Bush's Cynical Immigration Gambit

By Robert Kuttner

President George W. Bush's immigration plan would allow some workers currently in the U.S. illegally to qualify for guest-worker status, and to retain their Social Security credits when they return home. In theory, everyone would gain. Undocumented workers could come, as Bush put it, "out from the shadows of American life." With fewer people entering the U.S. illegally, this approach "will help protect our homeland," Bush declared in his State of the Union address, "allowing Border Patrol and law enforcement to focus on true threats to our national security." And, of course, businesses would benefit greatly.

It sounds great. But every premise of the plan falls apart upon close examination. According to Bush, his scheme would "match willing foreign workers with willing employers when no American can be found to fill the job." But what does that really mean? Supposedly, there are millions of jobs that Americans won't perform. But -- funny thing -- when employers pay decently, American workers wait in line all night to apply. In my office, there's a terrible shortage of competent research assistants willing to work for $6 an hour. There's no shortage of $14-an-hour research assistants. Having an army of legal foreign workers will mainly batter down wages in the service sector. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT ) will enjoy even lower labor costs -- at U.S. workers' expense.

The program is also dubious as a means of normalizing the status of undocumented workers. Under Bush's plan, employers can obtain permits for legal guest workers. But the permit belongs to the employer. Qualifying workers must leave within three years. (This term could sometimes be renewed once.) Social Security credits would be transferred only when the worker went home.

Employers already enjoy great leverage over low-wage workers -- witness how Wal-Mart has no trouble attracting workers despite dismal pay -- but this plan would make immigrant workers something close to indentured servants. Unlike workers with green cards, they would lose their guest-worker status if they lost their jobs. And Bush's plan denies these guest workers the ability to apply for permanent resident status, much less citizenship.

The limited appeal of this program to immigrant workers suggests why Bush's plan also fails as a solution to the problem of illegal immigration. Often, extended families follow initial immigrant breadwinners. When Bush's guest workers are supposed to return home, they and their families may choose to remain illegally. Germany ended its guest-worker program two decades ago when unemployment surged. But as the Turkish neighborhoods of Berlin attest, many guest workers find ways to stay indefinitely.

There is substantial opposition to this plan in Congress among both Republican conservatives and nearly all Democrats. Informed observers believe Bush does not really expect this legislation to pass. Rather, he wants to signal compassion to Mexican-American voters, many of whom have relatives here illegally, while appealing to corporations seeking low-wage workers. He also is eager to offer some- thing to beleaguered Mexican President Vicente Fox. But every major Mexican-American group opposes this contrived bill, and support in Mexico has also been scant.

The pity is that sensible, bipartisan immigration-reform bills are pending in Congress, including the so-called AgJOBS bill (the Agricultural Job Opportunity Benefits & Security Act), co-sponsored by the unlikely alliance of two liberals, Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Representative Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), and two conservatives, Senator Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) and Representative Chris Cannon (R-Utah). The AgJOBS bill is a grand bargain that would fully legalize about a half-million undocumented farmworkers in return for employer-friendly revisions to the current H2-A guest-worker program. The idea is to ease the shortage of farmworkers while giving normalized workers full rights to bargain for better wages.

This politically serious approach commands wide support among growers and immigrant groups alike. Instead, Bush cynically chose an unworkable scheme of purely symbolic value -- one that, mercifully, stands little chance of enactment.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and author of Everything for Sale.

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