Yesterday, President Bush unveiled his grand plan to come to grips with the troublesome issue of immigration. The central part of his plan is a guest worker program, which would allow immigrant workers to live and work in the United States for a set number of years.
Bush’s solution to the immigration problem isn’t much of a solution at all, but is instead the political equivalent of punting the ball downfield.
The guest worker program at the heart of Bush’s plan would create a system for the nearly 11 million illegal immigrants to register for work permits in the United States. Proponents of a guest worker plan offer several reasons supporting the idea.
First, they argue that a guest worker program would benefit the U.S. economically. They point to the vast number of illegal aliens employed in this country as proof that there is a large demand for cheap labor, especially in the agriculture and construction sectors. Cheap labor equates to cheap goods and Americans would benefit by low prices at the supermarket. Everyone in this case wins: immigrants get jobs and consumers save money.
Another argument that is floated is related to national security. The network of smugglers that acts as a pipeline for illegal immigrants could just as easily be used to smuggle in a team of terrorists armed with explosives. Proponents of a guest worker program argue that by eliminating the need for illegal entry into the United States, the risk that terrorists could sneak in under the cover of the waves of illegal immigrants that cross the border each year would be greatly reduced.
The third argument for a guest worker program is based on costs associated with immigration. This is often expresses in terms of the cost of illegal immigrants to society and loss of tax revenue from the underground economy.
According to a 2004 report by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, illegal immigrants cost the state of California alone almost $9 billion dollars. Educating the children of illegal immigrants cost the state $7.7 billion with health care and prison costs each approximating $1.4 billion.
Guest worker proponents argue that all of these costs remain unpaid because of the meager amount of taxes that immigrants pay into the system. Illegal immigrants are often paid under the table, since they cannot obtain Social Security numbers through official channels. Thus, their wages are not taxed in the regular fashion, resulting in a shortfall of tax revenue.
Legalizing immigrants through a guest worker program would bring the underground economy out into the open, bringing tax revenues into line with expenditures on social services, such as schools and hospitals.
These arguments are persuasive, but they fail to take into account the whole picture. The first argument does not even stand up to mild scrutiny. It is hardly a surprise that businesses want cheap labor. What businessman would want to pay a U.S. citizen the prevailing market wage, when he could pay an immigrant the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour?
The second and third arguments make a little more sense, but they still have their problems. Mass legalization of illegal immigrants would certainly dismantle smuggling networks. Yet the lax security standards required to issue such a massive amount of work permits would easily allow terrorists to obtain worker permits and stay in the country illegally.
The tax revenue argument also fails to deliver. True, tax revenues would increase, but immigrants would, in general, work at low-paying jobs. The tax revenues gleaned from income would not even begin to offset the costs to social institutions.
Despite these problems, the advocates for a guest worker program do seem to have the best solution to the problem. But any guest worker program will have to be paired with aggressive immigration enforcement to ensure that only guest workers are being allowed to enter the country. We must also be prepared to deport immigrants who are unwilling to leave after their work permit expires. Otherwise, we will be stuck with the same problem of illegal immigration as we are today. The problem will simply have been punted downfield.
Sean Paroski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.