SAN DIEGO -- Far too often political debates degenerate into shouting matches in which attempts at rational understanding are swept away by rhetoric aimed at winning an argument rather than solving a problem. Unfortunately, the current debate on illegal immigration, and specifically on the proposal for a guest worker program, has fallen into this familiar quagmire. Being the public-spirited guy that I am, I'll try my best to bring some clarity to the guest worker issue.
I'll start right off by saying that I think a guest worker program has a lot going for it. And, no, that doesn't mean I'm for "amnesty." Many conservative talk radio personalities and conservative writers interchange the terms "amnesty plan" and "guest worker program" as if they were the same thing. Some of these people are pretty smart, and I have a hard time believing that they don't know what the definition of "amnesty" is. But their misuse of the term is every bit as wrong as George Bush's use of the term "vigilantes" to describe the Minutemen.
"Amnesty" is to overlook an offense without attaching any punishment. In the case of the guest worker programs, even the weakest one in this regard penalizes those who broke the law. The current Senate program requires the payment of fines (initially $1,000 with an additional $1,000 penalty later on, as currently drafted). By definition, this is not "amnesty." Those who insist on calling it such apparently do so because they think that any punishment other than deportation is "amnesty." Now, if we are going to insist that immigrants adopt the English language, I think we should be setting a good example by using the English language properly. If you think all illegal immigrants should be deported, fine. But don't say that any program that imposes a different penalty is "amnesty." It's very confusing to those of us who think words have meanings.
The Senate guest worker program does not "reward people for breaking the law." It acknowledges that we are willing (for our benefit as well as theirs) to allow working illegals to stay in the country without facing deportation, as long as they do certain things, including paying a penalty. It provides no preferential "fast track" to citizenship. And though the Judiciary Committee's bill as currently drafted may need some strengthening on this point, a proper guest worker program should offer no legal protection to illegals who lack gainful employment -- such as those who congregate in vacant lots or on street corners near home improvement stores and nurseries looking for day jobs, or those who are here primarily to take advantage of our welfare programs.
The amnesty charge is the most frequent one used against a guest worker program. "We tried amnesty in 1986 and it didn't work. It only encouraged more illegal immigration." True. We tried amnesty in 1986 and it didn't work. It only encouraged more illegal immigration. But since the current guest worker programs on the table are far different from what was enacted in 1986 and are not amnesty plans, let's keep the arguments relevant.
ANOTHER SOMEWHAT FRUSTRATING aspect of the current guest worker program debate is that opponents often use all arguments against illegal immigration as arguments against a guest worker program. But the two most frequent ones that I have heard that can at least in some way be applied to the current proposed guest worker programs are (1) that current illegal immigrants are really taking jobs Americans want to do, and (2) current illegal immigrants push down labor rates.
I often hear anecdotal evidence that the 11 to 12 million illegal immigrants in the country today are taking jobs that Americans would gladly do. For years, labor unions have argued, without hard evidence, that non-union shops are full of "exploited migrants." But more compelling than anecdotal evidence are some cold hard facts.
The unemployment rate in the United States as of February was 4.8%. For years economists thought of 5.0% unemployment as essentially "full employment" representing merely "frictional unemployment" -- that is, in a dynamic economy, there will always be about 5% of the workforce in the process of transitioning to new jobs as a result of a move, graduation from school, a desire for a career change, or other factors. This "full employment" level is now generally thought to be a bit less than 5% due to technological advances such as the Internet and a more mobile work force that is better at moving to where the jobs are. This seems to be borne out by the facts. Our current 4.8% unemployment rate is made up of 7.2 million individuals. And of these 7.2 million individuals, fewer than one in five (namely, 1.4 million) have been unemployed for 27 or more consecutive weeks (the definition of "long-term unemployed"). Now, we have an estimated 11 to 12 million illegals in the country today. Assuming that only half of these have gainful employment, that is 5.5 to 6 million people. As smart alecks like to say, "you do the math." Even if you accept the premise that illegals are taking many jobs that Americans would gladly do, if we deported 6 million working people, we'd be 4.6 million workers short. (In practical terms, more than that, since illegal immigrants are primarily concentrated in fewer than 10 states).
Now yes, any economist will tell you that as wage rates rise to try to deal with this supply and demand imbalance, more people will join the workforce. But, frankly, even at significantly elevated wage rates I don't see a whole lot of stay-at-home moms or senior citizens being lured into picking strawberries or laying sod. So yes, undoubtedly there are some illegals out there, perhaps thousands of them, who are doing jobs that Americans would do. But there are millions more who are doing jobs that Americans won't do, if for no better reason than there are not enough Americans around to do them. So deporting millions of working illegals would not make employment available for millions of Americans, but instead would result in massive economic disruptions in several industries and areas.
