Monday, June 04, 2007

True Immigration Reform: No Xenophobia, and No Guest Workers

Columnist Julie Mason notes that, for the first time, George W. Bush has served notice on conservative opponents of immigration reform that “he’s going to call them out on their xenophobia if he needs to.” Her column is at

Bush has talked before of his personal stake in addressing immigration issues, but never so directly to his political base—or what remains of it. In prior years he’s pushed immigration reform, but backed off in the face of conservative pressure. Whether he will sustain his enthusiasm this time remains to be seen.

For now, at least, he seems to appreciate that 12 million illegals did not end up in this country without lots of help from several administrations of both political parties. The illegals got that help because successive presidents and congresses—and those who elected them—said that the U.S. economy could not function unless some employers hired non-citizens, because there are some jobs that U.S. citizens won’t do.

Just ask the Texas farmers with several hundred thousand dollars worth of onions currently rotting in the ground. They say they’re in this pickle in 2007 because the government has done too well at blocking unauthorized Mexican workers at the border!

Having enjoyed the economic benefit of the 12 million that it allowed in—having sweetened the pot by issuing thousands of them Individual Tax Identification Numbers (ITINs) in lieu of SSNs, collecting income tax and self-employment tax on their 1040s, and in some cases subjecting their paychecks to backup withholding—the nation owes them more than forced deportation. As a matter of justice, the nation owes them a decriminalized status that leads, in a lawful and orderly way, to citizenship.

Several paragraphs from Ms. Mason’s column articulate why Bush believes xenophobia is not the answer:

“If you want to scare the American people, what you say is the bill’s an amnesty bill,” Bush said during a stop in Glynco, GA. “That’s empty political rhetoric, trying to frighten our citizens.”

It was his harshest public backhand yet to the conservative bloggers, politicians and CNN anchor Lou Dobbs, all gassing about how the bill amounts to amnesty.

“People shouldn’t fear our capacity to uphold our motto, E Pluribus Unum,” Bush told McClatchy Newspapers.

For Bush, the fight over immigration reform is a personal one — unlike Social Security or education reform, which were mostly political.

“I feel passionate about the issue. It’s something I have felt strongly about ever since I was the governor of Texas,” he said.

“Texas is a very diverse state. Houston is a very diverse city, and through that diversity, if you’re open-minded, you get a great sense of how it invigorates the society,” said Bush, a Houston resident in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Growing up in Texas, Bush said, “you recognize the decency and hard work and humanity of Hispanics. And the truth of the matter is a lot of this immigration debate is driven as a result of Latinos being in our country.

“A lot of us in Texas were very aware of the immigration issue way before the rest of the country,” Bush told McClatchy. Bush is working to keep the bill intact and moving forward.

His brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, joined former Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman in co-authoriing an op-ed in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, calling on Republicans to support the bill.

If Bush appreciates that the xenophobia of the cultural conservatives is not the answer, he and the bill’s proponents seem not to grasp that the guest worker plan of the business conservatives is not an answer either. At best, it would help resolve the status of the current 12 million illegals, only to enable several million new non-citizens to re-create the problem down the road.

The fear that the proposed legislation will do just that is well reasoned and well justified. There can be no other outcome if we remain captive to the idea that we need a steady influx of non-citizens to do jobs that citizens won’t do.

If achieving citizenship means a farm worker won’t be a farm worker any more, where will the farm workers come from? Obviously, they must be non-citizens.

Yet one of the guiding principles of immigration reform is that it is not healthy for the country to have a permanent underclass of workers to do such jobs—workers with less than adequate health insurance and retirement benefits, less means to support themselves and raise their children, and less of a stake in our survival as a nation. If we truly want to avoid that outcome, no guest-worker program can be acceptable.

The logical alternative is to improve the wages and working conditions and benefits of back-breaking agricultural and sweatshop jobs to a level that U.S. citizens will do them. That has been the aim of the United Farm Workers Union in California for decades. Yes, it will cost more initially than a guest-worker program. But it has a livable future. A guest-worker program does not.

Until the politicians and the employers are sold on that idea—until they grasp that the long-term benefits will eventually outweigh the upfront costs—there will be no lasting immigration reform. We will simply replace one crowd of non-citizens with another, luring them with income we pretend is temporary, but knowing we will need them every year and we will conspire with them again to extend their stay.

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