The Point: Good intentions aren't enough
Stephen Christoforou • (click here for counterpoint)
Introducing yet another twist to his philosophy of compassionate conservatism, President George W. Bush recently announced a sweeping plan for immigration reform. His proposal would change the status of millions of illegal immigrants, bringing them legitimacy as temporary workers.
Bush’s immigration proposal is designed to help illegal immigrants lead safer, more secure lives. Legal recognition would allow them to travel between America and their home country openly and with ease. It would allow them to report crimes to the authorities and thus be safer during their stay within our borders. In short, it is a proposal that has been offered with the most wholesome of intentions.
While one should not be so cold as to argue that these benefits are not worthwhile goals, one should be realistic enough to realize that the hidden costs that the President’s immigration plan offers are too severe to bear.
For the sake of fairness, the plan includes a provision mandating that employers somehow prove that Americans have already turned down the jobs they offer to non-citizens. Though just what form this standard of proof will take is unclear, it is certain that the government will be the body to certify this good faith effort. Just as a bloated federal bureaucracy developed in the Internal Revenue Service to ensure that the public is complying with the minutia of tax law, a bloated federal bureaucracy will surely develop to ensure that employers are complying with these hazy standards of proof. Will federal employees have to visit each and every place of business to ensure that “Help Wanted” signs are in the window for a specified period of time? Will the government force employers to turn in videotape records of every interview they perform to ensure that American workers are actually uninterested in advertised jobs? Regardless of the method, it is reasonable to expect that some sort of rigorous standards will be in effect to ensure that businesses do not take advantage of all the cheap and legal labor that is suddenly available for them. That means that the government will need to create a new bureaucracy to this effect, one financed by the hardworking Americans who are already having enough trouble finding jobs and making ends meet; these are the people that least need a weightier tax burden, which President Bush himself acknowledged by maintaining that tax cuts were needed to stimulate the economy.
American businesses may, however, choose an entirely different route, one that this immigration plan does not take into consideration. Since these new worker immigrants would only have the option of taking jobs that Americans turn down, and since they will work for less pay than regular Americans will, any employer would be foolish not to advertise available positions at drastically reduced wages. Thus, they would pass the test of “fairly” offering citizens the first choice to pick jobs while cutting costs in the process. Over time, the job market would be unnaturally and unfairly altered, forcing Americans to take jobs that pay as little as an employer can get away with. This means that more people would of necessity be placed on the welfare rolls and that there would inevitably be a great chorus of voices calling for a higher minimum wage to deal with the new employment trend. President Bush, who has frequently expressed the beliefs that welfare does not reinforce human dignity and responsibility as well as gainful employment and that government intervention in the economy leads to greater hardship and less prosperity, should be opposed to any program that results in such unconservative ends.
The question of re-registration is also a significant issue. Immigrants can apply to renew their three-year work permits only once, and then only if they are currently holding a steady job. After a six-year stay in America, the immigrant in question would have to return home. The President’s plan calls for financial incentives to ensure that this does take place, a roundabout way of saying that wealth would be redistributed from hard-working Americans to immigrants to compel them to leave the USA. However, what if this incentive is not enough? What if the immigrant decides that his quality of life is much higher in American than it could ever be back home and decides to stay? What is to stop him? The government already has a hard enough time deporting people. Granted, these immigrants would be registered, so at least some address would be available as a starting point for federal authorities. Still, it would be a very easy thing for immigrants destined for deportation to simply disappear, as illegal immigrants already do. They would have a free ride into this country and then a basically unlimited stay. This new immigration plan is supposed to be able to allow the government to better track immigrants and get them out of the country when their permits have expired. Nothing in this proposal, save a costly intelligence network to track worker immigrants, would do a thing to reverse the abysmally poor track record American authorities have earned when it comes to domestic immigration policy.
Apart from questions of feasibility, one should ask whether the President’s immigration proposal is desirable in the first place. There are many industries that quite simply depend on the labor of illegal immigrants to survive, so giving them all legal status—which would include making them eligible to receive minimum wage—-would have disastrous consequences. A prime example is found in the restaurant industry. Many employers and managers in this business will readily attest to the fact that it is very difficult to make ends meet. The current tax code creates an almost unbearable burden that affects employers not only when it comes time to pay employees (after all, a business’s income is taxed and the money it distributes to employees is then taxed as well) but also when it comes time to pay the rent, as high property taxes are passed along to business owners and the holders of leases. Such businesses depend on a steady flow of illegal immigrants to work in the kitchen preparing food and washing dishes, doing menial work for below minimum wage. Many employees are also paid in cash to avoid leaving a paper trail that only opens the door to more taxation. This extra-legal activity is due not to greed or a desire for wealth but from the simple desire to stay in business, something high taxes make very difficult. If the government does offer illegal immigrants status as legal workers and mandate employers to pay them minimum wage, an untold number of businesses would be forced to close. The closing of these businesses not only would put working immigrants out of jobs but also would leave American workers unemployed. Additionally, there would be hundreds of entrepreneurs who would see the businesses that they put so much effort into fold because of a well-intentioned but foolhardy government program. The result, of course, would be more people on the federal dole and an economy slowly rotted away by the mounting tax burden that would inevitably follow the increased unemployment.
