News & Politics

Solving the Immigration Dilemma

A California Republican proposes a middle ground between anti-immigrant xenophobia and the nation's need for unskilled labor.
The immigration dilemma and us -- how do we decide?

We seem faced by stark alternatives: One is to despair of effective controls, to grant blanket amnesty for the 11 million or so immigrants who broke the law by entering the U.S. illegally. After all, they wouldn't be here if we weren't taking advantage of their ultra-low-cost labor -- from maids to farm workers, gardeners to dishwashers -- in benefit-bereft jobs most Americans now spurn.

Indeed, if every undocumented worker disappeared from the country tomorrow, big sections of the U.S. agriculture machine, unable to compete in the global commodity market without cheap labor, would collapse. We'd become as dangerously reliant on food imports as we are on oil imports today.

But wait a moment, say others: These folks broke the law to enter America. They're swelling the costs for our schools, they're putting big burdens on health care and criminal justice systems. We want them gone.

The U.S. House under its Republican leadership feels that way: in December it passed a bill requiring deportation for every undocumented worker caught, big fines for employers who give illegal immigrants jobs, and a stunning $2.2 billion to construct double-layer border fences in Arizona and California -- America's 21st century version of the Berlin Wall. Senate action is expected this month.

Can there be a middle ground here?

It's tough. One senses a certain hatefulness, 21st-century xenophobia, in the anti-immigrant camp. Check the individual illegal immigrant and you often find a worker from a pitifully poor rural village, desperate for a better life, sending money back to family. He or she lives in constant fear of arrest and deportation, subject to raw exploitation by employers. Yet this so-called "illegal" may be more hard working and responsible to family than many affluent, take-it-all-for-granted middle-class Americans.

Amazingly, we grant only 5,000 permanent visas for low-skilled workers annually. And no matter how many walls and laws we erect, borders remain tough to seal. Recent crackdowns -- doubling our border patrol forces to 10,000, spending billions in added enforcement -- have backfired seriously by discouraging undocumented workers from returning to their home countries, because re-entering the U.S. can be so dangerous.

President Bush and Sens. John McCain and Edward Kennedy, among others, have proposed guest worker programs as middle ground -- only to see House Republican leaders swear total opposition. Maybe a political shift in Congress will have to come first.

But a Republican businessman from Fresno, Calif., is proposing a truly thoughtful formula we might start debating. He's Peter Weber, himself an immigrant from Lima, Peru, in 1959. Now retired from CEO-level positions in several major corporations, Weber has plunged into civic leadership roles in Fresno -- a city especially heavily impacted by immigration.

Weber's plan includes a guest worker program, but one specifically offering the prospect for long-term U.S. residency, even citizenship, for workers who demonstrate a serious, long-term track record of job-holding and responsibility.

First step -- all undocumented immigrant workers would be given four months to make a choice: sign up for the new guest worker program, leave the U.S., or risk deportation and lifelong ineligibility for U.S. residence. Those electing to sign up would be offered tamper-proof identity cards and told they can stay for up to three years, or six more years with renewals, with a big "if" -- if they can show they have a specific "guest worker contract" with an employer or labor contractor.

Employers, for their part, would have to assure some type of health benefits for all guest workers. Fines would triple for any that then hire illegal immigrants.

Second, there'd be a "step-up" for guest workers -- to permanent U.S. residency. But they'd first have to be a guest worker at least 30 months, demonstrate English proficiency, pass a "residency exam" on the basics of U.S. governance, and have a clean police record. They could also apply for citizenship -- but only after they leave the U.S., and then re-enter the country legally.

Third, the country would continue to protect its borders as vigorously as it can, especially in view of post-9/11 security considerations.

Why this complex "carrot and stick" approach? It's because, says Weber, "we have created 'castes' in our society like never before, breeding discrimination on one side and resentment on the other." Just check France, he suggests, for the consequences when a society fails to integrate a major contingent of foreign workers from another culture.

None of the national guest worker bills now pending, says Weber, make the critical differentiation between residency and citizenship. They're short on positive inducements that benefit both the workers and the nation. America's demand for security and for low-cost labor can't be ignored, he says. But it's also essential our approaches "be based on the fundamental American values of fairness and compassion."

A debate based on realism and values? Should we settle for anything less?

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Neil Peirce is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group and is the founder of the Citistates Reports.