Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

Republicans Should Support Guest Worker Programs

We can integrate illegal immigrants into society without forcing the GOP to commit electoral suicide

01.29.13 8:12 PM ET

The Republicans are caught on the horns of a dilemma.  On the one hand, with the Latino vote growing, they probably need to do something about immigration in order to keep themselves demographically competitive.  On the other hand, Latinos tend to vote liberal, and not just on immigration.  Admitting a large number of new citizens who are going to vote for your political opponents may be noble . . . but no one ever got rich depending on the nobility of others.  

Some Republicans are proposing that they bite the bullet and gamble on the goodwill they'll get from an amnesty.  Combine better border enforcement with legal status and a path to citizenship for the immigrants who are already here, and hope for the best.    

Other Republicans seem pretty skeptical--and I can't exactly blame them.  It's a pretty big gamble.

But there's another way they could handle it, one that mitigates the potential problems: a guest worker program.  Legalize the people who are already here, with a permanent guest worker program, but make them ineligible for citizenship.  

This gives the immigrants something substantial: they get the right to work, and their children will be citizens.  But it doesn't generate 11 million new Democratic voters in the next ten years.  If you're worried about things like public assistance, phase in a right to various entitlements over a period of years: so many for Social Security, so many for food stamps.

But while it helps immigrants by normalizing their status, it also has something for people who want tighter border enforcement: a penalty.  The price of coming here illegally is that you don't get to be a citizen.  You can live here and work here, and retire here and collect the social security benefits you've accrued.  But you can't vote, and you can't have an American passport, because you broke the laws about who can live here.  

This is not ideal, I realize.  Guest worker programs don't promote assimilation the way that citizenship does, for starters.  Immigration foes will be angry that this rewards illegal entry, and those who favor more immigration will fret that this still leaves the guest workers vulnerable to deportation for various crimes.  But they'd be less vulnerable than they are now, with no legal status.  And to immigration foes I'd point out that they're already here, getting rewarded with larger paychecks than they could get at home.  Converting them to legal status is less rewarding their illegal border crossing than it is recognizing a fact--and recognizing that fact means that they have to pay taxes, and get minimum wage.  If you believe, as many do, that illegal immigrants take American jobs by accepting wages that no American would work for, this should make you happy.

By making the program permanent, but without a path to citizenship for those who came here as adults, we'd hopefully be able to mitigate the worst of the defects from both points of view.  And also, hopefully, get enough Republicans on board to pass the thing.