The long-delayed immigration bill President George W. Bush proposed on Jan. 7 marks a dramatic and sweeping reprise of a key Administration policy that got sidelined in the wake of September 11. The Bush plan, which would grant temporary work status to millions of undocumented workers, will no doubt face a fight in Congress. But some kind of program to legitimize America's vast illegal workforce stands a good chance of becoming law.
After all, repairing an all-but-broken immigration policy, which the Administration started to do before the 2001 terrorist attacks, would help many groups. Up to 10 million people now living illegally in the U.S. -- the majority of them from Mexico -- would be able to come out into the sunlight for the first time, working, renting, and driving without duplicity or fear. "We need to make our immigration laws more rational and more humane," Bush said when he announced the plan.
But it's not just workers who would benefit: Many employers would, too. They would no longer have to worry about federal raids and lawsuits alleging that they hire undocumented workers, like those that have hit companies such as Tyson Foods (TSN) and Wal-Mart (WMT).
HOLDING DOWN WAGES. More broadly, companies large and small would have a more stable supply of low-wage labor, with fewer hiring hassles and, most likely, less turnover. "If [undocumented workers] went home, we'd have to shut down this country" because there would be nobody to do their jobs, says U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donahue, who supports the Administration's plan.
Still, there are significant economic consequences involved in bringing 10 million illegal residents into the mainstream. Several studies have found that the large-scale flow of cheap labor into the U.S. has contributed to holding down wages among the working poor. While a guest-worker program could temporarily boost labor costs by raising wages and benefits for formerly illegal workers, in the long run, it's more likely to lower labor costs.
That's because an amnesty program could increase illegal labor flows into the country by making it clear that anyone who gets into the U.S. is likely to remain in the long run. That's exactly what happened after Congress extended amnesty to 3 million illegals in 1986, warns John Keeley, a spokesperson for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.
OVERFLOWING POOL. Bush's plan, motivated in part by an election-year pitch for the Hispanic vote, also faces a host of practical obstacles. The proposal would allow those currently working illegally in the U.S. to apply for a three-year temporary-worker permit, renewable for at least another three years. They also could apply for a green card to get permanent residency. Workers in other countries could apply for temporary status, too, but only if there were no Americans available for the job they sought.
However, a temporary-worker program might not prove all that attractive to many workers. The Administration wants Congress to create more green cards, but that could be difficult. Millions of people are already lined up for the scant 140,000 green cards that are currently issued each year. Adding 8 million workers will only lengthen the queue, since Congress is unlikely to enlarge the pool.
But unless it does, many workers could exhaust their temporary work permits before they move to the top of the green-card waiting list. Since they could be deported if that happened, many might decide to remain underground instead.
IRE ON THE RIGHT. There's also a big question as to how the feds would determine when a job is not likely to be filled by an American. Programs such as the H1-B visa have required such a delineation for years, but the U.S. has never effectively enforced it, even for higher-skilled jobs in programming and engineering. It's not likely to do any better with low-wage, high-turnover jobs such as housecleaning, which would be most affected by a temporary-worker program.
At least some of the difficulties would ease if the U.S. granted illegal immigrants permanent legal status, as Hispanic groups have long demanded. However, that would inflame Bush's right flank all the more. Staunch conservatives are already dead set against the idea of rewarding immigrants who sneak in illegally. Many in Bush's own party hate the idea for this reason, which they see as a violation of basic justice.
The President is trying to walk a fine line between his conservative base and the Hispanic voters he's courting. That's why he's being vague about the duration of his guest-worker program. Administration officials say Congress can work out whether or not workers can stay longer than the six years Bush has proposed.
But that's the nub of the disagreement. Before immigration policy is reformed, Congress will have to decide whether illegal workers can stay merely as temporary guests or as permanent residents. By Aaron Bernstein, Lorraine Woellert, Paul Magnusson, and Alexandra Starr in Washington