politics, USA

Misguided Reform: The Problem of the Guest Worker

Though I wrote this about a year ago, as a response to the large immigration reform/guest worker program which was then tied to President Bush, I think it relevance is renewed by the new bill and the new push [dead link removed, 12/28/07] to get it passed. Those parts not relevant to the current legislation discussion have been discarded.

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Long taken as the very motto of American immigrations policy, the last lines of Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” inscribed beneath the Statue of Liberty, are now more relevant than ever. As more and more people join the debate on illegal immigration, the United States faces an interesting dilemma. Does it send these immigrants away, violating our immigrant tradition, or allow them legal residency with modest penalties? Increasingly, policies appear to look toward European immigration models rather than the idealized “one great period of immigration,” as President Bush called the turn-of-the-century period, “[in which] our nation received some 18 million men, women and children from other nations.” America’s idealized view of it’s immigration past is just that, but it seems a far better basis for immigration policy than the Europeans programs which have recently and blatantly shown their failings. By advocating a guest worker program which seems far more European than American, Bush puts our country at risk of increasing immigrant dissatisfaction and alienation in contradiction to our “history” of traditional assimilation and understanding. This is made all the more clear if we examine the failures of European immigration programs and the successes of America’s idealized immigration mythology.

Where the Bush program first errs is that it borrows heavily from Europe, where immigration policies have largely failed to produce assimilated immigrants. As Fareed Zakaria, a Newsweek columnist, points out, “Many Americans have become enamored of the European approach to immigration—perhaps without realizing it.” He explains why this is problematic by saying, “Across Europe one sees disaffected, alienated immigrants, ripe for radicalism.” Zakaria is claiming that Bush’s guest worker program would be inherently flawed, and that those flaws are readily apparent across Europe today. This tells us that we must tread carefully in this debate. If Zakaria is right about the similarities, we have good reason to avoid mimicking this approach to solving our own immigration problems.

The flaws of European guest worker programs are pointed out by Stephen Castles, a sociologist now of Oxford University. Castles argues that these workers, who were first hired after WWII, soon became permanent ethnic minorities who never returned home. He goes so far as to say that “guest-worker systems inevitably lead to permanent migration in the long run, and that it is better to plan for orderly settlement.” By ignoring research like Castles’s, Bush’s program is at risk of developing the same problems that Europe has had. In turning a blind-eye to this research, we’re risking the creation of an unintended pool of immigrants with few legal rights that would further exacerbate our current problems.

The devastating effects of the failures of European guest worker programs was made strikingly clear in the Parisian riots of late 2005. In a story on the riots, CBC News supports Castles claims by pointing out that these rioter were the remnants of the guest worker waves, and that the program created large ethnic neighborhoods that showed a volatile “combination of ethnic concentration and poverty and high unemployment” that made these young people largely dissatisfied and disconnected from the French mainstream. As such, the remnants of the French guest-worker program clearly fomented the riots of 2005. In the absence of efforts to bring these immigrants into the mainstream of French society, due to a lack of foresight on the government planner’s part, Zakaria’s “disaffected, alienated immigrants” were the result.

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