Brishen Rogers –
Earlier this week, a Politico piece by Eric Posner (Chicago Law) and Glen Weyl (Microsoft Research) started to bounce around in progressive labor and twitter circles. It’s entitled “Sponsor An Immigrant Yourself,” and proposes a new “Visas Between Individuals” program through which, they assert, “native workers rather than corporations” could reap the benefits of liberalized immigration.
Weyl has already expressed regrets about the tone and title of the piece, but has said that he “stands by the argument.” Tone and title aside, however, the proposal itself replicates many of the worst aspects of existing guestwork programs – so much so, in fact, that it could relegate many migrants to debt servitude.
Here’s the core of the proposal, in Posner and Weyl’s own words:
Imagine a woman named Mary Turner, who lives in Wheeling, West Virginia. She was recently laid off from a chicken-processing plant and makes ends meet by walking and taking care of her neighbors’ pets. Mary could expand her little business by hiring some workers, but no one in the area would accept a wage she can afford. Mary goes online—to a new kind of international gig economy website, a Fiverr for immigrants—and applies to sponsor a migrant. She enters information about what she needs: someone with rudimentary English skills, no criminal record and an affection for animals. She offers a room in her basement, meals and $5 an hour. (Sponsors under this program would be exempt from paying minimum wage.) The website offers Mary some matches—people living in foreign countries who would like to spend some time in the United States and earn some money. After some back and forth, Mary interviews a woman named Sofia who lives in Paraguay
Sofia, who grew up in a village, has endured hardships that few Americans can imagine. She is eager to earn some money so that she could move to her nation’s capital city and get some vocational training. A few weeks later, Sofia arrives in Wheeling, after taking a one-week training course on American ways. If things don’t work out, the agency that runs the website will find a new match for Sofia, and Mary will find someone new as well.
Each family would be permitted to sponsor up to four migrants through this program, thus boosting their income by $10,000 to $20,000. “The reason,” they explain, “is that migrants to the United States usually increase their wages many times, allowing them to pay as much as $6,000 to hosts for sponsorships.” In addition to dog walking or household labor, Posner and Weyl imagine other uses to which migrants could be put – and here I use the passive voice intentionally – including leasing them out to factories, farms, or other businesses.
Posner and Weyl are surely well-intentioned. The notion that liberalizing immigration (if not in the way the authors propose) would have important poverty-reducing effects on a global scale has strong support in the literature, for example in the work of Dani Rodrik. The authors also want to ensure that the benefits of immigration to extend to non-elites rather than being captured by shareholders of companies that hire immigrants, which is a laudable goal.
But the proposal seems to tolerate or even embrace various practices that labor migration scholars and worker organizations have roundly condemned, including restrictions on migrants’ ability to leave abusive employment relationships, and toleration of migrants’ purchasing the right to enter the country. As a result, the proposal would not actually grant migrants any real freedom to enter and compete in our labor markets. Indeed, many could end up having to pay off a debt through work — which is the legal definition of peonage, or debt servitude.