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.
Besides, if guest-worker proposals are so moral, why do their authors include dishonest provisions? For example, the Specter bill purports to be tough and temporary because it would require that guest workers leave America after six years.
Ha! I laugh out loud.
Jacoby objects to that provision because she understands that after six years, Specter's immigrants won't leave -- they will simply go underground.
Other bills, such as one by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., might work better because they would allow illegal immigrants already in America to pay $2,000 in fines in return for which they could apply for permanent residence, and eventually for citizenship. There would be no need for those workers to go underground.
To meet the demand for new immigrant workers, the McCain-Kennedy bill would allow some 400,000 people living outside America to apply for guest-worker status each year.
But here's the problem: The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that the number of illegal immigrants in America grows by 500,000 each year.
Jacoby advocates laws that "make it so nobody comes through the back door." But if the demand for immigrant workers exceeds the McCain-Kennedy cap, well, you get more "untouchables." If there is no cap, there can be a flood of unskilled workers, and they'll be using government services.
Speaking to reporters last month, Sen. John McCain said of the 11 million illegal immigrants in America, "We believe that sending them back is something that is not only not humane, but not possible."
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., bristled at McCain's words. "I have never advocated massive deportation," Rohrabacher responded. "The whole theory is, if you quit giving people benefits and make it hard for them to find jobs, after that, they themselves will decide to go home."
I want smart policies that don't cost America jobs. But it can't be smart to send another green light to would-be immigrants who already think it may be worth their while to break U.S. immigration law.