A new plan to legalize illegal workers from Mexico

Five US senators are working on a 'guest worker' program. Bush will go to Mexico on Feb. 16.

For decades, Mexicans have been going north illegally to pick tomatoes, wash dishes and clean houses. Now a group of US lawmakers says it's time to make it legal.

With the number of Mexican illegal laborers now estimated to be between 3 and 7 million, the five US senators want to make changes that would give the Mexicans the legal status of "guest workers."

"We want to set up a workable guest-worker program so people can come into America legally to work, have their rights protected, and accumulate human and financial capital to take back to Mexico," says Sen. Phil Gramm (R.) of Texas.

Yet, though US and Mexican officials say such a program will draw support from both countries' presidents, immigration experts caution that a worker program is unlikely to reverse a long tradition of undocumented northward migration. Enforcement is seen as one of the difficulties, along with the challenge of convincing Mexicans that they will be better off applying under the new program than following the traditional path across the border.

The plan would benefit both the US and Mexico, the senators argue: Labor-intensive US industries like agriculture and construction would have a reliable source of workers, while the workers would have salary, labor-condition, and other rights that as illegals they cannot demand.

Given the option of working in the US legally, Mexicans would be less likely to migrate illegally, says Sen. Gramm, who hopes to have the program operative within a year. The program would first apply to legal workers already in the US. It would not include the possibility of US citizenship, since one goal of the program is to encourage Mexicans to take their savings and new skills back to Mexico.

Also backing the initiative are Pete Domenici (R.) of New Mexico, Zell Miller (D.) of Georgia, Jim Bunning (R.) of Kentucky, and Mike Crapo (R.) of Idaho, who traveled with Gramm to Mexico earlier this month to meet with President Vicente Fox.

President Bush is set to travel to Mexico Feb. 16 for talks with Mr. Fox, and immigration will be among topics on the agenda.

The senators' initiative follows a year in which economic players in the US as varied as the AFL-CIO and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan called for measures to ease regulations on foreigners seeking to work legally in the US.

Analysts on both sides of the border say, however, that a guest-worker program is unlikely to be effective on a large scale. Guest-worker programs and illegal migrant amnesties usually just make migration more attractive, says Sidney Weintraub of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

An expert in US-Mexico relations, Mr. Weintraub says he supported a migrant amnesty in 1986 that included penalties against employers who continued to use undocumented workers. But the penalties were not seriously enforced, Weintraub says, and nothing suggests to him that the government would be more stringent now.

Mexican experts concur that guest- worker programs often fall short. Jorge Chabat, a specialist in US-Mexico affairs at the Center for Economics Investigation and Teaching in Mexico City, says the bracero program the US operated for 20 years from WWII to the mid-1960s actually stimulated illegal immigration.

"In just the few years from 1942 to '45, the US accepted 120,000 workers under the bracero program - and a similar number or more went north illegally," he says. "We've learned that one doesn't impede the other."

The problem with the bracero program was that legal workers' accounts of earning possibilities in the US encouraged illegals to follow in their footsteps - and the US government was lax in sanctioning employers who hired the illegals.

The US actually already has a small guest-worker program, which brings in about 40,000 mostly agricultural workers, but US officials, including Gramm, consider it inefficient and expensive to administer. Gramm notes that the so-called H-2A temporary work program has some 500 participants in Texas, for example, while the state is estimated to have at least 1.5 million illegal migrant workers.

The senator said his new proposal would be an improvement because it would apply first to workers already in the US and because it will be administered by both countries.

The time for activating a new guest-worker program may be short, given the US economic slowdown. "It would be harder to talk about legalizing millions of workers if concerns about employment are growing," Weintraub notes.

Economic considerations aside, a guest-worker program doesn't easily fit with either Mexican or American views of immigration, some observers say. "By now you have this long tradition in Mexico of young men and others going north, maybe within some family network but outside of any bureaucracy," says Chabat. An official program would raise fears of easy deportation.

Americans, who tend to view themselves with pride as a nation of immigrants, may be uncomfortable with the guest-worker concept. Germany's troubles with its guest-worker program, which has created a separate class of residents without the rights of citizens, offer a view of what a large population of workers with no access to citizenship might mean for the US.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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