United States immigration policy continues to be shaped by the short-run interests of special-interest groups. President Reagan's proposal for a pilot Mexican ''guestworker'' program is an attempt to buy off domestic pressures for a large number of alien workers. Unions, churches, and Hispanics fear that the docile alien workers will reduce US wages and working conditions.
Why have a pilot guestworker program? The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) apprehends almost 1 million Mexicans annually, so 50,000 guestworkers will hardly reduce pressures to come to the US illegally. US employers want 500,000 migrants, each tied to a particular establishment with a work contract, not 50,000 ''free agent'' guestworkers. Mexico's work force increases by 700,000 each year, so 50,000 US work visas are not going to solve Mexico's unemployment problems.
Guestworker programs are based on the notion that alien workers will depart after a year or two. But experience shows that the migrant labor tap is easier to open than close. Employers offering year-round jobs will not want to let an experienced migrant leave and repeat the training process with another worker fresh from Mexico. The migrants may become accustomed to high US wages and refuse to depart voluntarily. Since many migrants live in Mexican-American communities, the guests may go underground instead of returning. These migrants become part of the permanent drain on the Mexican economy to which Mexican President-to-be Miguel de la Madrid is opposed.
The bracero program, which brought 5 million Mexican farmworkers to the US between 1942 and 1964, did not confront this problem of permanence because farmers encouraged the Mexicans to leave as soon as the harvest season ended. But most of today's illegal aliens or undocumented workers are in nonfarm jobs. US experience with guestworkers in year-round jobs is likely to resemble that of European nations.
Northern Europe began importing guestworkers in the 1950s. In the early 1970s , more than 3,000 workers from Turkey, Yugoslavia, Spain, Italy, and Algeria were reporting to their new employers every day. By 1973, over 6 million guestworkers made Volkswagens, swept Paris streets, and built Swiss cities. Foreign worker recruitment was stopped in 1973.
European nations that once recruited guestworkers now offer cash departure bonuses and one-way air fares to encourage returns. Across Europe, opinion polls reveal that most natives would like to see the ''guests'' depart despite their economic contributions. Instead of departing as planned, guestworkers won the right to unify their families in Europe. There are now 5 million guestworkers and 8 million nonworking dependents in Europe.
European experience shows that it is very hard to rotate guestworkers in a democracy. Employers, the migrants and their governments, unions, churches, and social welfare organizations all point out the inhumanity of forcing workers to leave just because a one-year contract expires. If the migrant stays another year, yearning for family leads to permission to bring dependents. Once dependents join the migrant and adapt to life in affluent societies, migrants become permanent residents. Concerns about the growth of a disenfranchised second class come to the fore.
Second and third generation migrants - raised and educated in industrial societies - develop the same aspirations as native youth and reject their parents' jobs. A labor-recruiting society is then put on a labor-importing treadmill, condemned to import exotic foreigners to do a society's dirty work. The migrants themselves get restless - trapped by a system that keeps them in unfavorable working and living conditions but denies them any political means of improving their lot.
Can the US avoid the problems that plague European guestworker systems? Hardly. Established ethnic communities in the US will ease the integration of migrants. Persisting Mexican unemployment will not draw migrants home voluntarily. The US tradition of illegal entry and the fact that the US has no European-style system of residence registration, identity cards, and stiff penalties for employers who hire illegal aliens mean that America may face persisting illegality.
There are no easy answers to illegal immigration. But before the US adopts a policy that is superficially appealing, it should consider all its implications carefully. Its relationship with Mexico should be based on the national concerns of each country. Subsidization of domestic special-interest groups should not play a determining role in its foreign policy.