Politics & Policy

“Temporary Means Temporary”?

No it doesn't. And it shouldn't.

One of the achievements touted by Republican negotiators of the odious Senate amnesty bill was the inclusion of a program to import up to 600,000 additional foreign workers a year, with no path to citizenship. Sen. Jon Kyl marked it as a win that Ted Kennedy had acceded to the principle that “temporary means temporary.”

#ad#We can’t survive too many more wins like that.

Guestworker programs suffer from two problems — they never work, and their very premise is morally wrong.

As to the first, economist Philip Martin, one of the world’s top scholars in this field, draws these three lessons from our experience with guestworker programs:

1. “There is nothing more permanent than temporary workers.”

2. “The availability of foreign workers distorts the economy.”

3. “Employers invest in lobbying to maintain the program, not in labor-saving or back-saving alternatives.”

The first point is especially pertinent. Didn’t it occur to anyone why Ted Kennedy was agreeing to something that the labor movement has been fighting against since it won passage of the Alien Contract Labor Act in 1885? He knows perfectly well that guestworker programs always lead to increased immigration, both from “temporary” workers who don’t leave and from parallel flows of legal and illegal immigration sparked by the program. Our most recent experience was the “Bracero” program, which imported Mexican farm workers until it was abolished in 1964. During the 22 years the program lasted, annual Mexican immigration — permanent immigration, leading to citizenship — grew from little more than 2,000 to as high as 61,000, for total permanent settlement of more than a half-million Mexicans. This compares with a total of only a million or so Mexican men who actually took part in the Bracero program. During that same period, arrests of Mexican illegal aliens totaled 5.3 million, more than the 4.6 million admissions of guestworkers (some representing the same men multiple times).

Germany had the same experience with its postwar “gastarbeiter“ program for Turkish and other workers. When it was discontinued after the 1973 oil embargo, the government expected the “temporary” workers would complete their contracts and go home, because of the supposedly “circular” movement of such people, going back and forth between Germany and Turkey (the same story that today’s guestworker boosters are telling about Mexicans). Instead, the “temporary” workers not only stayed, they brought their families, too, causing Germany’s foreign population to nearly double over the next 25 years.

Sen. Kennedy knows this full well — one more indication that Ted Kennedy negotiating with Republicans over immigration is like Gary Kasparov playing an elementary-school chess team. In fact, a congressional source tells me that last year Rep. Howard Berman (career grade of F from Americans for Better Immigration) was privately trying to persuade skeptical Democrats to agree to a guestworker program with the promise that, after all, they’d never really have to go back.

But what if we lived in some alternate universe where “temporary” really did mean temporary? Where the Senate bill’s promise of a “two years here, one year home” foreign-worker program was something other than a trick?

We would still be wise to answer, “get thee behind me, Satan.”

The temptation to delegate certain categories of work to menials is as old as civilization. It was the basis of the Hindu caste system, the Spartan economy, antebellum southern society, and daily life today in the oil states of the Persian Gulf. It is based on the premise that other men are labor inputs destined for those jobs that Americans (or Brahmans or Spartans or white southerners or Saudis) won’t do. It is subversive of republican virtue, moving us back toward the kind of master-servant society America was founded to transcend.

Unfortunately, most of the opposition to guestworker programs has come from the Left. The AFL-CIO has fought the guestworker provisions of the bill (though they’re fine with amnesty and increased permanent immigration), most senators voting to kill the guestworker provisions were Democrats, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, of all places, recently published a report on the exploitative nature of existing guestworker programs (they found, for instance, that guestworkers yearned to be illegal aliens, since they could make a lot more money that way).

Of course, there are conservatives who get all this. Phyllis Schlafly has written that “Inviting foreigners to come to America as guest workers is equivalent to sending the message: You people are only fit to do menial jobs that Americans think they are too good to do,” and has approvingly cited Theodore Roosevelt’s warning that “Never under any condition should this nation look at an immigrant as primarily a labor unit.” Likewise, Senators Vitter and Coburn voted last week to kill the guestworker provisions of the Senate bill.

But they were the only Republicans voting to kill the program, demonstrating that too many Republicans have bowed to the demands of cheap-labor employers (or been taken in by their false arguments about the “need” for such labor) and are prepared to fight to retain this immoral program. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said recently that the Bush administration would fight to overturn a Senate amendment that cut the size of the program to “only” 200,000 foreign workers per year. And Sen. Kyl said the whole deal would be off if he couldn’t add back an escalator clause that would increase the number of visas if businesses wanted more than the available 200,000 captive foreign workers.

When a contemptible racket like the Southern Poverty Law Center has a better understanding of a public-policy issue than Republican senators, we’re in trouble. The Left might actually end up saving Republicans from themselves, especially if the guestworker programs provide enough Democratic senators a liberal rationale to oppose the bill. We’d better hope so.

Mark Krikorian — Mark Krikorian, a nationally recognized expert on immigration issues, has served as Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) since 1995.

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