly emerged.

In April, Governor Jan Brewer signed into law Arizona SB 1070 which is blatantly anti-immigrant and reflects the latest manifestation of immigrant scapegoating -- blaming the periodic crises of capitalism on undocumented immigrants, the most vulnerable sector of society.  SB 1070 follows the pattern of similar political reactions against immigrants that took place during the Great Depression and the severe post-WW II economic recession.  The Arizona law, scheduled to go into effect in the summer, makes the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and gives the police broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.  In the month following the signing of SB 1070, legislators in nearly 20 other states were clamoring to follow the Arizona initiative.

The goal of SB 1070 and similar legislation is, of course, to facilitate the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants from the US.  It is important to understand the similarities and differences of the opposing sides of the immigration contradiction.  While the reactionaries who scapegoat immigrants see the act of deportation as a panacea for host of economic and social problems, the neoliberals see mass deportation and the resultant labor shortage as a precondition for their various schemes of transient servitude.

In late June the opposing side of the immigration contradiction, managed migration -- immigration reform which focuses on the strategic exploitation of immigrant labor -- was set forth.   On June 24, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and nine other co-chairs from business and government launched the Partnership for a New American Economy which is clearly based on the principles of managed migration and openly advocates a streamlined recruitment process for both permanent and temporary workers.

The similarities of principles adopted by the Partnership for a New American Economy and those embraced in the CIRASAP(see 2009) strongly suggest the possibility of a compromise between political elites offering amnesty for selected undocumented immigrants presently residing in the US in exchange for a temporary guest worker program for future migrant workers.  While such a sellout deal would provide limited relief for some, it would condemn millions of future migrant workers to transient servitude and, in the long run, would further devalue all labor in North America.  

Transient Servitude "Plan B" (H-2B visas)
In the event that the US Congress fails to enact comprehensive immigration reform with provisions for a guest worker program, the expansion of the existing H-2B visa program is "Plan B" for businesses in the United States that want to legally exploit cheap labor from the Global South.

The roots of the current H-2B visa date back to the H-2 temporary worker program that was established by the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1952.  The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 created separate programs for temporary laborers -- an H-2A program for agricultural workers and an H-2B program for non-agricultural workers.   The minimal legal protections demanded for agricultural workers and promulgated by the US Department of Labor have never been applied to H2-B workers.

Chart 1 tracks the number of H-2B visas issued for the years 1987 through 2009.

Chart 1

Chart 1 illustrates the skyrocketing demand for cheap immigrant labor in the US at the turn of the century and capital's willingness to manipulate the law to get access to it.

The graph shows that the demand for H-2B workers was relatively low for the first 10 years of the program when an average of less than 10,000 visas per year was issued.  In anticipation of an increasing demand for temporary workers in the US, Congress raised the statutory cap on H-2B visas to 66,000 for the year 1992.  That cap was exceeded in 2003.  In 2005 the Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act (SOSSBA) effectively bypassed the cap by excluding H-2B renewals from the annual count.  This end-run around the statutory cap resulted in the issuance of over 122,000 H-2B visas in 2006 and almost 130,000 in 2007.  SOSSBA expired in October of 2007 which resulted in dramatic drops in H-2B visas in the years 2008 and 2009.  Despite this setback, advocates for exploiting cheap labor from the Global South, like the US Chamber of Commerce, continue to promote the H-2B visa program as a viable alternative if a national guest worker program is not forthcoming.  By periodically adjusting the statutory cap on H-2B visas, congress can manage the migration of workers without passing comprehensive immigration reform.

Labor advocates and activists need to keep this Transient Servitude "Plan B" in mind during the ongoing debates over the future of migrant workers in the United States.



The working people of North America, like workers around the world, are in dire straits and their situation is rapidly deteriorating.  The global megatrend of growing inequality and the current global economic meltdown are direct outcomes of increasing neoliberal globalization and the people of the world are being told by their governments that a future of economic austerity is inevitable. 
In the midst of the most severe global economic crisis since the Great Depression, these same governments are promoting even more neoliberal globalization.  We are being told that more offshoring of jobs and onshoring of cheap labor from the Global South are necessary to make the nations of the North more competitive in the global economy. 
Activists must recognize the fact that free trade labor is a zero-sum game for working people everywhere and resolutely oppose any and all policies that intensify the exploitation of labor.


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