If Congress enacts President Bush's immigration reform plan, liberals immediately will begin pushing to convert it into an unambiguous amnesty by asking questions the plan's Republican defenders will have a hard time answering: Can it be squared with our national ideals of meritocracy and equality before the law? Or will it create an unsustainable caste system in the American work force?
As President Bush explained it, the plan would transform "the millions of undocumented men and women now employed in the United States" and "those in foreign countries who seek to participate in the program and have been offered employment here" into a legally recognized population of "temporary workers." But, as Democrats will certainly point out, these millions will not be granted full political and economic participation in American society.
Will the former illegal aliens be put on a path toward eventual citizenship? No. "They will not be given unfair advantage over people who have followed legal procedures from the start," President Bush said, announcing the plan. Although the plan would increase the number of visas for legal immigrants, temporary workers who seek those visas will have to apply just like other would-be immigrants from their home country.
Will these "temporary workers" compete for jobs on an equal footing with American workers? No. They will be allowed to take only those jobs offered for such low pay no American will do that work for that pay. "Employers who extend job offers," said the president, "must first make every reasonable effort to find an American worker for the job at hand."
What will this mean for the upward mobility that's central to our free-enterprise system? Ordinarily, a hard-working young person takes a low-wage job in the expectation that over time he will earn raises and promotions. If a "temporary worker" wins raises and promotions, will he have to surrender his job when he starts earning the same pay an American would accept for the same work?
Will a legalized foreign worker be allowed to unionize, strike or quit the low-paying job that first qualified him as a "temporary worker," and head for another town seeking a better opportunity? The Bush proposal is unclear on this. On the one hand, says the president, "Decent, hard-working people will now be protected by labor laws, with the right to change jobs, earn fair wages, and enjoy the same working conditions the law requires for American workers." On the other hand, he says, "Participants who do not remain employed . . . will be required to return home. . . . Employers . . . must report to the government the temporary workers they hire, and who leave their employ, so that we can keep track of people in the program and better enforce immigration laws."
But if "temporary workers" manage to stay employed, can they stay in America forever? The president says: No. "The legal status granted by this program," he said, "will last three years and will be renewable -- but it will have an end."
Without doubt the most powerful question liberals will ask in their drive to convert the Bush plan into a full amnesty will be about the political status of "temporary workers." During the three, six or more years these workers are allowed to live here -- and pay taxes here -- will they be represented in Congress? The answer: Yes and no. The 14th Amendment apportions House seats by "the whole number of persons in each state." That includes illegal aliens today; it will include "temporary workers" tomorrow. But, as non-citizens, temporary workers will not have the right to vote. Thus, many millions of people legally living and working in the USA would become a codified political subclass.
It is difficult to see how you can reconcile a republican form of government with a large population of working people, who are granted long-term residence in our country but denied full political rights. That, however, is exactly what defenders of the president's plan must do.
There is higher ground in his debate: Our existing immigration law is morally sound and politically defensible. The government should just enforce it for a change.