Some in the Republican consultant elite have fallen prey to the South Park “underpants gnome” theory of winning elections: Phase 1: Enact comprehensive immigration reform. Phase 2: ???? Phase 3: Win elections. Support for “comprehensive immigration reform” would not have made Mitt Romney president, and it’s not clear how this support would translate into a clear path to victory in 2016, either. This alchemy is particularly mysterious when you consider how many Beltwayers assume that expanded guest-worker programs are a key part of “comprehensive immigration reform.” Any GOP candidate hoping to strengthen the party’s demographic appeal and to reform our immigration system so that it encourages opportunity would be wise to confront the issue of guest-worker programs. These programs not only represent a betrayal of free-market, pro-civic conservative principles; they also offer a political trap for Republicans.
As they currently exist, guest-worker programs tend to be a species of crony capitalism in their creation of a caste of workers without full access to the free market. One of the defining features of a guest worker is that she cannot bargain for her labor with the same flexibility and freedom of a legal permanent resident or a U.S. citizen. This disadvantage distorts the free market and undermines the position of the average worker. Guest-worker programs allow the rich and connected to pit worker against worker in order to have an economic race to the bottom.
Expanding guest-worker programs would also tend to complicate rather than simplify our immigration system. Guest workers are not automata for maximum economic “efficiency”; they are people, with all the complexity that implies. Guest workers have families, get married, and have children. When a guest worker enters the country, should he or she take his or her family along? If so, will the spouse be able to work? The foreign-born children of guest workers would have access to public schools. Additionally, if a guest worker has a child on U.S. soil, this child is, under current policies, automatically a U.S. citizen. All these complexities suggest that a mass of logistical and legal headaches lie behind expanded guest-worker programs.
Expanding guest-worker programs would also tend to complicate rather than simplify our immigration system.
There certainly is a case for shifting U.S. immigration policy toward prioritizing skills (rather than our current dynastic immigration system), but expanding guest-worker programs is not necessarily the way to do it. If there is a shortage of high-skilled workers in a given field, there is a much stronger case for admitting these workers as legal permanent residents instead of as guest workers. (Of course, we can also work to remedy this shortage by training the immigrants and natives already in the United States.)
In addition to the conservative, principled arguments against expanding guest-worker programs, there is a solid political argument against this expansion. If Republicans are serious about forging an enduring governing majority, they need to do more to reach out to and win the votes of the working and middle classes. In terms of public sentiment, there simply isn’t that much appetite out there for expanding guest-worker programs, so it’s not clear what vital electoral constituency the GOP would reach out to by supporting guest-worker programs. Some corporate interest groups may call for a bonanza of guest workers, but many small businesses themselves oppose expanding guest-worker programs. Furthermore, a campaign account stuffed with donor dollars does little good without a winning, realistic message.
And that’s precisely where guest-worker programs are such a trap for Republicans. On a number of issues, Republicans risk seeming to come out against the policy positions favored by many in the economic demographics that they need to improve their standing with. For instance, many Republicans oppose increasing the minimum wage and expanding health-care subsidies. They might have valid reasons for this opposition; many leftist “solutions” to economic problems offer only the illusion of improvement and may actually do far more harm than good. However, Republicans are still left with a problem of “optics,” as they say, and many voters still view the party as unconcerned with them.
Opposition to guest-worker programs can both appeal to an insurgent economic populism and fulfill free-market principles. This opposition could present in a straightforward way the image of Republicans on the side of the working class. As American teenage summer employment has collapsed over two decades (from over 50 percent in 1994 to about 31 percent in 2014) and as non–college graduates continue to struggle, Republicans don’t need to argue that there is a shortage of workers for entry-level jobs. Nor do recent college graduates, groaning underneath a mountain of debt, need to be faced with accusations that they are making too much money. By opposing guest-worker programs, Republicans can insist that they want an economy that works for everyone.
