Both advocates and opponents of President Bush's new immigration reform assume that it will be wildly popular among migrant workers as well as the U.S. employers who hire them. But assuming simply that "if we build it, they will come" is a leap of faith.
Undoubtedly there will be plenty of takers among undocumented migrants, especially those already working in the United States.
That's because they desperately want to work in this country, and because a legal entry option would give them freedom of movement between Mexico and the U.S., without paying large fees to people-smugglers and risking their lives to avoid the obstacle course that we have created along the U.S.-Mexico border since 1993. Migrants would also be able to bring their immediate family members to the U.S. These are all huge, short-term benefits.
But the long-term payoffs of participating in Bush's temporary worker program are less certain. It offers the undocumented no certain path to permanent legal resident status (a "green card") nor U.S. citizenship.
Whether migrant workers realistically can convert their three-year, once renewable visas into permanent status depends on how many new "green cards" are added to the existing annual limit. Under the present quota, Mexican nationals can be in the queue for 8-10 years.
Under Bush's proposal, even if a migrant worker succeeds in renewing his initial three-year visa for another three years, he could easily reach the end of his legal working period in the U.S. before he can obtain a "green card." That would make him immediately deportable, and the government would know exactly where to find him because of information provided in order to participate in the President's guestworker program. Such a migrant would be much more vulnerable to arrest and deportation than if he had never applied for a temporary worker visa.
President Bush promises that there will be a "reasonable annual increase" in the number of permanent legal resident visas, but that's entirely up to Congress. Even if Congress approves Bush's temporary worker program, may not authorize enough new "green cards" to shorten the waiting period for Mexicans to six years or less.
Convincing employers to participate in the new system could be ever more difficult. Most non-agricultural employers have said, for many years, that they are not interested in temporary worker programs because the vast majority of the jobs they have to fill are permanent and non-seasonal in nature. Rotating temporary workers through permanent jobs creates unwanted labor-force turnover. And employers don't want to invest in training workers who won't be around after a few years.
To get employers to play by the President's proposed rules for obtaining foreign labor, the new system must be at least as user-friendly as the existing system. That informal system of labor procurement â€“ using current immigrant employees to recruit their relatives and friends -- works exceedingly well, from the employer's perspective. He pays nothing to use it. There are no paperwork requirements, no waiting period to hire, no dealing with government bureaucracies.
If an employer knows that he will need another worker, all he has to do is tell one of his foremen (who is probably an immigrant himself). Often the foreman knows even before the employer does that there will be a vacancy, and he activates the social network that links sending communities with U.S. employers.
A phone call is placed to a relative somewhere in Mexico. A few days later â€“ at most a week â€“ "Juan González" shows up at the employer's door, usually with a false ID of some sort. The employer can put him to work immediately. To escape problems with the government, all the employer has to do is examine Juan's false ID and record some information about it on an "I-9" form, then file it away. The employer is off the hook, even if the government should come to audit his hiring records.
Under Bush's proposed system, this employer would first have to advertise the job on a government website, wait to see if any U.S.-born worker applies, then get government approval to hire Juan. Juan must simultaneously apply for a temporary worker visa and hope that he gets it in time to take advantage of the employer's job offer.
If employers find the Bush system too cumbersome and time-consuming, they may not participate. For decades the U.S. has operated the "H-2" guestworker program for the unskilled. Most employers â€“ virtually all California employers â€“ ignore this program because of its bureaucratic requirements and delays. It's far easier for employers to recruit foreign labor informally, off the street. And there is no penalty for doing so, since the federal government doesn't enforce immigration law in the workplace â€“ only at the border.
In short, the temporariness built into the Bush program may doom it to failure. A better policy choice would have been to go directly to a large increase in the allocation of permanent legal resident visas for Mexicans. But the course of least resistance in Congress is to seek short-term visas, thereby assuaging concerns about the fiscal impacts of permanent settlement by migrant workers and their dependents.
Mexican migrants will continue to settle permanently in this country, as they have been doing for more than 120 years, and both we and they would benefit from putting fewer obstacles in their path.
Cornelius is Director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC-San Diego. His latest book is Controlling Immigration: A Global Perspective , 2nd edition (coedited with Takeyuki Tsuda, Philip Martin, and James Hollifield; forthcoming, Stanford University Press, 2004).