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?
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.