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Why "guest workers" won't work

By W. James Antle III
web posted December 12, 2005

The Financial Times headline says it well: "Bush tries balancing act on illegal immigration." The president has been traveling the country, pledging strengthened border security and improved interior enforcement—alongside the adoption of a guest-workers program that would effectively amnesty millions of illegal aliens.

For conservatives, the Bush balancing act offers border patrol agents more resources, manpower and detention space and voters the promise of a more aggressive enforcement posture. For business interests seeking to increase the number of jobs Americans can't afford to do, it would at least temporarily legalize illegals already here and create thousands of additional guest-worker permits.

Supporters of this approach claim that since enforcement alone won't work, this is the only realistic immigration reform solution. But the grand guest-workers compromise comes with its own problems.

The first is political. While the two principal reform proposals competing in the Senate differ mainly over whether illegal aliens should be eligible to participate in a guest-workers program or whether they should be made to apply from their home countries, the House is not keen on creating any temporary work permits without first securing the border. House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who has jurisdiction over immigration issues, has proposed security legislation without guest workers.

The second is past precedent. This bait and switch is not new. In 1986, Congress passed and President Reagan signed an amnesty for 2.7 million illegal aliens coupled with tough new penalties on employers of undocumented workers. Today, employer sanctions are underutilized and illegal immigration unabated.

Four years later, legal immigration levels were increased while renewed attention to the border was promised. Instead the crisis intensified throughout the 1990s. In 1996, a Republican-controlled Congress passed and Bill Clinton signed a bill that contained punitive measures against illegals but didn't include comprehensive action—and dropped the reduction in legal immigration proposed by the Clinton immigration-reform commission chaired by Barbara Jordan.

None of these past bills curtailed illegal immigration. In most cases, the liberalization occurred but the promised security enhancements failed to materialize. It is not surprising that some Americans would be skeptical about repeating this formula now.

The third problem is practical. All the major guest-workers programs now on the table expect overwhelmed immigration bureaucracies to sort through applications from the approximately 12 million illegals currently working in the United States to determine whether they are otherwise law-abiding and meet all the other eligibility requirements. As the backlog grows, the political pressure will become enormous and the potential for fraud will increase.

A similar problem exists when it is time for the temporary workers to go home. Perhaps 40 percent of the current illegal population entered the United States legally and overstayed their visas. If the laws on the books now are unenforceable, as guest-workers proponents claim, how will their proposal work any better? And how many guest workers will have children and stay in the country indefinitely thanks to birthright citizenship?

Temporary workers, indeed.

But the biggest problem with the compromise President Bush is offering is that it isn't a compromise is any meaningful sense. It doesn't address the real reasons a majority of Americans, from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, are concerned about our dilapidated immigration system.

Numbers matter. Most of the problems commonly associated with out-of-control immigration stem not from the immigrants' illegality—though that is a problem in its own right—but their sheer numbers. If the number of people from other countries who lacked English skills and needed public assistance were small, the situation would be manageable.

But when the numbers grow beyond manageable levels, the problems become harder to deal with. We are talking about a population that is disproportionately poor, non-English-speaking, without health insurance and therefore in need of assistance. Their employers are not offering this assistance, but in many cases taxpayers and struggling communities are. Legalizing the illegal members of this population will not make those needs—or the overcrowded schools and public hospitals, the linguistic and cultural balkanization or even the native-born economic anxieties—go away. Instead it may well make all those problems worse.

A sense of country matters, too. It is admirable to want to feed your family, improve your living standards and seek economic opportunities. But these universal human aspirations do not by themselves translate into patriotic assimilation. A euphemistic amnesty that sees newcomers to our shores as "willing workers" rather than aspiring Americans is hardly better than an explicit amnesty.

And what about the United States as a country, a particular place with a history, heroes, language and way of life? Doesn't that matter when formulating immigration policy?

To some would-be immigration reformers, it seems that the answer is no—if they have even thought about the question at all. But in an unarticulated way, millions of ordinary Americans have. That's why Bush's guest-workers "balancing act" probably doesn't have a leg to stand on.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

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