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.

Clearly, the French program has failed, and we can see that the Bush program ignores these failures. This argument is supported by Phillip Martin, an agriculture and economics professor at the University of California Davis. Martin argues that the US Bracero program, which was in effect from 1942 to 1964 and was structured similarly to European programs of the same era, only served to increase illegal immigration. He elaborates that these workers overstayed their initial welcome for economic advantage.

Much the same argument is made by Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute , who says that “the adage is true: there is nothing more permanent than a temporary worker.” Jacoby allows that this could be because they’ve grown attached to their new home, or that they simply desire the economic advantage. In either case, the immigrants would likely be willing to break US laws in order to stay here. The consensus appears that even with Bush’s new incentives there is no such thing as a guest worker. And whether they’d remain behind for economic or sentimental reasons, the law would be ineffective.

Regardless of the European failures however, some have rightly taken issue with the guest worker program itself as “un-American,” and contrary to what many believe to be America’s immigrant tradition. Many characterize the United State as “a nation of immigrants” where a man can become whatever he wants so long as he’ll work to get it. This so-called “American dream” is central to America’s immigrant mythology that, however inaccurate it may be, is central to the way that Americans see themselves. Further, this “American dream” has long served to unite the disparate immigrants into a single American category. This is said quite eloquently by the editors of the New Republic:

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.

By shunting guest workers into a new and previously unknown category we’d be systemically denying them a reason to assimilate or strive. Where previous immigrants were encouraged to become part of the American mainstream because it was likely to afford them success, these guest workers would be eternally placed into some new limbo. They’d be alienated with no incentive to become involved with their new country or community; after all, they’re just leaving in a few years anyway.

Public distaste for the creation of a “permanent underclass” is illuminated by Jacoby, who reports that in focus groups conducted by the Manhattan Institutes:

Democrats and Republicans alike overwhelmingly preferred the citizenship model for reasons of both principle and practicality. It might make sense initially, these voters said, to admit workers on a provisional basis. It might also make sense to create incentives for the more transient to go home at the end of their work stints. But if they worked hard, put down roots and invested in their communities, wouldn’t we want to encourage them to stay? Don’t we want immigrants to assimilate? Don’t we want to attract the kind of hard-working, committed folks who plan for the future and invest?

Clearly, this new guest worker program is not ideologically desirable, but also lacks public support. In this atmosphere, where neither side wants the immigrants to go, it seems most likely that they would be able to stay on illegally.

Clearly then, on both ideological and historical grounds, it is clear that a guest-worker program is at best likely to fail. It would deny access to the mythology of immigration that has so-long been sold as part of the American experience. And leaning on the evidence from Europe, we can see that despite modest improvements, Bush’s program does little to solve the problem of immigrants remaining after they’re no longer welcome.

One response to “Misguided Reform: The Problem of the Guest Worker”

  1. carnival of political punditry – June 17, 2007…

    This is an interesting carnival. We begin with some jabs at the President and the GOP in general with few articles about the Iraq war in the mix. We then move on to some opinions about the current economy. Staying on course with current events, we mo…..