Cornell University

The Hidden Migrant Workforce: Comparing the Canadian and U.S. Temporary Foreign Worker Visa Programs

Friday, April 21, 2017 at 8:30am to 12:00pm

Myron Taylor Hall, 186

Early into the Trump administration, both the president and Congress are considering numerous ways to reform one aspect of the immigration system that receives less attention from the public and the media than it deserves: temporary foreign worker programs (TFWPs, also known as guestworker programs). In the United States, TFWPs like the H-1B and H-2A visas have been key elements in immigration reform debates on Capitol Hill, but the public discourse has mainly focused on the undocumented population. In Canada, the TFWP doubled under the Harper government and numerous scandals ensued. In 2017, TFWPs are poised to enter mainstream debates, but only a few stakeholders – including employers, unions, and a handful of academics and policy organizations – have engaged in the critical dialog that could shape the future of immigration and work in both countries.

Those involved in this debate around TFWPs are usually narrowly focused on one industry or a single visa classification, or operate within their own professional and organizational spheres. Ideas about TFWPs usually clash in policy debates in Washington or Ottawa, or in courtrooms, or get highlighted in reports from the news media and human rights NGOs. Academic research on TFWPs is rare, and there are few fora available where experts can discuss broader perspectives that go beyond one occupation or one visa – and explore deeper structural critiques such as worker displacement, violations of guestworkers’ labor and workplace rights, and the undercutting of local wage standards. The lack of coordination and information-sharing has resulted in piecemeal solutions and unintended negative consequences. The lack of a holistic solution in the United States and Canada means existing programs facially violate longstanding international human rights norms. All the while, employers financially benefit from countless avenues to game the system, and on the backs of hundreds of thousands of powerless, low-paid migrant workers.


In order to address this, Justice in Motion, UNITE HERE, Economic Policy Institute, and Cornell University have come together from four perspectives – an advocacy group, a union, a think tank, and an academic institution – to identify the major research gaps that cloud understanding of temporary foreign worker programs and perpetuate chaotic and fragmented discussions. We will discuss how we can move forward to fill the gaps.


Cornell Law School’s April 21 Berger Current Events Colloquium will convene a small group of academics and advocates to present a preliminary overview of temporary foreign worker programs in the United States and Canada, with a focus on key information gaps and initial proposals to address them. The purpose of this meeting will be to share insights and debate ideas for moving research agendas forward, with an emphasis on shaping channels of communication across entrenched ideologies and fields of study and practice. Participants will learn the history and current realities of these programs in the United States and Canada, and have the opportunity to interact with national and international experts in this vital but neglected part of both immigration systems. 

Event Type



Law School


isscal, immcal


Contact E-Mail

Contact Name

Beth Lyon

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Public, Must RSVP

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