A 'guest worker' plan isn't a solution

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President Bush believes the US can curb illegal immigration by inviting in legal "guest workers." But the US has been down this back road before, and studied it several times. One commission's finding: The idea seems "attractive" but it's really "seductive."

That was the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, chairman of the 1978 Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, testifying on Capitol Hill in 1981. He elaborated: "I can recall being very much entranced by [a temporary work program] when I first joined the commission. In the end, we were persuaded, after much study, that it would be a mistake."

A later commission, headed by the late Democratic congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas, agreed. Her group, which studied immigration for six years, rejected large-scale, low-skill guest-worker programs, an idea now being considered by the Senate. Her panel found such programs depress wages, adversely affect Americans (including new legal residents), can lead to worker abuse, and present large social costs.

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Can the president, lawmakers, businesses, and presumably Monday's mass demonstrators come around to the same conclusion?

Supporters of Senate proposals that would allow at least 400,000 generally low- and un-skilled guest workers into the US each year argue that business needs a steady, legal flow of such workers for jobs "Americans won't do." These regular recruits, they argue, would reduce the number trying to enter the US illegally.

But history shows that even a generous temporary-worker plan doesn't curb illegal immigration, and isn't temporary. Under the "Bracero" program of 1942-1964, the US allowed in 4.6 million Mexicans to work in agriculture, initially to replace farm hands gone off to support the war effort. Many of the guest workers stayed. During the same period, there were more than 5 million Mexican illegal-alien apprehensions.

Business today also points to certain labor shortages. But the US already offers select visas for temporary agricultural and other seasonal workers, tourists, and also highly skilled employees. It's overkill to add a large, new general category of workers - especially when one considers that there's already low- and unskilled labor to be had in the US. Joblessness remains high for certain groups, such as high school dropouts, African-Americans, and white teenagers. Why aren't employers hiring them first? Importing temporary workers simply for their willingness to accept low wages, while companies avoid paying higher wages to jobless Americans, is hardly a wise immigration policy.

The Senate proposals try to solve some "Bracero"-like problems, but more fundamentally, the US needs to decide just how many low-skilled immigrants it wants. If Congress provides "earned" amnesty for the 11 million illegal aliens already here, they can bring in family members. And if many of the proposed yearly guest workers stay and earn legal status, they, too, can add millions more.

The US should employ more of its low-skilled and jobless citizens, while considering whether it needs to import more highly skilled workers in select industries to keep the nation competitive globally.

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