Conservatives Shouldn't Rule Out Guest Worker Plan

President Bush is deeply committed to immigration reform, an issue on which he clearly hoped to establish a lasting legacy when he came into office five years ago. As the former governor of a border state, Bush had real-world experience dealing with the flow of immigrants into this country — legal and illegal — and recognized both the benefits and challenges these groups present. But his efforts to enact sweeping changes in our laws that would have opened our doors to more much-needed workers, thereby reducing the flow of illegal immigrants, was derailed first by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and then by rebellion within his own party. This week Bush tried once again to jump-start an immigration reform agenda, but it remains to be seen whether he can overcome the opposition of those who simply want to shut our borders.

Speaking at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base outside Tucson, Ariz., the president tried to strike a balance between being tough on illegal immigration while encouraging changes in the law that would allow more people to come here legally. It’s the right approach, but not necessarily one that will convince his critics on the right. Bush promised to add more border patrol agents, build physical barriers where feasible, return Mexican illegal aliens to their hometowns when apprehended (rather than sending them just across the border), and end the policy of "catch and release," which allows most non-Mexican illegal immigrants who are captured to avoid detention altogether. He also promised better internal border enforcement, with increased emphasis on punishing employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens. These measures are good ideas in their own right, but they will only have an incremental effect at reducing illegal immigration unless Congress enacts a guest worker program and expanded legal immigration, as the president also outlined. Yet many of those who scream the loudest about stopping illegal immigration want no part of the latter, especially if it allows illegal aliens currently in the country to participate.

In the early 1990s I had a conversation with Peter Brimelow, author of "Alien Nation" and one of the staunchest immigration critics. "You know, Linda," he said, in his charming British accent that betrays his own foreign roots, "we could end illegal immigration at once if we enacted a program that made all the illegals guest workers." Today, I suspect, Brimelow and others would attack such a plan as amnesty. But until we figure out what to do with the 10 million to 12 million illegal aliens already living in the United States, we won’t have solved the illegal immigrant problem. Creating a guest worker program, which allows workers to come to the United States for a specified period and then return home, will help curb future illegal immigration, but unless those already here can earn the right to participate, we’ll still have a problem. And there’s the rub.

Some people seem to think we can just round them all up and send them home. "Get these people out of my country and my state and my face," read one of the many e-mails I’ve received lately on the subject. "I will gladly exchange a lower rate of economic growth if necessary just to get the return of America. I am now a one-issue voter and have made that clear to all [Republican] fundraisers. I am confident that there are many more like me out there who are not xenophobic — just fed up," the man wrote. Polls suggest that only about 10 percent of voters feel similarly, but that’s a large enough voting bloc to cause problems for the president’s plan. The irony is, these voters may be the real impediment to solving the problem of illegal immigration.

Mass deportations won’t — and shouldn’t — happen. The legal, moral and practical obstacles to rounding up and deporting millions of illegal aliens and their U.S.-citizen children are insurmountable. Nor is it feasible to station enough agents along the border or build a barrier long and high enough to keep out everyone. I once stood at the border between East and West Germany with its barbed wire, mines, and sentry posts with soldiers aiming high-powered rifles. Is that really the America we want to create?