They may be here illegally, but they are certainly not undocumented. Nearly 4 million Mexican citizens living in the U.S. hold matriculas -- identity cards issued by a Mexican consular office. And more than 8 million (often illegal) workers have individual tax identification numbers issued by the Internal Revenue Service to foreigners who are ineligible to receive a Social Security card yet hold jobs or assets that make them liable for U.S. taxes. A rapidly growing number of American businesses are accepting those documents to offer the nation's 11 million illegal residents everything from new Fords to home mortgages.
That's not without controversy. Many angry U.S. citizens rightly note that American business is rapidly legitimizing the residence of immigrants who have broken the law to enter or remain in the U.S. But there's a deeper force at work here: the American Dream. Its promise of opportunity and a better way of life has become such a powerful symbol worldwide that it is almost naive to expect foreigners to accept that it's reserved only for those who are here legally. And since America shares a porous 2,000-mile border with a developing nation, Mexico, stemming the resulting wave of illegal immigration is increasingly like trying to hold back the ocean's tide.
Besides, let's be real: Rightly or wrongly, the U.S. is not about to arrest and herd millions of men, women, and children into boxcars for transport back across the Rio Grande. That's a nativist's fantasy that will never come to be. So it's time for Washington to come up with a reasoned, consistent way to deal with the illegal immigrants who are already here and to set tough-but-fair new rules for those seeking to work in the U.S. in the future.
FIRST, ANY GUEST-WORKER program should be targeted at jobs the U.S. has difficulty filling. Although Mexican President Vicente Fox has taken considerable heat for his racially insensitive remarks in recent months, he is correct that there are some jobs that few Americans of any race want -- at least not at the low wages they currently command. Think farm work or service jobs such as lawn workers or restaurant dishwashers. Many of those jobs already go to illegals, who accept minimal wages because they're more than comparable pay back home. Identifying these job categories and setting up registries where guest workers -- as well as American workers -- can see available openings would ensure that foreigners got jobs only after U.S. citizens have taken a pass. And all employers should be required to withhold payroll and income taxes from the earnings of guest workers.
NEXT, THERE MUST BE reasonable limits on the number of guest workers -- probably fewer than 400,000 per year, until policymakers can study the effect on U.S. labor markets -- and on how long they may work in the U.S. The McCain-Kennedy immigration bill currently in the Senate would let guests remain for three years, with one three-year extension before they must either attain green card status or return home. The government has every right to charge for these guest visas -- a scarce and precious commodity in the eyes of foreign workers -- and should definitely charge considerably more for any applicant who is already living in the U.S. illegally. That's one way to deal, partially, with criticism that a guest program rewards foreigners who entered the country illegally. Another would be to strengthen enforcement of current laws requiring employers to ascertain applicants' immigration status before they are hired -- a practice often ignored by employers hungry for cheap labor.
Third, guest-worker legislation should ensure guests maintain financial ties to their native countries, perhaps by requiring a certain dollar level of annual remittances to family back home or by maintaining a foreign household while in the U.S. While difficult to enforce, requiring active economic ties back home boosts the likelihood guests will leave when their visas expire.
Last, any guest-worker setup must include increased incentives to boost economic activity in Mexico -- the source of most illegal immigration to the U.S. Unless the U.S. works harder to give more poor Mexicans a reason to stay home, they will continue to flood the shadow economy north of the border. So helping Mexico develop jobs, particularly in poor regions far from the U.S. border, is in our own national interest.
The need for such reform is certainly distasteful to many Americans, but it's unavoidable. If some conservative lawmakers feel they have to hold their noses while supporting President George W. Bush's call for guest-worker legislation, so be it. Unfortunately, this late in the game -- a new Bear, Stearns Asset Management study puts the tally of illegals at up to 20 million -- principle must yield to pragmatism.