Immigration never became a major issue in last November's election, despite its prominence only four years earlier when Bill Clinton and Bob Dole tried to outdo each other with tough-sounding rhetoric about controlling the borders. Low U.S. unemployment and steady economic growth made complaints about immigrants taking American jobs appear anachronistic. As a result, President Bush may now be able to launch a long-overdue revision of U.S. immigration policy without some of the rancor and political squeamishness that often accompanies debate on this issue. On his recent trip to Mexico, President Bush announced he would appoint a high-level committee to discuss the issue. It's about time.
The United States is now home to almost 8 million Mexicans, many of whom -- 3 million -- are here illegally and do not wish to live here permanently. They come because jobs are plentiful here and scarce at home. U.S. immigration policy has small provision for those who want to work in the U.S. temporarily. High-tech workers, such as software engineers, can vie for one of the 195,000 H-1B visas to be given out this year. Farm workers may be able to obtain an H-2A visa, but the availability of these limited visas falls far short of the demand for workers in these areas with an estimated half of the agricultural workforce made up of illegal aliens.
Make no mistake: U.S. employers in many industries are desperate for Mexican and other foreign labor. With unemployment at 4.2 percent nationally in January and much lower in many regions, there simply are not enough American workers to meet the demand. Retail stores and restaurants now display "help wanted" ads in their windows that dwarf ads for the products they sell. Construction in many areas of the country is slowed by the lack of workers. The entire service industry -- now the largest component of our economy -- can't keep up with the demand for labor.
Yet many of those most able and willing to take these jobs can't do so -- at least not legally. Still, millions cross the border illegally, despite the efforts of the United States border patrol to stop them. As Remigio Morales, an illegal alien who works in Tacoma, Wash., explained to a reporter for The Washington Post recently, the trip became more difficult in the '90s because of increased enforcement efforts, but he and millions of others cross anyway. Morales has made four trips to and from the U.S., the last one through the desert, since other crossing areas were heavily patrolled.
Morales noted with some irony that Americans' attitudes about such illegal immigration are ambivalent. "Even an immigration officer, when I was working on his father's patio, said to me, 'My job is only to stop you from getting in. Once you are here, you are my friend.'"
President Bush has said he will consider proposing legislation to allow more workers to come here on a temporary basis, though he is more reluctant to grant amnesty to those already in the country, like Morales. Sen. Phil Gramm and others in Congress have already offered "guest worker" bills that would establish temporary permits for up to 250,000 persons. So long as the American economy continues to create more jobs than there are workers able to fill them, we will need to import workers.
The real challenge will be balancing our need for temporary workers and our ability to absorb large numbers of immigrants who will settle here permanently. Like it or not, unless we can figure out a way to encourage temporary workers to return to their countries of origin when their visas expire, any "guest worker" program will likely mean a much higher proportion of the foreign-born among our population. And, of course, any children born to temporary residents automatically become U.S. citizens, making it less likely that their parents will pick up stakes and return home.
But these problems are not insoluble. Employers might be required to withhold a portion of temporary workers' pay to be paid to government-controlled accounts, receivable only when the worker returned home, for example. The new Bush committee might even debate the thorny issue of whether automatic citizenship for anyone born on U.S. soil -- a provision meant to guarantee the rights of former slaves through the 14th Amendment -- makes sense today.