Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Guest Worker Charade

So the Senate rejected an effort to strip the Guest Worker program from the immigration bill. Democrats tended to lean in favor of getting rid of the program, Republicans wanted to keep it.

Politically, the presence of the Guest Worker program appears to be a bit of a Catch-22. And I still lean in favor of passing the bill at large, if only because the status quo, miraculously, is even worse and I support anything that will get the millions of undocumented workers here on the citizenship track. But the really obnoxious thing about the Guest Worker program specifically is that it is a massive facade. Guest worker programs don't work. They never have, any place they've been tried. And why would they? When people move here and work for years, they understandably gain an affinity for America. All the more so when the alternative is grinding poverty in an unstable Latin American country. Why on earth should we be surprised that they're going to want to stay here rather than go home when their number is up? It's mind-boggling.

The only reason the guest worker program is in the bill is as a compromise so that Republicans can go home and not admit to letting millions of Latin Americans into the country with a chance to become citizens (gasp) and voters (shudder). From any objective standpoint (aside from pure partisanship--the GOP doesn't want tons of new minority voters entering the country, but it may not matter as they're on the verge of blowing the Latino vote for the next decade anyway), it is far better for everyone if immigrants can became stakeholders in the American dream. That requires the prospect of citizenship. It's better for American workers if immigrants can negotiate for wages and hours on a level playing field, something that indentured servitude Guest Worker programs almost definitely don't allow. And it's better for the entire country if we continue to move in a direction that celebrates diversity, immigration, drive, and ambition--the engines that have always and will continue to drive us forward to excellence.

The Guest Worker program will fail, because the same incentives which would drive someone to become a guest worker in America will also cut against them returning home when they're done. And since this program isn't exactly a historical anomaly, I have to assume every person voting in favor of it knows its going to fail. But what really aggravates me isn't that the law won't work, or that lawmakers are passing it knowing it won't work. No, what's really going to burst a blood vessel is when, in five or ten years, the same Republicans who demanded the inclusion of the provision use the utter failure of this bill as an example of why "amnesty" doesn't work or some other such non-sense. Crafting plans guaranteed not to succeed, then using them as examples for why the entire surrounding ideal is a bad idea, is a time-honored and repulsive tradition (Social Security privatization, anyone?). This is a train-wreck we can spot a mile away, and when the explosion comes don't let anybody let the GOP dodge its responsibility for the fall-out.


PG said...

"When people move here and work for years, they understandably gain an affinity for America."

As I'm sure you realize, not everyone loves living in America. Some immigrants don't like U.S. culture, or want to return to a place where they are in the racial or religious majority. For a young couple with traditional labor division, having the husband be a guest worker may be optimal; he lives cheaply while working in the U.S., and sends money home to his wife who can stretch it further in a poor country than she could in the U.S. From what I know, there hasn't been a mass immigration into the U.S. of Mexican truck drivers who are free to come and go through the country because of NAFTA, but prefer their decent paying semi-skilled legal jobs that keep them based in Mexico to chancing the hazards of illegality as an immigrant.

Speaking of which, while there are many immigrants in the U.S. from various Central and South American countries (as well as other nations, but it's harder to get into the U.S. illegally by air or sea than it is by crossing the southern land border), I believe the statistical majority of Spanish speaking immigrants are from Mexico, which has a reasonably stable national government.

The real problem I have with the immigration bill is that it fails to make use of the sensible system that already exists. We *have* a guest worker program: it's called the H1 and H2 visa. It doesn't require visaholders to return to their countries of origin; they can renew it, apply for permanent residency and then for citizenship. It makes employers responsible for the labor they want. The problem is that we issue too few of these visas and there's no reason for employers of low-skill laborers to push for more. High tech companies did push very hard in the '90s for more H1 visas; when the U.S. government refused, that was part of the reason to move toward white collar outsourcing. But high-tech companies usually can't get their prospective employees to risk life and limb going over the border illegally, whereas chicken processing plants and the like have little trouble getting their laborers to do so.

I'm not sure why you assume guest workers would be any more unable to negotiate "wages and hours on a level playing field" than visaholders whose presence in the country depends on their continued employment do. Or do you mean that there just should be no programs of that sort at all? One of my friends was stuck in a somewhat crappy job in the UK for a couple of years because he wanted to stay in the country, but he had to have a job that sponsored him in order to do so. This was inconvenient for him, but I never got the impression that he was screwed over any more than the other employees, who were British citizens.

David Schraub said...

My impression was that workers on these H1 visas are essentially getting screwed because of the fact that they're locked into their job. I'd rather not replicate that--we need to find a way to allow workers into the country that also gives them job flexibility to some degree at least.

As to the point that not every immigrant loves it here, that's undoubtedly true, but many people do want to come here and become citizens and take part in the American dream. We're not going to extinguish that desire, nor should we. But I think that there a many, many talented people who want to come and stay and work and live and vote here is a positive thing--if we're willing to take advantage of it. Immigration policy should take advantage of that latent civic and economic resource, rather than engage in a failed effort to exploit it.