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The 'Guest Worker' Folly
By Peter D. Salins
After years of inconclusive posturing and negotiation, Congress is finally getting serious about a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. immigration policy. The Senate proposal under consideration, to its credit, deals with all three crucial elements of the immigration policy challenge: what to do about the illegal immigrants already here (whom no one honestly believes we would ever deport); how we might secure the border and stem future illegal entry; and whom we should admit in the future.
The bill is a decidedly mixed bag, however, with elements that are good, very good and downright ugly. Unfortunately, the ugly element may fatally outweigh the rest.
First, the good: The proposed legislation's convoluted path to legal status for the country's estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants is probably the best compromise to be achieved between the adamant proponents and opponents of "amnesty." It is essential that all immigrants who are permitted to stay actually become members of American society. The legalization provisions, however imperfect, are better than the status quo. More good: On border security, the proposed bill would focus primarily on an electronically supported implementation of employer sanctions. This makes real sense, because employer sanctions have always been a far more effective means of stopping illegal immigration in its tracks than border guards or fences. Those who claim that employer sanctions haven't worked are unaware that they have never been seriously tried. If we mean it this time, employer sanctions will work.
Second, the very good: The most commendable aspect of the bill is its retreat from family sponsorshipindeed any form of sponsorshipas the only basis for admitting immigrants, in favor of a merit-based point system. The point system is predicated on self-sponsorship, with bonus points for criteria well within the ability of most potential immigrants to meet: English language proficiency, modest levels of education and a set of specific skills. Of all aspects of the current proposal, this is the most far-reaching and creative, because the current family and employer sponsorship system is seriously flawed, at war with our immigration heritage and a major contributor to illegal entry.
Because it sets aside "family reunification," this provision is being vehemently attacked by supposed immigration "liberals" as being cruel and unfair. They have it backward; it is the current system that is cruel and unfair, and it was designed to be that way. It was instituted in the 1920s for only one deplorable purpose -- to keep out the growing number of immigrants from "undesirable" countries, then meaning those from southern and eastern Europe. The family sponsorship criteria that immigration advocates so cherish were designed not out of concern for family values at all, but to skew the immigrant mix toward nationalities already here.
As it happens, by the time the U.S. expanded its quotas after 1965, Europeans were less interested in coming, and Mexicans and other Latin Americans had secured enough of a demographic foothold to give the family sponsorship feature a decided Latino tilt. But family sponsorship is also profoundly unfair, and a major spur to illegal entry, because most potential immigrantseven from Mexicodo not have close American relatives.
In any case, the immigration reform bill's deleterious impact on families would be minimal, because it sets aside enough slots to finally clear the entire backlog of current family-sponsored applicants, and would allow point-based admittees to bring their close relatives with them.
Now the ugly: The most ill-conceived element of the Senate bill is its provision for admitting hundreds of thousands of temporary, or "guest," workers. As many critics have already noted, since it is unlikely that all, or even a majority, of temporary workers would actually return to their native countries when their visas expired, the guest-worker mechanism means that we can readily anticipate the next wave of illegal residentsand is unlikely that we will ever again entertain any kind of post hoc residency legitimation.
But even if all temporary workers went back home after their allotted stay ended, the notion of inviting millions of new immigrants to live in American communities with no possibility of their ever becoming Americans is an affront to our civic and immigration heritage. (The current legislation is quite clear that neither extended stays nor citizenship will be options for temporary workers.) Can our civil societyso grounded in the notions of assimilation and civic participation by all Americans tolerate an army of permanent aliens in our midst? I believe not.
Western Europe's experiment with foreign labor recruitment in the 1960s and 1970s, under various guest-worker rubrics, should give us pause. While the individual nations' policies varied widely, they all shared with the Senate proposal two expectations: that imported laborers would not stay very long, and that they would not assimilate into the national social fabric.
True enough, the guest workers in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Scandinavia did not assimilate; but the majority have stayed, legally and illegally, residing in alienated economic and cultural enclaves, resentful of and resented by their unwelcoming host citizenry. If we are determined to replicate Western Europe's four decade old guest-worker experiment, we may soon reap the same civil discord it is experiencing today.
The temporary-worker provision has been included in the reform package supposedly at the behest of employers, especially those needing unskilled workers in agriculture and services. But if employers across America really need a larger labor force, this result could easily be achieved under the new point-based quota system. The quota could be enlarged by precisely the number of visas that the bill allots to temporary workers, and under the bill's Labor Department certification provisions, its criteria could be broadened to encompass the kinds of low-skill occupations that temporary workers would presumably fill. But the bedrock principle that must be sustained is that all who come to America must have the potential to become Americans.
As with all compromise legislation, no interest group, policy wonk (like myself), or partisan position gets everything it wants. There is now such a hunger for immigration reform across the policy spectrum that, regardless of our specific misgivings, we are all being asked to take the ugly along with the good and very good. But at this point I feel so strongly that the "guest worker" provision would be catastrophic that I would rather wait for a better bill without it.
Mr. Salins, a professor of political science at Stony Brook University,
is the author of "Assimilation, American Style" (Basic Books,
©2007 The Wall Street Journal
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