Bush's plan won't fix immigration
By Kathleen Newland
The centrepiece of the proposal is a new guest-worker programme open to unlimited numbers of immigrants for limited periods of work. People already working in the US illegally would be allowed to join the programme for a fee, while workers from abroad could enter legally, provided they had a job lined up. The three-year employment visa could be renewed at least once - the number of times is not specified - but the programme would have an end and would expect people "to return permanently to their home countries after their period of work in the US has expired".
Even the president's harshest critics agree that America's immigration system is broken and badly needs fixing, as evidenced by the presence in the US of 8m-12m unauthorised residents. Only the flattest of flat-earthers insist that the solution is simply to get serious about law enforcement and throw them out. Billions of dollars spent on border enforcement in the past decade have not slowed the inflow one bit.
A temporary work programme would tackle one of the great engines of illegal immigration: the huge and structural appetite of the US labour market for low-wage labour. But it does not deal with the others: family reunification and the tendency of immigrants to put down roots in communities they work and live in.
The waiting period for legal entry by the immediate family of legal permanent residents (green-card holders) from the most common countries of origin stretches for years; more distant relatives such as siblings can wait a lifetime. Many find the wait unbearable and opt to enter illegally, often at great risk. Mr Bush needs to cut this backlog by admitting close relatives of legal permanent residents expeditiously.
The proposed requirement that willing workers return after a limited period lacks economic as well as social intelligence. Even low-wage workers become more productive with experience, and churning the labour force is costly for employers and workers alike. The most threadbare cliche of the immigration debate is that "there is nothing more permanent than a temporary worker". But the kernel of truth is that nothing has proved more durable in advanced industrial societies than the demand for low-wage labour. Trying to get established workers to leave even as demand for their labour endures is a fool's errand. The US has demonstrated that it has neither the tools nor the appetite for the enforcement effort required to make them leave.
Mr Bush's logic of economic gain and human compassion is undermined by the narrow limits of the guest-worker programme. Workable reform should open a path for immigrant workers to earn legal permanent residence by accumulating a record of working, paying taxes and obeying the law. Forcing people out of legal status after that would simply re-create the problem Mr Bush's proposal is meant to solve.
Not all immigrant workers want to remain in the US for ever. Some would undoubtedly welcome the chance to work legally for three, six or nine years and then go home, and would welcome even more the modest financial incentives to do so proposed by Mr Bush. But those who have established themselves and their families may not be tempted. Many immigrants will see the temporary programme as a kind of entrapment route that leads not to the prosperity of the American Dream invoked by the president but to deportation and poverty.
It may be ungenerous to attribute Mr Bush's announcement only to electioneering and the embarrassment of attending next week's summit with Mexico's president in Monterey empty-handed. In his announcement this week, he recalled earlier days in Texas, saying: "I have known many immigrant families, mainly from Mexico, and I have seen what they add to our country."
Many Americans, not only of recent immigrant stock, embrace the idea of a nation of immigrants. But they also know the system is not working as it should and they want it fixed.
A guest-worker programme should be part of a comprehensive immigration reform but it is only one part. In isolation, it will not work. The most generous view of the president's proposal is that it is a small step in the right direction and proceeds from a generous impulse. A bleaker view is that it is an election-year show that could do more harm than good.
The writer is co-director of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington
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