On a more partisan and trivial note, it’s worth mentioning that, while guest-worker programs can split Republicans, they also split Democrats, especially the more “progressive” ones. A certain set of post-national progressives argue, in the name of lowering international inequality, that we remove most limits on guest-worker programs — even if this removal hurts American workers. This argument is exemplified by a 2014 New Republic essay by Eric Posner and Glen Weyl, which called for making the United States into something like Qatar, with a vast class of disenfranchised guest workers. This post-working-class leftism is opposed both by unions and by more traditional progressives, who view improving the conditions of the average worker to be more of a priority. The recent brouhaha on the left over Bernie Sanders’s opposition to “open borders” embodies this conflict. While the “explainers” at Vox tutted Senator Sanders for daring to prioritize the interests of his fellow citizens, others on the left rallied to his defense. “Open borders” is, obviously, about more than guest-worker programs, but debates about guest-worker programs are part of that broader topic.
Opposition to guest-worker programs can both appeal to an insurgent economic populism and fulfill free-market principles.
The Obama administration has relied upon a coalition of corporate interest groups and ethnic activists to push its immigration agenda, and it’s likely that Hillary Clinton, or any other non-Sanders Democratic nominee, would also appeal to this coalition in 2016. A Republican who ran against guest-worker programs would have a wedge to divide the Democratic party. A Democratic standard-bearer who had to defend guest-worker programs affirmatively could alienate members of the working class and the remnants of pro-worker sentiment in the union movement. But a Democrat who rebukes guest-worker programs could then draw fire from major corporate lobbyists and post-national progressives. The fact that many Republicans support guest-worker programs has so far denied the GOP the ability to use this wedge, but an enterprising presidential candidate could change that dynamic.
Many Republican presidential candidates have a checkered record on guest-worker programs. The Gang of Eight bill, spearheaded by Senator Marco Rubio, would have radically increased the number of guest workers. Senator Ted Cruz might have opposed the Senate immigration bill, but he also proposed an amendment to that bill that would have quintupled the number of H-1B visas, from 65,000 a year to 325,000. Jeb Bush has persistently called for a radical expansion of guest-worker programs.
At the present moment, perhaps the strongest Republican presidential critics of guest-worker programs are Donald Trump and Rick Santorum. Trump’s recent immigration-reform plan would place new restrictions on guest-worker programs and require higher wages for many guest workers in order to keep them from displacing American workers. Rick Santorum has raised serious objections to guest-worker programs as they currently exist. According to a Santorum campaign spokesman, “We are allowing too many basic programmers, lower-skilled tech workers, and the like to take advantage of [guest-worker programs such as the H-1B visa]. They are taking jobs away from hardworking Americans who could otherwise fill those jobs.” Other Republicans have been vaguer. After abandoning his support for the Gang of Eight legislation, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has given few specifics about his position on immigration issues. However, he has argued that immigration levels should respond to the needs of the economy and the interests of the American worker. A Rust Belt Republican who could in many ways appeal to working-class voters, Ohio governor John Kasich has been ambiguous about what he would like to do with U.S. guest-worker programs (though he has said he supports a guest-worker program).Fortunately for Republicans and for the nation’s workers, many candidates — including those who have defended guest-worker programs in the past — still have time to articulate more pro-opportunity positions. Beltway know-betters have worked hard to shut down a real debate on immigration, but the American people have a right to call for an immigration system that strengthens the middle class and that provides immigrants with a chance to join in the American experiment as full participants. Instead of a vision of an integrated republic, where immigrants and the native-born can come together to form the body politic, guest-worker programs present a nation divided between laboring “guests” and privileged citizens.
With its encouragement of illegal immigration and emphasis upon guest-worker programs, current U.S. immigration policy often undermines the civic bonds important for maintaining a free republic. Reforming guest-worker programs could be an opportunity for Republicans to support an immigration system founded on integration and opportunity — not division and exploitation.
— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.