Key to the Bush administration’s approach to immigration reform is the controversial guest worker program, which preserves the flow of cheap, low-skilled labor to American businesses while limiting the potential costs to employers and taxpayers. Under the program, there will be no children to educate (since guest workers won’t be allowed to bring their families with them), no old-age entitlements to dole out (since workers will have to return home after working here for a maximum of six years), not even any health care to pay for (since these low-wage workers will be required to purchase health insurance).
The very existence of this program as a central tenet of the Kennedy-Kyl legislation, the bi-partisan immigration compromise that has drawn attacks from the left and right and inspired some of the most overwrought rhetoric in recent memory, points to the essential hypocrisy of the anti-immigrant stance. It appears their goal is not to keep out immigrants, who are indispensable to the U.S. economy, but rather to control and exploit them more effectively. Why give them the opportunity to become citizens—or even permanent residents—if we can get what we need from them and then send them packing?
Though it’s been cast by the Bush administration as a novel way to solve the nation’s immigration problem, guest worker programs are nothing new in the United States. In fact, such programs have a uniformly sordid history that goes back nearly a century. “Emergency” guest worker programs were launched in response to labor shortages during both World War I and World War II and lingered long after the troops had returned home. At its peak in the 1950s, the notoriously exploitative Bracero Program (bracero translates to unskilled laborer) imported nearly a half-million temporary agricultural workers from Mexico. In its concise history of guest worker programs, the Center for Immigration Reform notes: “Citizen farmworkers in the Southwest simply could not compete with braceros. The fact that braceros were captive workers who were totally subject to the unilateral demands of employers made them especially appealing to many employers. It also led to extensive charges of abuse of workers by employers as most of the provisions for the protection of braceros’ wage rates and working conditions were either ignored or circumvented.” What could be better for business than a workforce that works for next to nothing, drives down wages for everyone else, can’t protest or unionize, then goes away when you’re done with them?
As currently envisioned, the guest worker program would grant immigrant-workers two-year visas that are renewable three times (provided they return to their home countries in between each two-year stint). The original Kennedy-Kyl proposal estimated that 3.6 million guest workers could be employed in the U.S. within a decade. Whether that target remains viable after the Senate and House get through tearing the bill apart is another matter altogether. Just yesterday, the Senate fought off an amendment, by a one vote margin, that sought to end the guest worker program after five years—this only after Ted Kennedy appealed to Senator Daniel Akaka, the Hawaii Democrat, to change his vote. The Senate also defeated an amendment that aimed to kill the part of the bill that would give illegal aliens who entered this country before January 1, 2007 the right to apply for an eight-year visa.
As it stands, liberal Democrats, led by California’s Barbara Boxer and South Dakota’s Byron Dorgan, want to kill the guest worker provision outright, and they are joined in this sentiment by organized labor and most immigrants’ rights groups. But since they don’t have the votes, they keep hacking away at the program piecemeal. After losing a vote earlier this week to axe the program, they succeeded Wednesday in reducing its size, from 400,000 workers to 200,000, in a bipartisan vote of 74 to 24 that also included concessions to Republicans, including a measure proposed by South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham that requires mandatory prison sentences for illegal immigrants who are caught re-entering the country.
Some immigration advocates seem ready to overlook the program’s obvious flaws, viewing it as a small price to pay in exchange for the legislation’s promise to grant legal status to the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now living in the United States, provided they jump through the required hoops. (The legalization plan, one of the bill’s most controversial provisions, roundly condemned by some Republicans as providing amnesty to illegals, survived a challenge in the Senate on Thursday.)
But if we’re letting them stay, it’s not because we’re doing illegal immigrants a favor, it’s because we couldn’t survive a day without them. These 12 million undocumented workers, who are for the most part employed, are only filling an obvious need. They are vital to the profits of American agribusiness (which also stands to be a primary beneficiary of the guest worker program) and form the backbone of the low-cost workforce in the service industries. (They are actively sought out by American companies for the purpose of breaking unions.) Illegal immigrants also work at army bases as cooks and janitors.
Not only do these undocumented immigrants fight our wars, grow our food, care for our children and elderly, and serve us in a hundred ways every day, but they have also become an integral cog in American economic growth. According to a February 2007 study by New York’s Center for an Urban Future, immigrants are more likely to be self-employed than non-immigrants, spurring growth in new businesses from food manufacturing to health care. “Immigrant entrepreneurs are now the entrepreneurial sparkplugs of cities,” according to Jonathan Bowles, the Center’s director. “While immigrants have a long history of starting businesses in the U.S., their contributions have grown in recent years thanks to an explosion of immigration and their high rates of business formation. They are an incredible asset for cities that has only begun to be tapped for economic development,” Bowles said.
It may, in fact, be the very success of recent immigrants that has some people nervous. It’s one thing to have them picking artichokes or cleaning bedpans, and another to have them nipping at the heels of the already insecure and debt-ridden middle class. This, again, speaks to the backhanded appeal of the guest worker program, which promises to keep immigrants in their place—and can always be expanded to meet the demands of various low-wage industries.