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This essay offers a defense of guest-worker programs and a critique of the objections raised by Michael Walzer and by other critics of such programs. Although critics commonly complain that guest workers are vulnerable to exploitation by employers, we can design guest-worker programs that minimize the risk of such exploitation. Ready access for relatively unskilled guest workers to citizenship and to public benefits, however, generates a fiscal burden for the public treasury. A right to equal treatment for aliens yields perverse results unless aliens are also entitled to equal concern when the host country decides whether to admit the alien to its labor market. By failing to extend such concern and favoring the interests of incumbent residents instead, Walzer harms alien workers by endorsing the alternative of exclusion. A cosmopolitan theory of justice that extends equal concern to all persons worldwide avoids such a perverse result by raising a presumption in favor of the free movement of workers across borders. The problem with this approach is the failure of most citizens to adopt such a cosmopolitan view of justice and their reluctance to bear the fiscal burden that such liberal policies would impose. Given the political infeasibility of the liberal policies implied by ideal principles of justice, we should adopt an expanded guest-worker program as a second-best policy that represents an improvement over the status quo alternative of exclusion. We can expand the rights of guest workers to include the right to change employers, the right to bring their immediate families with them, the option of permanent residence, and the opportunity to naturalize under appropriate conditions after a sufficiently long period of alienage. We can adopt these reforms without imposing a fiscal burden on natives, thereby bringing these reforms within the realm of the politically feasible .


Employment Discrimination Law, Immigration Law, Labor Economics

Publication Title

University of Dayton Law Review

Publication Citation

34 U. Dayton L. Rev. 3 (2008).