Guest worker visas

Posted: Nov 13, 2002 12:00 AM
Washington's unwillingness to deal with illegal immigration has emboldened several Latin American governments to come up with their own solutions. An estimated 9 million illegal aliens from Latin America live in the United States, so Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have recently begun issuing identification cards to illegal aliens through their consular offices in the U.S. These IDs allow illegal aliens living here to open bank accounts, obtain drivers' licenses and library cards, and fly on U.S. domestic airlines. While many Americans may find the practice objectionable, a number of local and state governments have been quick to embrace these new "matricula consular" IDs as a way to bring illegal aliens in their communities out of the shadows, where they are easy prey to criminals and scam artists. So far, several jurisdictions in California, Texas, Arizona, Illinois, Georgia and elsewhere have decided to accept these identification cards where official government IDs are required. Now, El Salvador has gone a step further in driving U.S. immigration policy by actually lobbying its nationals to stay in the United States -- even though they came here illegally in the first place. Salvadoran President Francisco Flores recently sent recorded messages to Salvadorans living in the U.S., reminding them to re-apply for the limited amnesty they were granted two years ago in the wake of two devastating earthquakes in their home country. The emergency measure permitted Salvadorans who entered the U.S. illegally prior to February 2001 to apply for temporary work permits, which expired in September 2002. The message from the Salvadoran president was delivered via Americatel, a long-distance carrier, to some 750,000 persons in the United States who had placed calls to El Salvador previously. Mexico, El Salvador and other Latin American countries are taking these unorthodox steps because illegal immigration has become a safety valve for their own struggling economies. Those unable to find jobs in their own countries simply sneak across the border to the United States, where work is relatively plentiful and wages are substantially higher than at home. What's more, these illegal aliens send literally billions of dollars home to support family members left behind. Throughout Latin America, these remittances from illegal aliens living in the United States have boosted local economies, even providing needed infrastructure in some communities -- roads, schools and even sewers for remote villages. Experts estimate that remittances from family members living in the U.S. are now the chief source of foreign aid to Latin America. But can the United States afford to have other countries encouraging their nationals to disobey U.S. immigration law? The fact is, these countries are simply taking advantage of the vacuum that exists in American immigration policy. Despite a lot of bombastic political rhetoric over illegal immigration, most politicians -- from both parties -- are unwilling to take the bull by the horns and come up with a sensible solution. Like it or not, it's not possible simply to round up all the illegal aliens in the country and ship them home. Nor would it be desirable to do so. Our economy is simply too dependent on their labor to withstand a round up of illegals like the one the U.S. engaged in during the Great Depression. Most illegal aliens are gainfully employed doing dirty, often dangerous jobs that Americans won't take, at least not at wages that allow employers to keep the jobs here rather than ship the jobs overseas. The only answer is a properly constructed guest worker program that regulates the flow of workers into the country, depending on economic conditions in the United States. When we face boom times and labor shortages, we should be able to bring in more workers. When the job market tightens and the economy contracts, we should be able to send them home again. Those already living and working here, albeit illegally, ought to be able to "earn" legal status by paying a hefty fine for having broken our immigration laws, learning English and demonstrating work history and skills that make them a good bet as future workers. A guest worker program may not be the perfect solution to our growing illegal immigration problem, but it's a lot better than what we have now: U.S. officials' wink and a nod to illegal immigration and foreign governments' open encouragement to their nationals to flout our laws.