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Guest-Worker Programs Are a Dead End

McCain and Specter steer party in wrong direction

Many Republican politicians have a weakness for guest workers. After all, a "temporary" foreign worker program seems like the ideal way to reconcile competing interests: It appears to satisfy the voracious appetite of business for cheap, servile labor but without stoking public concern over fiscal costs and social disruption.

President Bush and most Senate Republicans, including John McCain and Arlen Specter, have backed guest-worker proposals ranging from the huge to the unlimited. Something of the sort is likely to be included if the Senate manages to pass an immigration bill this year, though the companion bill passed by the House of Representatives in December does not contain such a program.

Well, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Far from being the silver bullet that promoters imagine, guest-worker programs are a dead end, both morally and practically, and the sooner lawmakers reject this approach to immigration, the better.

First, an important distinction: Much of the current debate in Congress is about using a guest-worker program as the means of legalizing the 12 million illegals already in the country. In other words, give them amnesty by re-labeling them as "temporary" workers in order to launder their status and make them legal. The guest-worker programs in this case are merely disguises for amnesty and must be debated in that context.

Immoral Premise

But most of the proposals before the Senate would also put in place mechanisms to import new workers from abroad, and this is what needs more scrutiny. Assuming there were no illegal aliens here at all to amnesty, would guest-worker programs then be advisable?

No. To begin with, they are founded on an immoral premise. Workers are not merely factors of production, but are human beings, created by God, and possessed of all the attributes, positive and negative, of our stiff-necked species.

Henry Ford once asked, not regarding immigration, "How come when I need a pair of hands in the factory, I always get a human being as well?" Likewise, after it became clear that Germany’s post-war guest-worker program had failed, one observer noted ruefully, "We asked for workers, but they sent us men."

Of course, workers are always men (and women) — this is why one’s views on the admission of inanimate objects (trade) have no necessary connection to one’s views on the admission of human beings (immigration). Nonetheless, guest-worker supporters are usually free-traders as well, because they view foreign labor as merely another economic input, to be used and disposed of like any other resource.

Two Models

Throughout our nation’s history there’s been a tension between the two models of immigration — one providing for the admission of free labor (whether in large numbers or small), the other based on the importation of captive labor, whether as indentured servants, African slaves, 19th-Century Chinese contract workers, or Mexicans in the Bracero program. Congress is once again facing a choice between free labor and servile labor, and the choice it makes will echo for generations.

A related problem with guest-worker programs is that they subvert the republican virtues that underlie a free society by promoting a master-servant environment. This is what the talk of "jobs Americans won’t do" is really about. It’s not that our nimble and inventive free market cannot respond to evanescent labor shortages, but rather that certain jobs are considered by lawmakers to be beneath the dignity of an American, and therefore foreigners must be procured to do the work. Improbable as it is that something could be beneath the dignity of a politician, such a perspective moves us dangerously in the direction of Saudi Arabia, a society few Americans would want to emulate.

The good news is that this anti-republican view of work has not yet taken root in the United States. A new study by my Center for Immigration Studies finds that native-born Americans make up the overwhelming majority of workers in virtually all occupations. In only three of the hundreds upon hundreds of occupations classified by the Census Bureau do the foreign-born make up even a bare majority of workers. In other words, there is no job that Americans won’t do.

The bad news is that the mass importation of cheap foreign labor already seems to be undermining our commitment to the virtue of work, a process that can only be accelerated by a guest-worker program. The same report found that, as immigration has increased, native-born low-skilled workers (those most directly affected by foreign-labor programs) are increasingly dropping out of the labor force, and the tendency seems most pronounced among teenagers.

Repeated Failures

In addition to their moral hazards, guestworker programs just can’t work even on their own terms. Every guest-worker program — everywhere — has failed. In every instance, they lead to large-scale permanent settlement, they spur parallel flows of illegal immigration, and they distort the development of the industries in which the foreign workers are concentrated.

To take the first point, the President asserted two years ago that his immigration proposal "expects temporary workers to return permanently to their home countries after their period of work in the United States has expired." Policymakers would do well to familiarize themselves with the first rule of guest-worker programs: There’s nothing as permanent as a temporary worker. Once they’ve worked here for a while and learned the ropes, all the incentives and gimmicks in the world aren’t going to prevent large numbers of foreign workers from settling down.

The Bracero program, for instance, dramatically increased the number of Mexicans living permanently in the United States. During the 22 years the program lasted (1942-1964), annual Mexican immigration — permanent immigration, leading to citizenship — grew from little more than 2,000 to as high as 61,000, for total permanent settlement of more than a half-million Mexicans. This compares with a total of only a million or so Mexican men who actually participated in the Bracero program.

Germany had the same experience with its post-war guest-worker program for Turkish and other workers. When it was ended after the 1973 Oil Shock, the government thought that the "temporary" workers would leave, because of assurances that there was "circular" movement of such people, going back and forth between Germany and Turkey (the same story that today’s guestworker boosters are telling about Mexicans). Instead, the "temporary" workers not only stayed, they brought their families, too, causing Germany’s foreign population to nearly double over the next 25 years.

Slowing Innovation

Nor do guest-worker programs achieve their goal of replacing illegal immigration. During the Bracero program, for instance, there were 4.6 million Bracero admissions, but also 5.3 million Mexican illegal-alien apprehensions (both numbers include people entering multiple times). What’s more, the immigration momentum created by the Bracero program has increased the Mexican-born population here from less than 600,000 in 1960 to some 11 million today, half of them illegal aliens. In the words of economist Philip Martin, one of the foremost experts in the field: "Rather than work temporarily and go home, large numbers of Mexican guest workers over time settled and served as magnets for further immigration, sparking one of the largest migrations in human history."

Guest-worker programs also have the perverse effect of distorting the industries in which the foreign workers are concentrated. The artificial superabundance of cheap labor slows the process of technological innovation and productivity increases because it’s no longer economically rational for employers to invest in labor-saving machinery and techniques. To look yet again at our previous experiment with guest workers, we see that the end of the Bracero program sparked a period of significant agricultural mechanization, as farmers invested in higher-productivity methods of harvesting fruits and vegetables.

In short, guest-worker programs are both immoral and unworkable. But their appeal is enduring, because they can satisfy the immediate economic demands of an important constituency while pretending not to have any adverse consequences on the rest of society. Our country has too often succumbed to this temptation for policymakers to be able to claim ignorance of the guaranteed outcome of another experiment in servile foreign labor.

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Written By

Mr. Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

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