For all its flaws, President Bush's new immigration plan has one virtue: It recognizes that the U.S. economy rests on a two-tiered system. For years, economists have noted that the eight to ten million undocumented workers currently in the United States play a vital role in making the country tick, taking jobs most Americans don't want and arguably contributing more than they receive from the nation's health care, welfare, and Social Security systems. And yet, those workers are also preyed upon by unscrupulous employers; worse, because of their illegal status, they make slow progress, if any, toward incorporation in America's cultural and political systems. "We see millions of hardworking men and women condemned to fear and insecurity in a massive, undocumented economy," Bush said last week while introducing the plan. "Our nation needs an immigration system that serves the American economy and reflects the American dream."
Indeed. But Bush's proposal does just the opposite. It essentially sets up a guest-worker program, in which employers, after verifying that there are no domestic takers for a particular job, can advertise for foreign workers, whether already here illegally or still in their native country. They can then sponsor a worker for up to three years, renewable once, after which he or she has to return home.
The plan's shortcomings are obvious: Because the workers are sponsored by their employers, they cannot switch jobs once here unless they want to reapply for sponsorship, in the meantime risking deportation. And, because it registers them in the "system" and presents the risk that, after three years, they will be sent back home, the plan is unlikely to appeal to the millions of workers currently here illegally. "It's essentially akin to turning themselves in, and many or most are not going to sign up for that," says Josh Bernstein, director of federal policy at the National Immigration Law Center. In other words, current illegal immigrants, realizing that job flexibility and an unlimited stay—provided they're not caught, and they rarely are—is better than coming out in the open, will likely choose to retain their undocumented status.
But worse than the plan's impracticality is its disingenuousness. While ensuring that businesses have a steady flow of low-wage workers, the proposal does not, as Bush claims, give those workers a shot at the American dream—in large part because it doesn't give them a shot at becoming Americans. Under Bush's plan, an immigrant could only become a citizen by applying for a green card. But there are a mere 5,000 green cards handed out each year to low-skilled workers—and there are millions of illegal immigrants in unskilled jobs. So, of those workers who come forward and register, only a tiny fraction will become citizens and be allowed the chance to plan for a life for themselves and their families beyond a three-year, employer-controlled sponsorship. The vast majority who don't come forward will be relegated to second-class status, working legally but almost completely disenfranchised from America's political institutions and civil society, much as some five million guest workers were under the "Bracero" program during the 1940s and 1950s.
To make things worse, in proposing his own plan Bush has overlooked two complementary, bipartisan bills already under debate in Congress that do establish a clear path to citizenship—albeit only for certain illegal immigrants. One, the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security bill (AgJobs), supported by Democrat Ted Kennedy and Republican Larry Craig, would provide legal status for temporary agriculture workers, who can then apply for permanent residency. The other, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM), co-sponsored by Republican Orrin Hatch and Democrat Richard Durbin, would allow immigrants who entered the country illegally as children to apply for legal residency upon graduating from high school.
The only hurdle to getting these bills passed, say proponents, is convincing the congressional leadership (which must take into account a powerful anti- immigrant minority) to bring them to a vote—exactly the sort of thing that presidential lobbying could achieve. Instead, this being an election year, Bush has trotted out his own proposal. Unfortunately, this makes it less likely that either AgJobs or DREAM will pass. Bush, eager to get his own bill made into law, will be loath to lend political capital to someone else's idea. As at so many junctures in this administration, Bush had a choice between what was good for the country and what was good for him politically. It wasn't even a close call.