Don't Be Our 'Guests'

This column was written by Matthew Yglesias.
Immigration is that rarest thing in politics — a controversial issue that's not just "controversial" but actually difficult. People who think immigrants are "stealing their jobs" are mistaken, but politicians who say immigrants do jobs "Americans won't do" are lying. There's no job Americans won't do – it's just a question of how much Americans want to be paid to do the job. Research indicates that large flows of low-skilled immigrants from Mexico have a small, but quite real, downward pull on the wages of poorly educated people including, of course, many people who've already immigrated from Mexico and most of their descendants. On the other hand, immigration has a mildly positive effect on the rest of us, and a hugely positive effect on the immigrants themselves, who tend to be much poorer than even the poorest Americans.

Legitimate progressive priorities thus come into conflict and, at the end of the day, leave me entirely uncertain as to what the right number of immigrants to allow ought to be.

One aspect of the current debate, however, is easy — we don't need any sort of "guest-worker" program.

The details of these proposals vary quite a bit and, as ever, the details are important. But all varieties of the concept share some factors in common. Unlike regular immigrants, guest workers are only allowed into their host country for a limited period of time and have no chance of ever becoming citizens. Guest workers are also typically the "guests" of some specific employer who's agreed to sponsor their stay in the United States. This leaves them unable to bargain credibly with their employers, start small businesses of their own, or even just take risks around the workplace that stand some chance of getting them fired.

If you're an employer, this is ideal. You have an utterly captive work force, unable to negotiate with you or even really complain. A work force that's utterly under your thumb because you cannot only fire them but, in effect, have them deported. Needless to say, the prospects of such a work force unionizing are nil. Consequently, they have an even more negative impact on working-class wages than do regular immigrants. You can see, then, why this idea appeals to big business and, therefore, to the segments of the Republican Party that are more in hoc to their rich donors than to their nativist base voters.

For Republicans, another appealing aspect of guest workers is that since they can't become citizens, they can't become Democratic-voting citizens the way most immigrants do.

Liberals should, however, find it easy to say no to this idea. It encompasses — and, indeed, intensifies — all the worst elements of immigration while sapping the concept of the cynical political rationale for higher levels of immigration. The idea is fundamentally un-American, to boot. Historically, migration to this country has mostly been unlimited. That era came to an end for good and bad reasons in the 1920s, but under modern conditions we almost certainly can't return to the old ways. But the restriction era, in both its pre- and post-reformed versions has always tried to hold true to the basic vision of America as "a nation of immigrants." The essence of this vision is the expectation that people who come to American will become Americans — applying for citizenship when eligible and starting families here whose children will be, by right, citizens of the country in which they were born. This vision is good for immigrants, of course, but importantly it's integral to our shared identity as a nation.

Guest workers would undermine this vision of America, creating a semi-permanent underclass of hired hands who are neither citizens, nor on the path to citizenship, with no incentive to seek assimilation or for the native-born to treat them as equals. Sectors of the economy featuring large numbers of guest workers really would become jobs Americans "won't do," the fields in which they work stigmatized as beneath the dignity of proper Americans.

For now, efforts at immigration reform seem dead, done in by internal divisions inside the Republican Party. But the issue is almost certain to return to the agenda — vulnerable GOP congressmen are desperate to use an immigration crackdown as an election-year issue, while the business community is determined to secure continued access to an immigrant labor pool. Liberals should be willing to collaborate with business in preventing an unduly harsh crackdown on hard-working families who've lived in this country for years, but we ought to do so on our own terms. Offering a guest-worker program as a carrot to K Street is a price that doesn't need to be paid. We've seen in the past several weeks that the votes for a business-friendly immigration reform don't exist inside the Republican Party. If the Chamber of Commerce wants a reform they can live with, they can — and should — be forced to accept one liberals can live with, too.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer.
By Matthew Yglesias
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved