In early January, George W. Bush laid out the framework for a major reform of the nations' immigration policy. Unfortunately, this issue got swept aside when former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill made his case to be included in the cocktail party circuit frequented by Wesley Clark. But now that the press has gotten through that, and the Democrats seem to have decided which of their incoherent Bush-haters is most electable, we can refocus some attention back on the immigration thing.
The criticism that immediately followed Bush's announcement from both the Right ("rewarding people who broke our laws") and Left ("the plan amounts to gradual deportation") was predictable. It was a bit more vociferous on the Right, however, as, for some reason, many conservatives reflexively saw any immigration reform policy that didn't include the words "mass deportation" as somehow a "betrayal" -- a betrayal horrible enough that more than a few readers of this and other conservative publications have written in that they won't vote for Bush because of it, even if the consequence is to put John Kerry in charge of our immigration policy (as well as our foreign policy, tax policy, appointing federal judges, etc.). This sentiment, however, is not warranted.
The argument, for instance, that Bush's proposal would encourage a flood of new illegal immigration -- as did Reagan's 1986 disastrous amnesty plan -- is far from compelling. The guest worker program as outlined by Bush would allow illegals who have regular jobs to be eligible for temporary (the proposal is 3 years, renewable) legal status, and would be available to people living outside of the United States who could show that they have a job offer (first offered to existing legal U.S. residents, with no takers).
Certainly, those who are already here and have a job would be guaranteed legal status. But the free market, as efficient as it is, would quickly produce an industry dedicated to matching potential foreign workers with American jobs going wanting -- which would probably be a preferable route for most would-be immigrants than paying high fees to untrustworthy smugglers or risking a trek through the desert, with uncertain results. 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.
If the real problem in the minds of the opponents of this proposal is that it "rewards" people for having broken the law, that can be at least partially remedied by adopting Senator McCain's suggestion to impose a $1,500 fine on working illegals desiring to trade their illegal status for the security of a legal one. Such a fine would also serve as additional incentive for would-be border crossers to find a job while still in their own country, utilizing the services of a search company or of friends or relatives living in the U.S.
WOULD ALLOWING WORKING illegals legal status harm U.S. workers? It certainly wouldn't hurt U.S. consumers, and with low-skilled labor already priced artificially high due to federal and state minimum wage laws (not to mention various goofy municipal "living wage" ordinances) there is zero possibility of immigrant workers "driving down" wage rates at the bottom end of the labor market. Furthermore, I do not see a problem with Wal-Mart's janitorial provider hiring foreign workers for $6 or $8 an hour, instead of trying to coax American's to take the jobs at $10 or $12 an hour. The argument that most jobs taken by the current crop of illegal immigrants are ones that American's just won't take is a valid one.
After all, there are 8 to 12 million illegals in the country right now, and perhaps 6 to 9 million of these are working regular jobs (or roughly the same number of Americans that are unemployed). Therefore, to believe that these illegals are taking away jobs from willing Americans, you would have to believe that the deportation of these illegal workers would result in the U.S. unemployment rate falling to essentially zero.
The fact is, most Americans taking unemployment benefits aren't unemployed because they are waiting for that $8/hour janitorial job or that $6/hour job picking strawberries to come open. In America, after all, grocery clerks earning $15 to $20 an hour, plus benefits, go on strike at the prospect of having to contribute $5 a week to their comprehensive health insurance coverage.
ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION IS a problem for a few other reasons. First, as those on the Right have correctly pointed out, not having control of our borders is a national security threat, and having people in this country whose first act coming here was to break the law is odious and unhealthy. But those who argue that the mass round-up and deportation of 10 million people is physically, let alone politically, possible are in for a big disappointment. Throwing out millions of productive workers (it is, after all, productive workers who would receive the legal protections under this program) would also be an act of questionable utility.
Allowing the working illegals already in the country to register for legal status (again, preferably with a modest fine) may be somewhat distasteful, but it would "document" those who are currently a mystery, eliminate a lot of the political sentiment for lax enforcement of our immigration laws (with a reasonable legal mechanism available, there would be a lot less sympathy for law breakers, and industries that rely on low-skilled, low-wage labor would have little reason to continue lobbying for lax enforcement), 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 most people who live in the American southwest know, enforcement of our immigration laws is scandalous. As a result, many conservatives argue that we wouldn't have a problem with illegal immigration if only we strictly enforced our current laws. Perhaps. And perhaps the Titanic may never have sunk if the crew had done a better job at bailing water. In any case, it is immaterial. Even if militarizing our 1,500-mile border with Mexico would interdict most illegal border crossers (at a hefty price), the fact that we have not been able to get the judicial bureaucracy to deal seriously with illegal immigration issues for more than a generation should be potent evidence that the prospect of successfully demanding "better enforcement," divorced of any greater reform, is unrealistic. The guest worker program could change this dynamic by taking industry groups that depend on the availability of cheap labor (agriculture, hospitality, janitorial, landscaping, etc.), and whose specific interests are protected by the program, out of the mix of interests opposed to general strong enforcement.
ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION IS ALSO a problem because of our Welfare State. Bush's guest worker program won't do much to solve that (except to the extent that it encourages potential immigrants to stay in their home countries while waiting for jobs to open up). But we should remember that illegal immigrants cost us a lot of money because Democrats in places like the California State Legislature fall all over themselves giving illegal immigrants all sorts of goodies. In border areas, school districts have turned a blind eye to Mexican residents (not immigrants, legal or illegal) crossing the border every day to be taught at U.S. taxpayer expense in U.S. public schools. And when citizens revolt, as they did in California with Proposition 187, Democrat appointed judges rule that immigrants, regardless of their legal status, have constitutional rights to all sorts of state (taxpayer) provided benefits. We certainly need to address these problems, but also recognize that they are entirely separate from the guest worker issue.
Few difficult problems have perfect solutions, and any guest worker program is bound to have failings. But instead of running from Bush's proposal, conservative lawmakers should be rolling up their sleeves to work on the all-important details. Surely, there are likely to be pitfalls, but conservatives who are advocating writing off Bush for his program to "throw open our borders" have not given this proposal a fair hearing. It is one of the best practicable suggestions for getting better control of our borders to come along in years.
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