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April 2005, Volume 12, Number 2

Bush: Unauthorized, Guest Workers

President Bush in January 2005 urged Congress to enact immigration reforms: "whether or not you agree with the solution or not, we have a problem in America when you've got eight million undocumented workers here." Bush opposes legalization: "I strongly oppose instant citizenship. I think all that would do is cause the problem to occur again. I believe that if they want to be a citizen, they need to get in line like the other people have done... The system has broken down. And I think by legalizing work, we take a lot of pressure off our borders."

Bush endorsed a guest worker program in his February 2, 2005 State of the Union speech: "America's immigration system is also outdated -- unsuited to the needs of our economy and to the values of our country. We should not be content with laws that punish hard-working people who want only to provide for their families, and deny businesses willing workers, and invite chaos at our border. It is time for an immigration policy that permits temporary guest workers to fill jobs Americans will not take, that rejects amnesty, that tells us who is entering and leaving our country, and that closes the border to drug dealers and terrorists."

Bush suggested that unauthorized workers who have jobs in the US are needed: "I believe that if a person, an employer, can't find somebody willing to do a job in America, they ought to be able to legally hire somebody who is not a citizen of our country, and that that person ought to be treated with respect."

Bush met with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin in Texas on March 23, 2005 against the backdrop of Fox's criticism of the US for not moving faster to facilitate the flow of Mexican migrants. Fox has asserted that, if the US continues tightening the border with new fences and more agents, security will be lessened as more Mexicans attempt to enter the US illegally, thereby enlarging the network of people-smugglers who can also bring terrorists to the US.

At the meeting, Bush repeated his support of a new guest worker program and said: "I will continue to push our Congress to come up with rational, common-sense immigration policy." The Washington Post predicted a showdown between Republicans over illegal immigration in April 2005, dividing them into law-and-order conservatives and business interests that rely on immigrant labor.

Concluding the meeting, leaders of Canada, Mexico and the US endorsed a Partnership for Security and Prosperity for North America to "reduce the costs of trade through the efficient movement of goods and people."

Several bills are reportedly being prepared to deal with unauthorized foreigners. Republican senators Jon Kyl of Arizona and John Cornyn of Texas plan to introduce a bill that would emphasize enforcement and guest workers, with Cornyn asserting that the US "must have strong border protection between ports of entry and a strong employee verification program to put an end to the jobs magnet for illegal entry." Kyl said the bill would not "reward the lawbreakers...who came here illegally and used illegal documentation to get employment and in many cases are creating a drain on our society."

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is working on a bipartisan immigration plan with Edward Kennedy (D-MA) that is expected to include some kind of an earned path to immigrant status.

Perspective. There is general agreement that, with the number of unauthorized foreigners at about 10 million, and the 80 percent of them in the labor force spreading to more industries and areas, the US should "do something" about illegal migrant workers for equity, security and other reasons. The major US proposals share the goal of converting currently unauthorized foreigners into legal residents and workers, but differ on: (1) who would qualify for legal status; and (2) the final status of unauthorized foreigners.

President Bush would turn currently employed unauthorized workers into guest workers who could, after paying a fee of $1,000 or $2,000, obtain six-year work visas that allowed them to change US employers and travel in and out of the US. Under the Bush proposal, guest workers would have to remain employed or risk losing their guest worker status, and should return to their countries of origin at the end of six years. A new inducement to return would be credit in the home country social-security system for legal work done in the US.

The key features of the Bush plan are confirmation from a US employer that the unauthorized worker is employed, having the migrant pay a registration fee for a work permit, and aiming to have the migrant leave the US after a maximum of six years. The Bush plan would turn currently unauthorized workers into guest workers and open up the US labor market to an unlimited number of guest workers by making it easier for US employers to hire them.

The major Democratic proposal would allow unauthorized foreigners who satisfy residence, work and other criteria to become immigrants. One proposal would require unauthorized foreigners wanting to legalize to have been in the US at least five years, to have worked in the US at least two years, and to pass English tests and security checks. Unauthorized foreigners who did not satisfy these criteria could nevertheless receive a temporary status and stay and work in the US legally until they qualified for immigrant status. There would be additional guest worker programs, but Democrats would cap annual admissions of unskilled guest workers at 350,000 a year.

The key provisions of the Democrats' proposal are legal status for most unauthorized foreigners in the US and a path that leads to legal immigrant status for others. The effect of the plan would be to increase legal immigration but cap unskilled guest worker admissions.

The third current approach to deal with illegal migration applies only to agriculture. AgJOBS would allow unauthorized foreigners who have done at least 100 days of farm work in a previous one-year period to apply for a temporary legal status that would permit them to remain in the US for six years and protect their family members from deportation. If AgJOBS workers did sufficient qualifying farm work over the next six years, they and their family members could become legal immigrants.

Thus, AgJOBS would give temporary legal status to unauthorized farm workers now in the US and open to them a path to immigrant status. Ag JOBS would increase the dependence of US agriculture on guest workers, since housing and other requirements that farmers must now satisfy to hire legal guest workers would be relaxed.

Reactions. Much of the debate over what to do about illegal migrants begins from the same starting point: concern about the presence of10 million unauthorized foreigners in the US. Republican leaders of the immigration subcommittees in Congress favor more enforcement, but not "amnesty," and some of the debate among Republicans is whether the Bush plan to give unauthorized workers temporary work permits is an amnesty. Some Democrats, on the other hand, argue that the US is a nation of immigrants, and that foreigners invited to work here should be able to live in the US permanently and become citizens if they wish.

The Washington Post on January 18, 2005 reported that, when asked: "Do you think illegal immigrants who are living and working in the United States now should be offered a chance to keep their jobs and eventually apply for legal status, or do you think they should be deported back to their native country?," 61 percent of those polled across the US agreed with legalization and 36 percent supported deportation.

A poll of 4,800 Mexicans in the US, conducted at Mexican consulates over six months as Mexicans, mostly unauthorized, applied for Mexican identity documents, found that 79 percent would sign up for "Bush work visas" that required them to leave the US eventually, even though 51 percent of the unauthorized who were questioned said they wanted to stay in the US permanently Some unauthorized workers agreed with those who said that the survey supports speculation that unauthorized Mexicans would sign up for work visas, but would nonetheless remain in the US after they expired.

Most of those interviewed were young (half were 18 to 29), male and had arrived in the United States within the past five years. Most spoke little or no English, and most earned under $400 a week.

David North, a pioneer with Marion Houstoun in studying irregular migration in the 1970s, summarized the lessons of legalization under the 1986 IRCA as follows: first, more foreigners applied than were expected, over three million, and 2.7 million were legalized, with most of the excess applications in the Special Agricultural Worker program. Approval rates were 94 percent for those who applied, both to the general and to the SAW legalization programs. North noted that the SAW program did not undergo close Congressional scrutiny, and was added "at the last minute" to overcome agribusiness opposition to IRCA

Shailagh Murray, "Conservatives Split in Debate on Curbing Illegal Immigration," Washington Post, March 25, 2005.