SAN DIEGO — Illegal immigration is a problem that has been long ignored, causing pent-up frustration and emotion that, ironically, now threaten to derail the best realistic attempt to deal with the problem in decades. The House has its “enforcement only” bill and the Senate has its more comprehensive bill with guest worker and “earned citizenship” provisions. Both have flaws, but both have areas of real merit, and a marriage of the best of both bills in conference is certainly not out of the question. But will the “immigration hawks” in the House torpedo any compromise? Let’s hope not.
The height of the hurdle facing the members of the House and Senate conference committee charged with trying to reconcile the two bills was recently demonstrated by congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado, patron saint of the immigration hardliners. The Senate’s guest worker provisions have an odd tiered system for current illegals living and working in the United States. Those who have lived and worked in the country for fewer than two years would have to return to their home countries in order to apply for the guest worker program. Those here between two and five years could apply at a port of entry, while those working here longer than five years could apply from wherever they are. Illegals would also have to pay fines of $2,000, but many conservatives, including Tancredo, conveniently ignoring the definition of the term, label this approach “amnesty.” Conservative Republican congressman Mike Pence, in addressing the Heritage Foundation recently, suggested a possible “middle ground” with the Senate’s guest worker provision. He stated his support for a guest worker program that would be available to current illegals only if they first returned to their home countries. Tancredo, however, immediately jumped all over this suggestion, calling it “amnesty with a trip tacked on.” So for Tancredo and many of his hard-line allies, even deportation is “amnesty.”
Despite the extremism displayed by Tancredo, however, there are signs of hope. I was surprised, for instance, when I heard local San Diego radio talk show host (and sometime Rush Limbaugh fill-in) Roger Hedgecock, who fulminates long and often over the Senate’s “guest worker/amnesty” program, express the opinion that Pence’s view was “reasonable.” Pence’s program is, after all, essentially the same as the Senate program (at least for Mexicans) for illegals here for fewer than five years. It is problematic, however, in that it is unlikely that “other than Mexicans” who have been here for years will go back to their home countries (China or Russia, for instance) to apply for a guest worker visa, and it would certainly be a tough decision for a Mexican living and working in the United States for the past five or more years to pull up his stakes and return to Mexico in the hope of being granted a guest worker visa.
The Senate’s approach is to impose penalties on illegals, but to strike a balance between the penalties and the security of legal status so that most working illegals would choose to register under a guest worker program. The goal is to get working illegals to come forward so that we can document who they are and where they are and process them into a controlled system, and then concentrate on getting rid of the rest. The problem is that Pence is too focused on appearance rather than substance. His ultimate goal is the same as the Senate’s guest worker program, and, in practice, his plan would be effectively the same as the Senate’s guest worker program. But by insisting on the rather unimportant detail of long-term illegals first returning to their home countries (to avoid the false appearance of an “amnesty”) he makes it less workable. At least he is thinking about a solution. Tom Tancredo, with his incomprehensible statement about Pence’s suggestion being “amnesty with a trip tacked on” seems only interested in punishing people and throwing and keeping people out of the country.
The opposition of Tom Tancredo and others in the House who have painted themselves into a corner in which no compromise on a “guest worker/amnesty” program is possible will be formidable. In his blast against Mike Pence, Tancredo reiterated the contention that finding a “middle ground” between amnesty and mass deportation (as Pence described his proposal) is a false choice. This is so because, according to Tancredo, by cracking down on employers we can destroy the magnet luring illegal immigration and force current illegals, no longer able to find employment, to “self deport.” I’m not all that interested in destroying the “magnet” of the U.S. economy, and don’t quite understand those like Tancredo who proudly offer a “cut off our nose to spite our face” solution to illegal immigration. Effectively squeezing out probably upwards of 10 million workers from a U.S. economy that only has an indigenous long-term unemployed population of about 1.4 million, does not strike me as wise public policy, especially if there are better alternatives.
