Immigration Bill's Ugly Side

generic immigration immigrants customs border senate congress capitol CBS/AP

This column was written by the editors of The New Republic.

We support the immigration bill now before Congress because, as we have previously argued, this compromise is the best that liberals are likely to get. Putting off immigration reform any longer more or less ensures that nativism will grow, making it likely that future proposals will be far more draconian. Moreover, by creating a path to citizenship for 12 million undocumented workers, the bill would accomplish an important task: integrating into American life those who have lived on the margins of society for far too long.

But our endorsement comes with a caveat, for while the bill exemplifies some of the best instincts in American democracy, it also indulges one of the worst. Our country has always been a land of immigrants, but we also have a less-celebrated tradition of importing non-Europeans to do the difficult tasks that our own citizens shun — harvesting cotton, building railroads, picking grapes. These immigrants were not welcomed as citizens. Instead, they became part of a shadowy underclass that belied the unique promise of American life. The guest-worker program envisioned by the immigration bill — which would allow hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers into the United States annually — falls squarely within this unsavory tradition: the tradition of the African slave ship, the Chinese coolie, and the Mexican bracero.

To be sure, the guest-worker proposal addresses a genuine need. The United States does suffer from a shortage of low-level service workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 22 of the 30 occupations likely to experience the largest job growth through 2014 will require only on-the-job training. These jobs include landscaper, janitor, and home health aide — exactly the types of positions many Latino immigrants now take. And one could argue that a guest-worker program would merely legalize the long-standing practice of Mexican laborers crossing the border to find work, then returning home with their savings.

But, if many migrants have historically gone home, many others have decided to stay, choosing to work their way up the occupational and educational ladder — an opportunity the guest-worker program would not provide. Under the bill, guest workers would be able to stay only two years at a time, after which they would have to return home for a year. (Altogether, they would be allowed to come here for three two-year stints, with a year in their home countries between each.) Yes, the bill provides that they be paid prevailing wages. But the likely result will still be a docile workforce, fearful of being fired, with no allegiance to the United States.

And after their stay has expired? That's where the real folly of this proposal comes to light. Some of these workers will return home to be replaced by a new batch of recruits. But, invariably, many will stay in the United States illegally — replenishing the class of undocumented workers the bill is designed to eliminate. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 45 percent of the nation's undocumented workers didn't get into the country by climbing through barbed wire but rather by overstaying their visas — which is exactly what will happen with guest workers. A decade from now, thanks to a burgeoning population of guest workers who have avoided going home, we will find ourselves having this debate all over again and hearing yet more nativist cries for deportation. This is hardly the result sponsors of the immigration bill have in mind. And it's not an outcome Americans should accept.


By the editors of The New Republic
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  • David Miller

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