President Bush used to talk about the need for a guest-worker program "to fill jobs Americans will not take." But in his last State of the Union address, Bush called for "a rational, humane guest-worker program that rejects amnesty [and] allows temporary jobs for people who seek them legally" -- as if most illegal immigrants want temporary jobs. In that disingenuous spirit, the Senate is exploring guest-worker proposals -- the latest was introduced last week by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. My initial reaction is to oppose said programs lest they provide yet another incentive for people to immigrate here illegally.
The very notion that Americans won't take some jobs is absurd. After all, Americans will take any job, if it pays enough. There is no such thing as cheap labor. There are only cheap wages.
When employers hire illegal workers at a cut rate, they pass onto taxpayers the cost of health care and other government services used by workers and their families. I can't help but see the business lobby's support of guest-worker programs as anything but an attempt to get working people to subsidize cheapskate corporations so they can sell their products at bargain prices and make bigger profits.
Taxpayers with little education get the shaft twice -- as their wages are depressed by a glut of unskilled workers.
Tamar Jacoby of the conservative Manhattan Institute takes the other side. On the phone yesterday, she argued that Americans won't work on farms or in meat-packing plants. Try to make meatpacking plants pay higher wages, she added, and owners will respond by moving operations to another country.
She has a point, but so does Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. "How do you offshore homebuilding?" Krikorian asked. He added that industries will develop new technologies to substitute for illegal labor.
Then there are the moral arguments. People who support immigration laws, like moi, bristle at the notion of rewarding people for breaking the law, whether they use the a-word -- amnesty -- or not.
Jacoby has her moral argument, too. As she sees it, the immigration system has enabled some 11 million illegal immigrants into this country, allowed them to work for years, yet denies them citizenship and legal status. "It's like having 'untouchables,'" Jacoby noted. "I don't think we want to be that kind of country."
Too bad Jacoby's America also will be the kind of country where low-skilled Americans have to live on even less.