Next month, Congress is likely to reboot the immigration debate. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, has said that he plans to introduce an immigration reform bill by Labor Day.
In a speech in June at a conference sponsored by the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, Schumer laid out seven principles that would form the basis for the legislation. They include: curtailing illegal immigration, achieving control of our borders, creating a biometric employee verification system to diminish the job magnet, forcing illegal immigrants to register and undergo a rigorous legalization process or face deportation, preserving family reunification as a cornerstone value, creating a system that makes it easier for immigrants to come legally, and encouraging the best and brightest to immigrate to the United States while also discouraging businesses from using temporary guest workers.
It’s that last item that Americans should be focused on. Everyone gets distracted by talk of legalization or — as the nativists and restrictionists on the far right like to call it — “amnesty.” Maybe Congress likes it that way. If we focused instead on the politics surrounding guest workers, it could prove embarrassing to both parties.
Democrats don’t want you to know that they’re in the hip pocket of organized labor to the point where they were willing, in both 2006 and 2007, to smother immigration reform legislation because it had language calling for the importing of hundreds of thousands of guest workers. Republicans don’t want to broadcast the fact that they’re pushing for guest workers when so many Americans are unemployed.
Meanwhile, organized labor is pushing the fairy tale that foreign workers — and in this case legal foreign workers — are taking jobs from Americans.
Nonsense. Many of these foreign workers would wind up in agriculture, and we don’t see union workers lining up to pick peaches or strawberries. Some insist that we might see that if the wages were higher. More nonsense. Just because Americans think they’re entitled to earn $50 per hour picking lettuce doesn’t mean the industry can accommodate such demands. And why do U.S. workers think they deserve those wages? It’s because they were lucky enough to be born in the United States. Big deal. What role did they play in that?
In recent years, Democrats have been in a tough spot trying to please both Hispanics who want immigration reform and unions who oppose guest workers. That’s why they would rather steer clear of the issue and hope that Hispanics don’t figure which master the Democratic Party is really serving.
Besides, this time around, it’s Republicans who are likely to be in a tough spot thanks to guest workers.
For starters, if that item is left off the immigration reform menu, don’t expect Republicans to sit down at the table. Even immigration moderates such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina have drawn a line in the sand and said that if guest workers aren’t part of the final bill, they won’t support it. That’s bad news for Schumer. Since he’s likely to lose the support of “Blue Dog” Democrats, he’ll need all the Republican votes he can get.
But Republicans also have to be careful not to advertise to voters that they’re the ones pushing for guest workers at the behest of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the rest of the business community. After all, the idea is likely to be toxic in a recession. It makes for a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, the GOP wants to make the argument that the Obama administration and its policies have hurt working class Americans. On the other, it’s lobbying for guest workers that supposedly compete with working class Americans.
Real immigration reform must be comprehensive, and it will take compromise by both parties. Part of that compromise is guest workers. That language belongs in the final bill as long as there are — as President Bush used to say — “jobs that Americans won’t do” and foreign workers eager to do them.
Accepting that reality could make Democrats unpopular with organized labor and Republicans unpopular with parts of the electorate. But, in this case as in many others, popularity is the price of leadership.