From Free Exchange, a discussion of immigration reform and guest worker programs:
Visitation rights, by Free Exchange: However one feels about the politics of immigration, there can be no question that giving migrants from poor nations the ability to work in rich countries constitutes a massive upward mobility event and a significant source of aid to developing nations. It would therefore be a welcome turn of events if developed nations could find a politically acceptable way to accommodate such labour movements. ...
In next month's issue of Reason, Kerry Howley makes an important contribution to the discussion in constructing a compelling case for the adoption of a guest worker programme. Using Singapore's system as a case study, she helpfully notes the advantages and drawbacks of temporary residence visas in a piece that comes across primarily as a challenge to pro-immigrant groups on the left, who tend to oppose guest worker programmes as inimical to the American ideal and a poor substitute for a general liberalisation of border policies.
Certainly there's something to that. The potential gains to invited labourers should appeal to liberal sensibilities... Ms Howley ... recognises the potential for abuse--both of the programme's terms and of workers themselves--in such a system, but she argues convincingly that these difficulties can be overcome through appropriate regulation of the process... Just as important, she makes the point that an easier path into the American labour market should facilitate the return of immigrant labourers to their home country, as they needn't fear being shut out for good upon exiting.
Reading Ms Howley, one begins to bristle at the pettiness of liberal guest worker critics, who place their moral qualms regarding the corrupting influence of a large population of "second-class citizens" above concerns for the material well-being of poor labourers. This, however, is ... not an accurate description of the state of anti-immigration sentiment on the talk-show right. Rather, one hears again and again of the growing use of Spanish, the questionable loyalties of incoming migrants, and the negative effects they have on "traditional" American neighbourhoods. The most outspoken nativists, like Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo, call for reductions in legal immigration as well as illegal.
The conflict at the bottom of immigration disagreements, then, is not primarily economic, but cultural. Immigration opponents on the right detest the otherness of the immigrant, and a guest worker programme does nothing to eliminate that sentiment. In the end, immigration reform did not fail in America due to liberal quandaries on the ethics of guest worker programs; it failed because the Republican Party took a hard right turn on the issue. It seems odd to assume Republican intransigence and argue that Democratic politicians should pursue a guest-worker middle ground, when the real angst on the right is not over the status of the immigrants but their very presence.
Ms Howley does point out that the American public, in general, is amenable to a guest worker program. In general, polling on the issue indicates that a hardline position on immigration is a loser for Republican candidates. All the same, it is the position which has come to dominate the agenda of the national party. ... As it stands, I think liberal politicians are justified in worrying that a willingness to entertain a second-class role for immigrant labour may only empower the ugliest elements of the nativist movement.
A guest worker programme also leaves some of the most troublesome policy problems unaddressed. What, for example, should we do about the millions of undocumented workers already in the country? Are we willing to issue enough temporary visas to satisfy the demand for work in America? Otherwise, we can expect the flow of undocumented workers to continue... Is it conceivable that Americans could tolerate the strict, even ruthless rigorousness with which Singapore polices its guest worker program? And if guest workers come, work hard, and wish to stay, then what? ...
Given the large and growing immigrant population in this country, and a demonstrated willingness among immigrant groups to stand up for their interests, the debate over a guest worker program may soon enough be moot. In 2006, Republican candidates running on a restrictionist platform performed dismally... Ultimately, it seems probable that the Republicans will do the compromising, or the losing, or perhaps both.
From an economic standpoint, as I believe Ms Howley would agree, a guest worker programme is the second best-outcome. Constraints on labour mobility reduce the efficiency of resource allocations and impede development, while forcing governments to spend billions policing lines in the desert. If a guest worker programme is also politically second best--if Democrats can increase their majorities by letting Republicans hang themselves with a restrictionist rope--then the best advice may well be to wait until next year and see if we cannot do better than second best.