THE OBJECTIONS TO A GUEST worker program from Tancredo and like-minded conservatives have been, all in all, rather weak. Aside from the false “amnesty” charge, they basically offer four arguments. First, they argue that the provisions of a guest worker program would never be enforced. Second, few illegals would register because they won’t be willing to pay a $2,000 fine when they think they face no risk of deportation. Third, the processing of up to 12 million applications would necessitate the hiring of thousands of new government employees, and would be subject to fraud. And lastly, we don’t need guest workers because the illegals that are here are taking jobs that Americans would fill. Are these objections really sufficient enough to warrant the scraping of the guest worker concept in favor of destroying the “magnet” of our economy? Let’s take a look.
The non-enforcement argument is illegitimate. It would be, after all, an argument to do nothing. If this is a valid argument against a guest worker program, it is certainly just as valid against “enforcement only.” Why hire thousands more Border Patrol Agents when we can’t be sure the laws will be enforced and smugglers prosecuted? Indeed, in these pages last month, I described how a guest worker program could enhance the likelihood of better border, and interior, enforcement, largely by helping to break apart the coalition of agricultural, business, and political interests that has proven such an effective lobby against such enforcement in the past.
The argument that illegals wouldn’t register, fearing no consequences, is a related argument. To be most effective, a guest worker program has to be tied with strong border and interior enforcement, including employer sanctions. Again, there is no reason to believe that such stronger enforcement would be less likely than under an “enforcement only” approach, which would face far larger political and practical problems. And though not all working illegals may find the security of legal status worth the expense of the $2,000 or the hassle of the other requirements, their employers will. Even if the employer doesn’t think the likelihood of his own prosecution, or the deportation of his workforce, is great, he obviously has every incentive to encourage, and possibly even assist, his workers to become legal. But even under the opponents’ worst-case scenario in which we end up with a guest worker program that is largely ignored, is that any worse than the status quo?
It is true that the processing of millions of illegals would take a bit of manpower. But this is a strange objection coming from a group that uses the phrase “whatever it takes” as a slogan. I’d rather have smaller government too. But if it takes hiring a few thousand more government workers (or preferably outsourcing much of the work to the private sector) in order to help resolve our problems with illegal immigration, then I’m all for it. And, yes, undoubtedly there will be those who use forged documents to try to establish a record of long-term employment in the U.S. and some will get away with it. But again, fraud is something that can creep into any government program, and is not, on its own, a valid argument for not taking a certain course of action that would otherwise be beneficial. The integrity of a guest worker program will not be irreparably breeched if a maid working the past three years at a hotel in San Jose successfully uses forged documents to allow her to apply for the guest worker program without having to travel to San Ysidro.
The final argument — that guest workers are not needed because they are taking jobs that Americans would do — is one that is wholly unsupported by facts. Of the 12 million illegals in the country, it is fair to say that at least six million, and probably closer to 10 million, hold regular jobs. Even so, in many parts of the country the labor market for agricultural workers and some construction trades is very tight. And the number of Americans looking for work for more than 26 consecutive weeks is a mere 1.4 million. There simply are not enough Americans around to do all the jobs currently being done by illegals, and the impact of eliminating upwards of 10 million workers will be a bit more than merely forcing a few middle class families to clean their own homes and mow their own lawns. Despite all the brave talk to the contrary, I imagine most Americans would take the resultant increased prices, for everything from food to housing, with the same equanimity that they have recently showed with higher gasoline prices.
THERE MAY BE ENOUGH REASONABLENESS in the House to be able to work something out on a guest worker program, but that may not be true for the “earned citizenship” concept. It may be of questionable wisdom to deny legal workers the right to get in line in the long process of applying for citizenship. But this issue is not an integral part of a solution to our current immigration issues, and can be dealt with separately in the future (perhaps together with legislation challenging automatic U.S. citizenship being granted to children born to parents in the country illegally). Democrats in the Senate may squawk, but ultimately they will probably see it as politically unwise to be seen as killing enhanced border security and immigration reform over the “earned citizenship” issue.
The biggest question is whether House Republicans will follow the lead of Mike Pence or Tom Tancredo on the issue of guest workers. If they seek an accommodation on guest workers, a deal with the Senate, and a good immigration reform/border security bill will likely be the result. If they follow the intransigent Tom Tancredo, a great opportunity will be lost, and a bad problem will only get worse.
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