Fri 28 Dec 2007
I found a lot to agree with in Kerry’s critique of Megan’s argument regarding guest worker programs. Megan thinks that a guest worker program would have “negative externalities,” although she isn’t very specific about what those might be. It appears that “substantial leakage” is supposed to be one of the negative externalities, but from my perspective, I don’t think that really qualifies as a negative. My first choice is to have more immigrants coming here legally with full rights as permanent residents. My second choice would be for them to come here legally under a guest worker program. My third choice is to have them come here illegally. My last choice is to prevent them from coming altogether.
Now, I realize that I’m in the minority here. But given the massive welfare gains from worker migration that both Kerry and Megan acknowledge, I think they at least ought to agree with me. In which case, the fact that a guest worker program might not “solve” the illegal immigration problem really isn’t an argument against it. We have an illegal immigration problem now. Perhaps we’ll have an illegal immigration problem with a guest worker program. I don’t see why that’s not a reason to do it.
What I question about Kerry’s critique is the notion that a guest worker program is more politically feasible than other reform alternatives. The president devoted substantial political capital to creating a guest worker program this year, and failed to get anywhere with it. Part of the reason, I think, was that the proposal didn’t really excite anybody. Anti-immigrant folks were uniformly against it. Pro-immigrant folks felt it was too stingy, and that the path to legalization was so burdensome that a lot of current illegal immigrants wouldn’t bother taking it. Civil libertarians were disturbed by the prospect of giving the federal government the power to block people from taking new jobs.
I think that in the long run, a more ambitious and polarizing immigration reform proposal might be more “politically feasible.” The anti-immigration folks are going to be apoplectic about any proposal that moves our immigration system in the direction of rationality, so there’s not much point in trying to mollify them. The pro-immigration movement isn’t well organized, but it has a large and growing constituency in Hispanic voters, in addition to idealistic liberals and libertarians. An unapologetically pro-immigration movement, whose goal is to solve the immigration problem by dramatically expanding the number of green cards, probably isn’t “politically feasible” in the next election cycle or two. But I think it’s more likely to generate real enthusiasm and grassroots support in the long run.
And the long run is what we should be focusing on, because time is on our side. This year’s immigration bill would not have solved the immigration problem; there weren’t enough guest worker visas on offer to satisfy the demand for immigrant labor, so a significant number of people would continue to come into the country illegally. Americans are too decent a people to put up with the kind of draconian measures it would take to really get rid of illegal immigration. So some kind of reform is inevitable. And as more and more Hispanic immigrants (or their children) become citizens, the constituency for a more humane immigration policy will only grow. It would be a mistake to give up any of our freedoms for a short-term fix to the immigration mess. And while I think a well-designed guest worker program would probably be better than the status quo, the kind of guest worker program I can envision actually coming out of Congress would likely be worse.