Debates over immigration are so hackneyed I usually find it hard to pay any attention. So I felt lucky to come across two pieces with well-reasoned, subtle, important points in the last couple of days.
The problem with Bush's plan lies in the term--and the concept of--'guest workers,' because there is little that is more antithetical to the American ideal than a guest worker. While there are dangers in romanticizing this country's immigrant heritage, it is an unmistakable part of the national ethos. For generations, immigrants have come to the United States in search of a better life. In the process, they often remake themselves--as Americans. Even those who are here illegally, and whom we call illegal immigrants, can transcend that identity--or at least see their children who are born here transcend it.
But a guest worker and his family have no such opportunity for transcendence. They are slotted into a caste, with no real hope of ever rising above it. Indeed, Bush's guest-worker program would codify a large group of people in the United States as second-class citizens. Although they would enjoy many of the same legal protections as American-born workers, they would never be viewed by Americans as equals. Instead, they would be seen as transient figures here only to make a buck. They would not be immigrants or future Americans. They would merely be janitors, construction workers, and housekeepers.
TNR also mentions the cautionary experience of Europe and a better alternative, sponsored by Ted Kennedy and John McCain, which ensures any temporary workers have a path to citizenship.
There is another side to this debate that gets less attention. The fact that immigrants are mostly less-skilled is not an accident. The current "die at the border" policy (so-called because you get the opportunity to work in the United States if you are willing to risk death in a dangerous border crossing) ensures that the flow of immigrants will be primarily less-skilled workers. Workers in developing countries with few employment opportunities might be willing to take this risk, in addition to the risk that they could be subsequently deported if they get picked up for a traffic ticket or some similar offence.
However, an established doctor, lawyer, or economist in the developing world will not try to slip over the border to work off the books in the United States. This fact ensures that the highly educated people who design immigration policy, and their professional colleagues, will not be subjected to the same sort of competition as less-skilled workers.
This post made me think anew about the shape of immigration policy, and that's saying something.