In general, I have tried to limit the subject matter of this blog to politics within Indiana (Mitch Daniels, the state legislature, and so forth), with a special focus on the 9th District race between Mike Sodrel and Baron Hill. Plenty of blogs exist in every political stripe for national issues, with varying audience sizes. Sometimes I have talked about more national issues (and I try to view it through a Hoosier prism), but I try hard as a rule to avoid them (and sometimes failed).
This is one of those more national posts, so I am breaking my own rule here. I actually wrote this almost two months ago, when the immigration debate first began. I did not post it, since for a time the idea of immigration reform seemed to have fallen apart and since I didn't think it fit well with the overall subject matter typical for this blog. I came across it yesterday, reread it, and found it to still be salient and worthwhile. So, with a few tweaks, here it is.
While pictures like those over at Hoosier Hawk can temporarily sour me on it, I (like, I daresay, most Americans) am an idealist when it comes to immigration. Since before it was the United States, this land has been a refuge for the people that did not like things back home. People who got into little ships to cross a storm-tossed sea to escape the wretched conditions behind them, and maybe just strike it rich in a land of great opportunity. Forgive me if this waxes a bit idealistic about our country’s history with immigration.
I could list practically every ethnic group on the map, and started to do so before thinking better of even trying. When home became hell, people have looked to America for opportunity, escape, freedom, and a new life. Unless you are African American or Native American, your ancestors came here to seek a new life. The shining city on the hill held its doors open to them. It is a tried and true cliché, but the United States of America is a nation of immigrants.
In historical terms, at any given moment about one American in ten—ten percent of the population in other words—was not born in this country on average. Right now, that number hovers around twelve or thirteen percent, which close to the peak of between thirteen and fifteen percent during the “Great Migration” period between about 1870 and 1920. It strains the institutional structures of the United States (schools, government services, law enforcement, legal immigration programs, everything else) to accommodate and successfully absorb those numbers of immigrants.
Setting aside the practical issues of whether the United States can successfully absorb an even greater level of immigration, the new mechanism passed by the Senate as a conduit for this immigration is deeply flawed.
We simply cannot have a guest worker program. Regardless of a fence. Regardless of amnesty. Regardless of deportation. Regardless of earned citizenship. Regardless of practical issues concerning the absorption of immigrants into “American” culture and society.
Guest workers will not all come from Mexico (something that politicians in Congress, talking heads, and policymakers seem shockingly slow to realize), and every other guest worker program instituted in other developed countries in recent times has created a segregated second-class minority whose economic prospects are limited and whose bleak futures promote dangerous radicalization and ghettoization. A guest worker program is a significant barrier in the path of the integration that has been the hallmark of American immigration for centuries.
Give them amnesty if you like. Give them a path to citizenship if you like (work-nesty?). Deport them if you like. Build a fence to shut them out if you like. But we should have none of this guest worker nonsense. A country made of immigrants cannot have an immigration policy that places new immigrants in an inferior socioeconomic position to other immigrants and citizens descended from immigrants.
A guest worker program is not a program for regulating immigration. It is a program for providing cheap employees for businesses. No more, no less. It will suppress wages, further distorting a labor market already skewed by illegal immigration, and it will probably restrict the economic opportunities of those who participate in it. In sheer economic terms, there is nothing wrong with low labor costs (they, like cheap imports from China, keep inflation in check and contribute to a generally higher standard of living), but the debate now happening on immigration in Congress must recognize the distinction between speaking about a solution for illegal immigration and a solution to labor shortages (at least in terms of cheap and relatively unskilled labor) in the American economy. Thus far it has not, and that is unsettling.
Virtually all of the public debate on the subject fails to make this distinction as well. I have lost track of how many people I have talked to, or read, that say they are conflicted, or “of two minds on [the] subject,” as Instapundit Glenn Reynolds put it. As well they should be of two minds about it; I think it should be clear that there are two distinct (albeit related) subjects present, not one.
It is not a semantic distinction, but one critically important for an informed debate both on illegal immigration and the labor shortage in the United States (in macroeconomic terms the American economy is running at or near what Keynesian economics would call full employment). Some politicians, of course, wouldn’t want to admit that there was a labor shortage. It would hinder partisan complaints about unemployment rates and the state of economy as a whole, but that is another matter entirely.
The recent immigration demonstrations in the United States have been remarkably peaceful. Government policy structured not towards creating opportunity for immigrants, but instead for providing guest workers for employment demand will create a “guest worker” population in the United States more like that in Germany or France (remember the riots there in late 2005?), and another round of protests by guest workers will not be so peaceful when they are second-class non-citizens, the labor market inevitably is no longer facing a shortage, and there is rising sentiment against them among citizens seeking jobs. America’s own little-remembered in Bracero Program from the 1940s and 1950s should serve as a warning against establishing a guest worker program in the United States today. Coupled with the strains on institutional structures to absorb the current levels of immigration (legal or otherwise), a guest worker program is all the more potentially dangerous.
If you think that nativist sentiment is strong now, wait until after Congress enacts a program like this and the economy enters a serious and prolonged recession. When the day inevitably comes that unemployment is higher and the economy is not doing as well, the guest workers will be stuck, and so will America.
We should also not forget the frightening possibility that guest workers will come from countries that have populations of not exactly nice people that might like to blow themselves up. There is nothing that says that guest workers will have to come from Mexico. They could instead come from Morocco. They could come from Peru or Pakistan, and Panama or Palestine. They could come from Ecuador or Egypt, or from Costa Rica or Saudi Arabia.
When guest worker programs were established by countries like Germany, companies recruited workers from places where cheap but relatively skilled labor was then available. For Germany, those workers came mostly from Italy, Yugoslavia, and Turkey. For France, they came from Portugal, Algeria, and the former French West Africa.
Everyone assumes that guest workers for any American guest worker program will come from Mexico. But in a global age of jumbo jets that routinely cross oceans, guest workers will come from anywhere that recruiting companies can find willing laborers whose bodies they can ship or fly here. People have been caught being smuggled from Asia into this country inside shipping crates. Simple reason suggests that it is foolish to think that all future guest workers will just be from Mexico and Central America.
If you question or worry about our visa policies (student, travel, whatever) with regards to countries like Saudi Arabia, is there any reason to think that a guest worker policy would be any different with regard to applicants from such countries? It is more than just a little scary to think that they might be quite similar. In the post-September 11 world, we must consider seriously the threat posed by Al Qaeda or other terrorist sleeper cells entering the United States from such countries under the cover of a guest worker program.
Regardless of your opinion on illegal immigration—whether you favor deportation, earned citizenship, amnesty, a fence, or whatever—we must recognize that a guest worker program is something that must be considered very separately from a debate purely about illegal immigration. I am inclined to think that a guest worker program would be bad public policy for the United States. The history of other countries, and our own, with such programs has indicated as much. We would be trading our proud (admittedly abstracted and generalized) history of welcoming immigrants for a policy of importing cheap labor for totally unrelated reasons. That is not a good trade, regardless of how you feel about illegal immigration to the United States, and the illegal immigrants already here.
“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus is inscribed at the feet of the Statue of Liberty. Its most famous lines are recognizable to pretty much every American (and a great many foreigners, too), but the whole sonnet bears quoting:
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!!”
There is nothing in there about welcoming as “guests” the huddled masses yearning for nothing more than a job (and offering them no more in return, to boot). I’ll take the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free any day.