Editor's Note: Free to Move

Like many—maybe most—Americans I come from a family of migrant workers. My grandparents left Ireland and Italy in the 1910s for the United States, chiefly for the opportunity to work long hours and be treated as second-class citizens—a definite step up from the fate that likely awaited them in Old Europe. For a good chunk of his adult life, my father commuted close to 100 miles a day. I’ve moved from central New Jersey to New York City to Philadelphia to Buffalo to Los Angeles to small-town Texas to Ohio to Washington, D.C., all in pursuit of jobs—or the education that would give me and my loved ones access to more and better jobs.

It’s tempting to take such mobility for granted, especially in a country where the most difficult adjustment is likely to be getting used to a new time zone. The freedom to move is ultimately the freedom to enrich yourself, your future, your family. It’s never a simple decision, and it is made a thousand times more difficult when it involves crossing national borders. That latter point is driven home in this month’s cover story, “Guests in the Machine,” for which Senior Editor Kerry Howley traveled to Singapore to report on migrants toiling in one of the most schizophrenic guest worker programs in the world.

Due to chronic labor shortages and hyper-nationalist sentiments, Singapore simultaneously welcomes foreign workers and disrespects them. Almost 43 percent of the population there was born elsewhere (compared to about 13 percent in the U.S.), but guest workers are systematically denied citizenship, due process, and even the right to have children. That disturbing compromise allows Singapore’s economy to flourish even as nativists are appeased.

Despite the hardships they endure, guest workers keep coming because Singapore offers them a good deal relative to the opportunities in their home countries. A guest worker who spent two horrific years battling false charges of theft in hostile courts told Howley she plans to return to the city-state as soon as she can. Why? It’s the fastest way to earn the capital needed to start a
business in her home country of Indonesia.

Surveys suggest that up to 80 percent of Americans support some type of guest worker program. The failure to hammer out details on such a plan was one reason “comprehensive” immigration reform legislation went nowhere in Congress last year.

While guest worker programs are no substitute for open borders, they may represent the best hope for increasing legal migration to our shores. As Howley writes, the programs are an “alternative to prohibition. In a political environment. In a political environment where full mobility is as unlikely as full drug legalization, such incremental change may be the only alternative to stasis.”

That’s a far and shameful cry from the freedom of movement Americans have long taken for granted. And as Howley notes, “host countries are right to worry about the moral complexities of a legally divided society.” But if such programs allow poor people to make themselves much better off, they are certainly worth looking at very closely.

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