Ganging Up on the Unemployed
Democrats sank the 2007 bill’s guest-worker program; American workers are even worse off now.

Senator Byron Dorgan (D., N.D.)



Proponents of “comprehensive immigration reform” often blame the failure of such a measure in 2007 on an amendment submitted by Senator Byron Dorgan (D., N.D.) that would have “sunsetted” the bill’s guest-worker programs after five years. This amendment squeaked by on a 49–48 margin and forced the allies of “reform” to regroup and try a new tack.

It’s six years later, and “comprehensive immigration reform,” this time shepherded by the Gang of Eight, again combines legalization with an expanded guest-worker program. There are many compelling reasons for conservatives and Republicans to be skeptical about this new program, but perhaps it might also be worthwhile to look back to the Congressional Record of the summer of 2007 to see what Democrats had to say about guest-worker programs.

On June 6, 2007, Senator Dorgan made the following statement on behalf of his amendment to make the guest-worker programs of the 2007 “grand bargain” temporary. In this statement, he asked pointed questions about the guest-worker program (questions to which proponents of “comprehensive immigration reform” still need to provide answers):

In the fifth year, we will have 600,000 jobs assumed by temporary workers coming in; in the fourth year, 400,000 jobs, and on and on. So the question is, How many of them are going to leave? What if they do not leave? Are we going to come back to the floor with a new immigration bill, talking about illegal immigration? Why don’t we sunset after five years to see if this has worked?

Let me make a final point as we vote. We have had a lot of discussion about immigration, but no one on the floor of the Senate is talking about the impact on American workers. All of these jobs the temporary workers will assume are going to compete with people at the bottom of the economic ladder in this country. They are called American workers as well.

Dorgan’s amendment passed with the support of numerous Democrats and Republicans, including Senator Barack Obama and Senator Joe Biden. It passed with the support of Democrats Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Bob Casey (Pa.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Robert Menendez (N.J.), Patty Murray (Wash.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.), and Ron Wyden (Ore.), among others. If the guest-worker provisions were worth sunsetting then, why are guest-worker provisions now worth extending into perpetuity?

On May 24, 2007, when he argued in favor of sunsetting the guest-worker provisions, Senator Durbin said the following:

Do we need 200,000 guest workers every year in America? I don’t know the answer to that. I can tell you today that among college graduates in America, the unemployment rate is 1.8 percent. The unemployment rate for high-school graduates is 7 percent. It tells me that there is a pool of untapped talent in America.

Do we need 200,000 people coming from overseas each year to supplement our workforce? I don’t know the answer to that question. There are those who insist we do and some who say we don’t. And that is why Senator Dorgan’s amendment is important. It says we will try the 200,000 a year for five years and then stop and assess where we are, what has happened to wages of American workers, what has happened to businesses that need additional workers. We can make an honest assessment at that point. If we see American wages going down, if we see the unemployment rate of Americans going up, we may want to calibrate, reconsider.

The unemployment rate for high-school graduates is higher now than it was in May 2007, as is the unemployment rate for college graduates. The employment-population ratio for high school graduates was nearly 60 percent in May 2007; it is now just over 54 percent. That “pool of untapped talent” has only increased since 2007. And the number of guest workers brought in by the Gang of Eight bill could be much greater than 200,000 a year. In those same remarks, Senator Durbin claimed that creating a class of “guest workers” could be problematic for the United States’ traditional emphasis on free labor and legal equality. The senator from Illinois included the following statement at the conclusion of his remarks: “Our first obligation is to the workers of America, those who are unemployed and those who have the American dream but just need an American chance.” Should not that still be the obligation of the U.S. Senate?