The immigration-reform speech President Bush delivered this week raises the question of whether he will hold the security of our borders hostage until Congress enacts what he calls a "temporary worker" program.
Speaking in Arizona more than four years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bush proposed a series of long-overdue measures designed to prevent masses of unknown persons from swarming across our frontiers and living in our country, illegally, with impunity. "Securing our border is essential to securing the homeland," he said -- leaving one to wonder why he waited so long to make it a priority.
But Bush also used the speech to resurrect his guest-worker plan, claiming "we will not be able to effectively enforce our immigration laws until we create a temporary worker program."
The basic terms have now been set for what could be a disastrous legislative compromise: The president at last secures our borders, but only after Congress has agreed to legalize a system that allows U.S. employers to hire foreign laborers who would be compelled by law to work for lower wages than any American would accept for the same work.
Congress should tell Bush: no deal. It should craft an immigration reform that both secures our borders and preserves our core values of free enterprise and free labor.
For the sake of argument, grant the president his implausible claim that his plan is not an "amnesty." ("Workers would be able to register for legal status for a fixed period of time, and then be required to go home," Bush said.) But even if all guest workers were sent home in exchange for new guest workers at the end of their terms, the system would still be a particularly destructive form of corporate welfare, creating a federally enforced underclass of low-wage workers whose employers would almost certainly pass on to U.S. taxpayers the bulk of whatever health-care, education and criminal-justice-system costs these guest workers and their children might incur.
"This program would create a legal way to match willing foreign workers with willing American employers to fill jobs that Americans will not do," Bush said in Arizona.
But are there honest jobs Americans truly won't do? Under Bush's plan, for example, if it cost a restaurant chain $10 an hour to persuade an American to mop its floors, the chain could simply offer the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour and, when no Americans applied, import guest workers at the lower wage.
Would that mean Americans won't mop?
No, it would mean the government had created a powerful incentive for employers to offer ever-lower wages to unskilled American workers.
"Illegal immigration puts pressure on our schools and hospitals," Bush said in Arizona. "I understand it strains the resources needed for law enforcement and emergency services." But Bush did not explain how converting illegal aliens into guest workers would lift the burden these workers place on public services financed by taxpayers.
Count on it: Taxpayers will continue picking up the tab. Guest workers -- required by law to earn the lowest of wages -- would not earn enough to pay it themselves. And, if employers were forced to pay all the health-care, education and other public costs incurred by guest workers, it would defeat the purpose of hiring them instead of more expensive American workers.
But the worst thing about a guest-worker program is what it would do to American freedom. The president's proposal would institutionalize a separate workforce in our country that would not enjoy the same economic rights as free citizens.
It would convert a portion of our free-market economy -- where workers and employers freely negotiate for jobs, wages, promotions and salary increases -- into an unfree economy, where "guest" workers, allowed to live in our country for as long as six years, could take only certain jobs, could work only for the lowest wages and could not be rewarded for excellence by being promoted into a higher-paying job that an American would be willing to do for the same pay.
America would no longer be a nation of unfettered opportunity for all. We would adopt a caste system.
Surely, without doing that, a Republican Congress can enact means to effectively secure our borders and punish those scofflaw employers who keep illegal aliens here by keeping them illegally in jobs.