Border Battles

Is there any hope for a fair and humane immigration policy from Congress in the near future?

| Fri Mar. 31, 2006 3:00 AM EST

Is a fair and humane immigration policy anywhere in sight? At first glance, it looked that way last Monday, when, as massive pro-immigration rallies swept across the country, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that was hailed in liberal circles as a fair and moderate approach to immigration in a country where anti-immigrant sentiment is rapidly rising. (The New York Times called it "tough" but "smart.") Put forward by Arlen Specter (R-PA), the bill would strengthen border security, offer a path to citizenship for current undocumented workers, and create the sort of "guest worker" program favored by President Bush to allow immigrants to find temporary work here. Is this a good start?

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The short answer: Sort of. Compared to the bill passed in the House last December, which would, among other things, make it a federal crime to live in this country illegally and increase resources for deporting immigrants, Specter's version doesn't seem so bad. It would offer the estimated six to eight million undocumented immigrants already living here a path towards citizenship, rather than kicking out families that have social and economic roots here in the United States—an impractical and in any case immoral scheme. (Any mass deportation proposal is going to collide with the reality of the Fourteenth Amendment, which gives automatic citizenship to the U.S.-born children of all immigrants, legal or no.) With polls indicating that 71 percent of Americans favor "tougher immigration controls," perhaps Specter's was the most "liberal" bill anyone can reasonably expect.

But that doesn't mean we should go so far as to applaud the legislation. In an ideal world, a fair immigration policy would include an earned-legalization program for all unauthorized immigrants who have worked and established roots in this country, along with labor protections for all workers, to curb exploitation at the hands of their employers. A just bill would also be set within a broader economic policy context, to reduce the negative effects that immigration can have on native low-income workers in this country.

So what's wrong with Specter's bill? As the Times notes (approvingly), the legalization part wouldn't amount to "amnesty"—current illegal immigrants wouldn't automatically be granted citizenship. They could either leave the country and apply for a "guest worker" spot—more on that in a bit—or pay a fine of some $3,500 to $6,500 and receive "Deferred Mandatory Departure" status, under which they could live in this country for five years so long as they worked continuously, and then apply for citizenship, if any spots are available, of course. While that sounds fair on the surface, the problem is that the "continuous work" requirement in the Specter bill doesn't appear to contain any exceptions for retirement, downsizing, strikes, or recession. And it's possible that the path to citizenship is so uncertain that many immigrants would simply refuse to take the offer and go deeper underground. (In contrast, the immigration proposal written by John McCain and Ted Kennedy would allow all unauthorized immigrants to enter a legalization program at the time the law comes into effect, giving everyone an incentive to join the legal workforce.)

But the worst part comes with the creation of a "non-immigrant temporary guest worker" visa in the proposed law, something the White House has strongly backed. Employers would have to first offer jobs to native workers in the area, and if there are no takers, the firms could go abroad hunting for immigrant laborers. The visas would be for three years and can be renewed once. (More likely, many workers would likely just stay on illegally rather than actually go home when their time is up.) Not surprisingly, these visas don't guarantee the right to strike or organize, although companies are required to offer some labor protections—in theory, for instance, they must offer temporary workers the same wages and working conditions as they would U.S. workers.

Earlier this month, the AFL-CIO's Executive Vice-President, Linda Chavez-Thompson, called the guest-worker proposal a "blueprint for exploitation," and history suggests she's onto something. Between 1942 and 1964, when immigration was still very much restricted in this country, the federal government set up the Bracero Program, allowing farms to import "guest workers" for agricultural work. Immigrants in Mexico were placed in holding pens at the border, where they were stripped, deloused, and shuttled off to the United States. There they were bound to their employers and unable to speak out against poor working conditions for fear of deportation. Predictably, immigrants were exploited, and the program eventually ended after allegations of abuse came to light—not to mention the fact that growers often imported braceros to use as union-busters during farmworker strikes. Above all, the program did little to halt illegal immigration.

What guest worker programs can do is allow employers to keep wages and labor standards low. After all, immigrants can't really bargain for better pay or complain about working conditions if they live in fear of losing their visa and being deported. Employers essentially get free rein to commit labor violations—and frequently do so. The Senate recently heard testimony that "foreign guest workers" working for forestry companies in Oregon faced "unhealthy sleeping conditions… in the field when it was freezing or snowing; unacceptable foot attire; and transport vehicles lacking proper license and other certification information." Half of forestry workers earned less than $4,400 a year. After all, who was going to complain?

Many opponents of immigration argue that immigrants are a drag on economic growth and depress wages. The former is untrue: the consensus among experts is that immigration offers positive, if modest, benefits to the United States economy, having similar effects as robust population growth. (It also has very large benefits for the sending country—remittances are a major source of income for, for instance, Mexico, totaling $16 billion last year.) Nor is it necessarily the case, as Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times on Monday, that immigrants "threaten to unravel" the American welfare state. Most immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in government benefits—although it's true that financing for various safety net programs may need to be tweaked in the future to accommodate immigration flows. Moreover, increased immigration will help ensure that an aging native population in the United States can continue to afford Social Security and Medicare.

The more serious objection is the latter—that increasing the supply of unskilled labor into this country will, in all likelihood, depress wages of low-income native workers. (Not all economists agree: Berkeley economist David Card has recently produced evidence to the contrary.) But even if that's true, "guest worker" programs surely make the situation worse, by allowing employers to underpay captive immigrant workers, preventing them from bargaining for wages, organizing, or striking—thereby keeping wages down for all workers.

A better idea would be to make sure that all workers, regardless of their nationality, are protected from exploitation. Whistleblower protections for immigrants, along with the right to organize and strike, would go along way in that regard. And the only way to do that is to ensure that all immigrants who work here have a clear path to citizenship, so that they don't have to live in constant fear of deportation, and aren't at the mercy of their employers. Specter's bill makes some encouraging steps in this direction, but hardly goes far enough.

Congress could also get serious about levying stiff penalties against firms that employ and exploit illegal immigrants. Currently, less than 1 percent of immigration enforcement money is directed towards this goal. Specter's bill would increase funds on this front, although business lobbyists have been effective in the past about thwarting these measure, and will likely lobby hard this time around.

Finally, two things ought to accompany any fair immigration bill. To protect native low-income workers, the country needs a more robust safety net—living wages, labor law reform, and full employment policies to ensure that anyone who wants a job can have one. The United States also needs to help those countries that are sending immigrants—such as Mexico—to develop. Immigrants will continue to come here in large numbers so long as the wage disparity between the United States and, for instance, Mexico is large. Unfortunately, in the current political climate, and with the current Republican Congress, we are not likely to see either one happen. More to the point, the GOP leadership is likely to make Specter's legislation even worse when it comes time to reconcile the House and Senate bills. In that case, the best outcome might be for nothing to happen for the time being.