In short, Bush’s immigration proposal is not a viable solution to the problem presented by undocumented workers. While it would make life easier for some illegal workers, the proposal would inevitably raise taxes, force down wages, and depress the economy. These negative consequences will make the attempt to enact Bush’s proposal utterly disastrous.
Steven Christoforou is a senior in Calhoun College and Senior Editor of the Yale Free Press.
Bush’s recent immigration proposal is a breakthrough in immigration legislation. Unlike previous attempts to deal with the growing number of illegal workers in America, Bush has proposed a long-term solution to the problem of undocumented workers, turning an old American problem into a new American advantage. The proposal represents the perfect synthesis of the goals President Bush has set out for our country: it promotes an agenda of compassion, it fortifies the security of our nation, and it is conducive to a stronger American economy.
The significance of Bush’s proposal can best be seen in the light of two previous programs that sought to deal with the problem of foreign labor. The first of these programs is the bracero program, instituted in 1942 by the American and Mexican governments. For Americans, the program provided a much needed supplement to America’s labor force during World War II. For Mexicans, the program provided a means of alleviating the extreme poverty created by the Revolution of 1910. Unfortunately, the agreements that the Mexican workers signed were written in English. Most braceros ended up signing away their rights and the bracero program quickly degenerated into what a Department of Labor officer rightly called “legalized slavery.” In 1964, the program was terminated, and the braceros were forced back to their home. The next attempt to solve the problem of foreign labor occurred during the Reagan Administration. In 1986, Congress voted to grant amnesty and allow permanent residence to anyone present in the country between certain dates. This staunched the problem of undocumented workers temporarily, but did nothing to stop the illegal population from re-emerging. When compared with the bracero program and the 1986 amnesty, the sophistication of Bush’s proposal is obvious.
Bush’s immigration proposal promotes compassion toward undocumented workers first and foremost by the merely recognizing their existence. An estimated eight million undocumented workers help sustain the American economy; however, because they are not citizens, these workers are treated as an inferior class. Bush’s proposal gives alien workers the dignity of a claim to honest work instead of the shame of illegal employment. Not only does Bush’s proposal offer alien workers dignity but also it allows them a lifestyle free from fear. Today, undocumented workers must live in constant terror of discovery. They are afraid to report workplace violations, for fear of deportation. They work for less than minimum wage because they have no recourse to American law. And they bear these pains alone, unable to visit their families for fear of not being able to return. Undocumented workers are critical to our economy, and they deserve respect for the positions they hold.
Bush’s immigration proposal also strengthens national security for two main reasons. First, and most obviously, extending the right to work legally to undocumented workers reduces the number of illegal aliens living in America. Fewer people will be entering the country illegitimately, and those who are already here will be recognized. Reducing the number of illegal aliens in America reduces the futility of the fight to protect America from dangerous men. Even workers who choose to disappear rather than to go home at the end of their six-year tenure are less dangerous than illegal immigrants-–they may disappear, but we will have extensive documentation of their existence. Second, America is safer when the nations that border it are stronger. Mexicans will be friendly to America if Americans show compassion to their brethren. In a time where resentment of Americans is strong, such friendliness is critical.
Finally, Bush’s immigration proposal will create a stronger economy. First, it will call upon undocumented workers already working in the United States to pay taxes for the services that they use. These additional taxes will contribute to pay off America’s burgeoning deficit. Second, allowing alien workers to work legally will help to keep businesses alive. Suzanne Gamboa of the Miami Herald argues that, “Bush’s strongest support comes from members of the U.S. business community who have experienced a shortage of American workers to fill service-sector jobs such as hotel and motel workers, cleaning crews and farm laborers and want a temporary worker program to ensure a continued flow of people for those positions.” Businesses across America depend on foreign labor to fill positions for which natives are unavailable. If Bush’s proposal is made into law, these businesses will be afforded a legitimate way to stay alive, preserving jobs for Americans.
Commentators have expressed concern that allowing businesses to employ foreign workers legally will drive wages down. This concern, however, fails to account for the fact that businesses already employ thousands of foreign workers-–often at less than minimum wage. If anything, allowing undocumented workers the opportunity to work legally will raise wages by placing formerly unprotected workers under the protection of minimum wage law.
The claim has also been made that it will require a massive bureaucracy to enforce the stipulation that jobs can only be offered to foreign workers if there are no native workers available. There are several possible solutions to this anticipated problem, however. One example of such a solution is the establishment of review boards in each city, controlled by city legislatures and paid for, in part, by the fees required of those undocumented workers already in America who apply for legal status. An American worker who felt that he was unjustly cheated out of a job by a foreign worker could appeal to the review board in his city. If the board sided with him, then the employer who hired the foreign worker would be fined. If the board sided against him, then he would be fined. These fines could also be used to pay the salaries of board members.
Bush’s immigration proposal has not yet been articulated as legislation. And as has been shown, there are still many questions to be considered. However, the idea of allowing undocumented workers the opportunity to apply for status as legal temporary workers is a strong solution to a persistent problem. It is a proposal that not only shows compassion to foreign workers but also strengthens America.
Nikki McArthur is a junior in Saybrook College and Editor-in-Chief of The Yale Free Press.