In comparison to the extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric dominating the Republican presidential candidacy race, Ben Carson actually sounds rational. He wants to give guest-worker status to millions of undocumented immigrants without criminal records. But not so fast — his proposal could potentially make those people more vulnerable to employer exploitation.
During a conversation at the Commonwealth Club of California on Thursday, Carson said that he would secure the borders, allow undocumented immigrants without criminal records to become guest workers, and eventually let some of them apply for U.S. citizenship after they “go to the back of the line.”
“They have a six-month window and they can get registered, they can pay a back tax penalty, they can pay their taxes going forward, and they now exist aboveground,” Carson said at the event while detailing his guest-worker plan.
Meanwhile, he challenged some of the more radical ideas that have been floated over the last several months. Carson refuted current Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s plan to deport all undocumented immigrants, saying it’s “naive” and would end up harming the agricultural and hotel industries.
“It sounds really cool,” Carson said. “People who say that have no idea what that entails in terms of our legal system, the cost. Forget about that. And plus, where are you going to send them?”
“I was talking to a farmer in South Dakota, who has a 8,000-acre farm. He starts his workers out at $11. He said he could not hire a single American, not one. …That farming industry would collapse,” he added. “If they are hard-working people and they have a clean record and they are contributing, I don’t feel it’s practical to round them up and throw them all out.”
Carson’s move away from mass deportation may make his plan appear workable, especially when compared to how anti-immigrant the rest of the Republican candidate field stands. Trump, for example, is enthusiastic about getting people out of the country and having an “expedited way” of letting the “good people” back in. Chris Christie, another Republican presidential candidate, argued for tracking immigrants like FedEx packages. And on more than one occasion, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has told critics to “chill out” over his use of the slur “anchor babies” to describe U.S. citizen children born to undocumented parents.
Forgiving for a moment Carson’s generalized notion that undocumented immigrants are solely hotel workers or farmworkers (like him, undocumented immigrants can be future doctors, lawyers, or even journalists), if Carson’s immigration plan is anything like how the guest-worker program operates now, then millions of future employees can expect to be exploited to the same extent as undocumented immigrants.
According to a May 2015 Economic Policy Institute report, guest workers, like those sponsored through the H-2A or H-2B visa programs designated for agriculture and other similarly skilled programs, earn “about 11 percent less than” green-card holders and “their wages do not significantly differ from unauthorized workers’ wages.” Essentially, guest workers are just as likely to be subjected to low wages as undocumented immigrants. That’s in part because H-2 visa holders are tied to their employers to keep their visas valid, so they can’t change employers or jobs while working in the United States.
Under the H-2A and H-2B programs, employers are supposed to cover the cover the cost of travel, visas, and any associated costs of transportation from the housing to the job site. But employees occasionally find those costs taken from their paychecks.
They’re also not particularly treated fairly. Mexican H-2A visa workers filed lawsuits against a tobacco farm in Kentucky in June alleging that they were paid less than the guaranteed wage, housed in rat-infested conditions, and prevented from leaving. And a group of Mexican workers filed a complaint against a Mississippi-based landscaping company after they were fired for complaining about their conditions. And a 2013 Southern Poverty Law Center report found that guest workers are routinely cheated out of wages and held virtually captive by employers.