The National Catholic Review
Verghese Chirayath

President Bush’s 2004 immigration proposal seems on first reading to be both enlightened and in keeping with his policy of homeland security. The proposal, which would provide illegal workers certain rights and enable them to shed their illegal status and be counted as documented workers, is being hailed by some of these workers as their chance to become legal and to start a new life in America. For many workers in Mexico, who may earn as little as one or two dollars an hour, if they are lucky enough to find work at all, the proposal offers a bonanza: a chance to earn a minimum wage in a safer work environment in America. It also seems like a good deal for illegal workers in the United States, who have lived in the shadow of the law and have faced the continued prospect of deportation, as well as for the employers who knowingly hired them and risked stiff penalties from the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service).

But at a time when Americans are losing millions of jobs, the president’s proposal is misguided. The proposal would encourage continued illegal immigration and expand the number of resident illegal workers, now estimated by the B.C.I.S. to be between 8 and 10 million.

Workplaces in the United States no doubt offer better working conditions than their counterparts in Mexico. Newly documented workers would have increased opportunities to support relatives through regular remittancescash payments sent to relatives in their native countries.

The president’s proposal may be placed under the umbrella of guest worker programs. Such programs do not offer citizenship, but only temporary legal status. The current Bush proposal would enable illegal workers to become legal for three years. At the end of that period, the workers may apply for an extension of three additional years, provided they have untarnished records. At the end of the six-year period, the workers return to their country of origin and may apply from there for citizenship, but without being given special preference. Given the long waiting lists of those who would like to enter the United States as legal immigrants or permanent residents, it is unlikely that such applicants would qualify in less than 15 to 20 years. It is most likely that after their six years are up, the workers will not return to their home countries, but will go into hiding in the United States as illegals.

All across the world’s industrial nations, there are no guest worker programs that have resulted in satisfactory repatriation or successful assimilation. In Germany, where a guest worker program brought thousands of Turkish workers to the country’s auto plants, there is widespread agreement that the program has failed. Turkish workers are treated with contempt, and have not been granted German citizenship despite their long years of residence in their adopted country.

As governor of California, Ronald Reagan championed a guest worker program. The Bracero program allowed agricultural workers from Mexico to assist California growers, with the expectation that the workers would return to Mexico upon completion of their work. The Bracero program failed because Mexican workers chose to stay on in the United States illegally, melting into populations that were heavily Latino.

The Bracero program was terminated in 1965. Many of the workers who eventually returned to Mexico were absorbed by maquiladoras. The maquiladoras were part of the Border Industrialization Program, an attempt by the Mexican government to create employment for returning Braceros and the burgeoning Mexican population. Maquiladoras are manufacturing plants built in Mexico near the U.S. border. The maquiladoras, which allow American industries to use cheap Mexican labor, have been American business’ preferred solution to the high cost of labor in U.S. plants.

Advocates of maquiladoras claim they have been effective in providing employment for thousands of Mexicans and cheap labor for foreign companies that have located in Mexico. Critics point to the thousands of jobs lost in the United States in companies like Mattel, Green Giant, General Electric, the automotive industry and elsewhere.

President Bush’s proposal reverses the maquiladora philosophy. In a maquiladora, the owners are foreign and the workers are native. Under President Bush’s proposal, the workers will be foreign and the owners native. In the short run, both employers and guest workers may benefit from President Bush’s proposal to create these maquiladoras in reverse. In the long run, however, it is very unlikely that workers who entered the United States illegally will ever become citizens. Like many Bush programs, this one better serves the needs of employers than of workers.

In this election year, the president’s proposal may be aimed at capturing the Latino vote. The proposal may indeed help swing the Latino vote in 2004, but in six years an even greater illegal immigrant problem will emerge if this proposal becomes law.

Verghese Chirayath is an associate professor of sociology at John Carroll University, Cleveland, Ohio.