The second argument, that illegal immigrants in this country have caused some wage rates to be lower than what they would be if they were shipped home, is undoubtedly true. Again, if you have a supply/demand imbalance of several million jobs, wage rates in these industries (primarily agriculture, landscaping, hospitality, and janitorial) would have to go up. But is that a good thing? Certainly, higher wages are often a double-edged sword, as when wages are driven higher for reasons other than increased productivity, the result is higher prices. And should the goal of U.S. immigration policy be to keep wage rates high? If so, we should stop all immigration, not just the illegal kind. But again, that would be a policy of dubious wisdom.
SO NOW THAT I'VE EXPLAINED the problems with the arguments that a guest worker program (along the lines of that now being debated in the Senate) would be a bad thing, I'd like to explore some of the reasons why a guest worker program might actually be a major part of a true solution to the problem of illegal immigration.
Immigration reform proponents in the House are absolutely correct that better enforcement, along with better border security, is of primary importance. Without these, even the best guest worker program would be doomed to fail. But the assertion that better enforcement and border security must be achieved before a guest worker program should be considered is simply wrong. A guest worker program should be complementary to better enforcement and border security and there is no reason not to do both at the same time.
There are three main reasons why a good guest worker program can aid in the efforts at border security and immigration enforcement. First, it will reduce some reason for illegal immigration. Second, it will allow our security and enforcement resources to be more effectively deployed. Third, and perhaps, most importantly, it will bolster the political will to support our immigration laws.
A guest worker program would provide a legal path for immigrants seeking work to follow. Not all will take it. But many will. The cost and peril of crossing the border illegally is not small, in many cases, and going through a legal alternative will be cheaper and safer, if, perhaps, somewhat slower and more bureaucratic, and we should expect that the illegal traffic across the border would decrease. Furthermore, seasonal workers (such as in agriculture) could conceivably return to their home countries to live with their families during the off months (instead of trying to smuggle their families into the United States) without the fear that they would have to risk another clandestine border crossing when their work is to resume.
With the reduced flow of traffic, keeping terrorists, drug smugglers, and other undesirables out of the country will be easier. Allowing the working illegals already in the country to register for legal status (again, with a penalty) would "document" those who are currently a mystery, and would free-up resources to enhance border security and to identify and deport the remaining illegals who either do not qualify for the guest worker program, or who choose to ignore it. As a side benefit, if half of the estimated illegals in the country now took advantage of the guest worker program, the revenue from the proposed initial $1,000 fine would amount to $6 billion. That will buy a lot of fencing and surveillance gear.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is how a guest worker program could bolster the will of government officials to enforce our immigration laws. The big problem with our immigration laws over the past several decades is that we have lacked the political will to enforce them. And as this lack of will has caused failure in the past, it is likely to continue to cause failure in the future.
SO HOW WILL A GUEST WORKER program help? First, it will reduce sympathy for illegal immigrants. Many people find it unpalatable to arrest and deport poor, hard working people. But with a process for working people to come to, and work in, the United States legally, even many people who would now turn a blind eye to illegal immigration would consider that those who come and stay here illegally have no excuse for their actions and should be deported. San Francisco and other liberal cities will, no doubt, continue to offer "sanctuary" but it is likely that a result of a guest worker program will be greater cooperation between the Border Patrol and local law enforcement agencies.
But most important will be the increased will to crack down on employers of illegal immigrants. Right now, many industries dependent on illegal labor, particularly agricultural interests, are effective lobbyists for keeping enforcement of employer sanctions lax. And a big part of this effectiveness is due to the fact that many of the people charged with the enforcing know that strict enforcement of employer sanctions would cause chaos in several important industries. With their needed labor force legalized, and with a program in place to get more workers, if the domestic labor market should run dry, these industries would no longer have an interest in lobbying against either border enforcement or employer sanctions. And those charged with enforcing the laws, and the government officials who oversee them, should no longer have any qualms about vigorously enforcing the law. (Then, if only we can get the courts to agree that illegals who do not have a right to work here also do not have a "right" to welfare benefits, we will reduce another major draw for people to enter the country illegally.)
No guest worker program coming out of Congress will be perfect. But as conservatives, we should take to heart the teaching of Edmund Burke that we need to deal with the reality of our circumstances when formulating policy. In the world that is, mass deportations of productive, working people is neither wise nor feasible. In the world that is, a guest worker program that includes reasonable penalties for those currently working in the country illegally is something that can, when combined with stronger border security and tighter immigration enforcement, bring real benefit.
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