Why guest workers?

No immigration bill at all, which seems to be the likely result this year, is probably better than an immigration bill with a “guest-worker” provision. So why do news stories routinely describe the possibility of no bill passing as a “threat”?

There’s a strong argument against having lots of people in the country illegally. And there’s at least a colorable argument for limiting the number of immigrants competing with low-skilled American workers. But offhand I can’t figure out any advantage of a “guest-worker” program, except to the employers who get a legal and reliable source of easy-to-exploit, impossible-to-unionize labor and the Republicans who avoid adding potential Democratic voters to the citizenship rolls.

Insofar as we either need immigrant workers or don’t think we can succeed in reducing their numbers, why shouldn’t we want everyone who comes here to work to be someone who plans on staying? If the concern is that Latino immigrants in the Southwest aren’t assimilating fast enough, adding to Latino neighborhoods lots of Mexican nationals who are monolingual in Spanish and who have no reason to even try to assimilate ought to make things worse rather than better. (That’s if you assume that the “guest workers” will actually leave; if they don’t, we’re just saving illegal immigrants the risks of having to cross the border illicitly.)

Since it seems unlikely that any immigration bill without a guest-worker provision could pass this Congress, the best outcome for now is probably no bill at all. After today’s vote, that also seems like the most likely outcome.

Footnote From the perspective of the majority-party leadership, passing a bill is success and not passing a bill is failure. Journalists tend to adopt that perspective: a development that reduces the chance of a bill hitting the President’s desk is routinely described as a threat, as for example in today’s story in the New York Times:

Less than 24 hours after senators celebrated a bipartisan breakthrough on immigration policy, the effort to pass broad new legislation collapsed today in a partisan and procedural meltdown that threatened to derail the issue for the year.

(Emphasis added.)

If that sentence were rewritten with “offered hope of derailing the legislation for the year,” the reporter would be criticized for injecting editorial opinion into a news story.

Yet it is certainly possible &#8212 and in this case I think it true &#8212 that the public interest is best served by not passing legislation. So the journalistic convention that assumes that legislation equals progress probably ought to be dropped, except when everyone involved in the process agrees that an impasse is damaging to the public interest, as in the case of a budget impasse that forces a government shutdown.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

2 thoughts on “Why guest workers?”

  1. "So the journalistic convention that assumes that legislation equals progress probably ought to be dropped …"
    Yes, it should–but it's a lot more than a convention. It's an inevitable consequence of the idea that governments generally solve problems. So the feeling that, when there is a problem, more government action is better than less. Failure of a bill to pass is thus failure.
    (This is not a partisan thing. Deep down, just about every American believes that government is the great problem solver. Even Ronald Reagan, for all this rhetoric, made no effort to seriously shrink government.)

  2. Mark, I've raised the threat/hope question for discussion among copy editors at http://tinyurl.com/g4hz5. I'd like to thank you for raising the questions of journalistic language that we're often too close to the matter to see.
    I'd also like to ask that this post (and, if you can find it easily, the one about "think tank") be added to the Language and usage thread … I'm trying to bring some of your concerns to the attention of some folks who might do something about them.

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