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Ramesh Ponnuru: The immigration bill has one terrible weakness

April 25. 2013 12:15AM

"Amnesty" is the swear word many conservatives apply to the new bipartisan immigration bill. The same invective was used to sink the last major attempt to change American immigration laws, during President George W. Bush's second term. Some critics say that offering legal status to illegal immigrants is simply wrong in principle.

Yet that isn't the most troubling aspect of the bill. What ought to be drawing more opposition is the proposal to bring hundreds of thousands of "temporary guest workers" to the United States.

That's not to deny that legalization poses risks of its own. If enforcement of the laws is lax, it could encourage more people to come here illegally in the hope of the next round of legalization. If we can be reasonably assured of strong enforcement, on the other hand, offering legal status to many or most undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. may be the best way to handle past policy mistakes. Although there's room to argue about whether the bill offers this assurance, I think Sen. Marco Rubio and other supporters of the legislation are right in principle to offer legal status.

The guest-worker program is where they go wrong. For the Republican politicians who have in the past been its main supporters, this provision is like a dessert with no calories: Businesses get the benefit of the temporary workers' labor and they get to make some money, but the rest of us don't have to make room for immigrants in our society, and Republicans don't have to worry how they will vote.

That's exactly what's wrong with the idea. One of the worst things about illegal immigration is that it creates a class of people who contribute their labor to this country but aren't full participants in it and lack the rights and responsibilities of everyone else. A guest-worker program doesn't solve this problem. It formalizes it.

So we would have a two-tier labor market. Most people who work in the United States can quit their jobs without worrying that they'll be ejected from the country after 60 days of unemployment. Temporary workers would have no such security. Most people can leave one industry for another. The temporary agricultural workers in the bill would have no such freedom. Some foreigners may choose this fate as better than their alternatives. It seems unfair, though, to ask Americans to compete with workers who will be more willing to put up with bad working conditions because of this artificially precarious situation.

Organized labor and its liberal allies have traditionally opposed guest-worker programs. President Bill Clinton came out strongly against the idea when he was in office, citing the work of Barbara Jordan's bipartisan commission on immigration. That commission found that such programs were bad for workers and didn't reduce illegal immigration as advertised. Instead they increased it: Guest workers overstayed their terms, and family members and friends came to join them.

This time around, union leaders are going along with the guest-worker program. Perhaps they think it's a price worth paying to legalize illegal immigrants, and that after it passes they can push to liberalize the program to make it easier for guest workers to become citizens.

In that case, the program will end up backfiring on the Republican politicians who most avidly support it. If they say no to liberalization, they will be portrayed as anti-Hispanic - the very image they are trying to dispel by backing this bill. If they say yes, they will be increasing the number of low-wage voters, which is what they wanted to avoid by supporting a guest-worker program.

Enforcing the program's limits would involve similarly bad choices. One of the chief arguments for this bill is to stop enforcing immigration laws in ways that break up families. What happens when a guest worker has finished his three-year term and has no job - but has brought his family here? (Or had a child, who would be a U.S. citizen?) Will we then deport him? Or will we just let him overstay his visa and go into the shadows as an illegal immigrant?

Supporters of the bill should rethink these provisions. Opponents should train their fire on them. Many Americans support legalizing illegal immigrants because it seems more humane and practical than mass deportations. Guest-worker programs seem at odds with those impulses, because they're neither humane nor practical.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review.

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