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.)



On May 22, 2007, Senator Boxer assailed a guest-worker program for creating a “system of exploitation”:

These large employers want a large, cheap labor pool that they can draw from. My colleagues on the other side say: Oh, we are protecting those workers. Oh, they will be fine. No, they will not be fine. How many workers do you know ever in the history of America who have to leave after two years and wait a year to come back to a program, leave after the next two years, come back, and by the way, how powerless are these workers, these temporary guest workers? They know if they say one thing to criticize, perhaps, a manager or to complain or to beg for a sick day because they have a sick child at home, when they know they have no power, everything rides on their being able to come back into the country because the employer says they can come back in. We are setting up a system of exploitation. We are setting up a system with this generalized guest worker program, a system that will put downward pressure on the American worker.

Will Senator Boxer say the same thing in the days ahead and vote to strip the guest-worker provisions from the Gang of Eight bill?

The iconoclastic Senator Sanders of Vermont blasted the “comprehensive” immigration bill of 2007 on that same May 22. He declared:

Here is my concern about this legislation. At a time when millions of Americans are working longer hours for low wages and have seen real cuts in their wages and benefits, this legislation would, over a period of years, bring millions of low-wage workers from other countries into the United States. If wages are already this low in Vermont and throughout the country, what happens when more and more people are forced to compete for these jobs? Sadly, in our country today — and this is a real tragedy — over 25 percent of our children drop out of high school. In some minority neighborhoods, that number is even higher. What kind of jobs will be available for those young people?

This is not legislation designed to create jobs, raise wages, and strengthen our economy. Quite the contrary. This immigration bill is legislation which will lower wages and is designed to increase corporate profits. That is wrong, and that is not an approach we should accept.

It’s hard to say that the employment picture is much stronger now than it was in 2007. Will Senator Sanders continue to show his iconoclasm by fighting against the guest-worker program in 2013? Will he support a bill that includes a radical expansion of guest-worker programs?

In these remarks, the senator from Vermont showed a laudable concern with the economic prospects of high-school dropouts. Over the past ten years, the labor market has deteriorated for these individuals: The unemployment rate is higher, and the labor-force-participation rate is lower.

The point of going back to 2007 is not only to remind Democrats that they had rather strong objections to guest-worker programs only a few years ago. Politicians often contradict their past statements when supporting new legislation. After all, in 2009, when he was a candidate, Senator Marco Rubio promised that he would never support “any effort to grant blanket, legalization amnesty to folks who have entered or stayed in this country illegally.” In 2010, he declared that “earned path to citizenship is basically code for amnesty.” Senators, like everyone else, have a right to change their minds.

But this earlier Democratic opposition to guest-worker plans shows that resistance to such plans could unite elements of both the Right and the Left, both traditional conservatives and labor-conscious progressives. Even Dylan Matthews of the left-leaning Wonkblog has argued that guest-worker programs “don’t work.” Union leadership’s endorsement of a guest-worker program does not necessarily mean that this program is actually good for workers or good policy. Proponents of the Gang of Eight bill have asserted that a guest-worker program is necessary to passing a comprehensive immigration bill, but, as Bill Kristol reminds us, passing something for the sake of passing something is often terrible policy.

The 2007 bill’s guest-worker program differs in a variety of ways from the Gang of Eight’s program. But some of the major concerns remain constant. The current guest-worker program could further drive down wages in both high- and low-skill sectors. It could empower the politically connected at the expense of the average worker. It could create a vast new, economy-distorting bureaucracy. It could harm an already-depressed employment picture (changes made to the immigration bill in markup may actually make it even easier for guest workers to displace American workers). It could undermine the ability of workers to bargain effectively for their labor. It could place more individuals in a status of legal ambiguity.

As much as it may pain some Republicans to admit, perhaps Senators Boxer, Durbin, and Sanders have a point. And as much as it may pain allies of the Gang of Eight, perhaps the criticisms of the guest-worker program raised by Senator Sessions and other conservatives are not the rantings of outmoded reactionaries but the reasoned arguments of Americans drawing from a bipartisan tradition of concern on behalf of workers’ rights, the free market, and economic opportunity.

— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.