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Guestworker Migration

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An independent source of economic analysis of the impacts of short-term labor migration on agricultural employers, migrants, and origin communities to inform the development of productive, effective, and humane immigration policy.


Poverty and the income gap between poor and rich countries are major driving forces behind immigration. For example, 42 percent of Mexico’s population, especially those living in rural areas, earn less than $111 a month ($1332 a year), the Mexican poverty line. A rural Mexican worker earning the minimum wage in California for six months a year would earn $15,500 yearly, more than a ten-fold increase in earnings. Given the stark income gaps, it is no surprise that economic disparities, alongside violence and insecurity, are key drivers of immigration. 

Yet, people from low-income countries have few legal pathways to migrate to opportunity in higher-income countries such as the US. Given the lack of legal pathways, many migrants instead migrate without authorization. However, there is one important exception. Short-term seasonal work visas, such as the H-2A visa in the US, are “guestworker” programs that allow migrants to work legally in high-income countries. These programs are usually designed to alleviate seasonal worker shortages in the destination country and so have specific conditions regarding the length of time and legal rights migrants have while in the US. Use of the H-2A program has grown 400 percent in the past decade, from well under 100,000 workers to over 300,000. 

Despite the potential for significant income gains for workers, the H-2A program is controversial. There are questions about the long-term socioeconomic impacts on the community and the nation supplying the workers. In the US, advocacy groups allege worker exploitation; nativist groups allege that guest workers are taking jobs from US workers, and farmers allege that the program is rife with bureaucratic red tape. Worldwide, there are the same debates. However, lacking in this debate is solid empirical evidence about the benefits and costs of guestworker programs. 

The Guestworker Migration Initiative will study the impact of guestworker programs for both migrants and the destinations they arrive in. The debate over how to reform immigration policy is complex. By working in partnership with employers, migrants, and government agencies, we aim to break down preconceived ideas by providing empirical evidence on the impact of economic migration and how to improve economic outcomes in the US, origin communities, and for the migrants themselves, while ensuring the welfare of workers. The Initiative, led by Beatriz Magaloni (Political Science) and Melanie Morten (Economics), will conduct policy-relevant research and build opportunities for Stanford undergraduate students, graduate students, and scholars. Our headline project will be the first randomized controlled trial (RCT) of the H-2A program, focusing on migrants between Mexico and the US. 

Faculty Leads


For more information about the Guestworker Migration Initiative, please contact King Center Executive Director Jessica Leino,