May 4, 2005; Page A18
"Seal the border" populists on cable news and talk
radio maintain that anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. is
ascendant. But a recent Senate vote shows more support for the type
of guest-worker initiative that President Bush proposes. Economic
reality bites -- even in Congress.
Last month 53 Senators voted for a temporary-visa
program to address labor demands in the agriculture industry. And
while that was fewer than the 60 votes needed to add the measure to
an Iraq spending bill, it does indicate a recognition by a majority
of Senators that enforcement-only approaches to illegal immigration
The farm-worker legislation, sponsored by Idaho
Republican Larry Craig and known as AgJobs, has two main components.
First, it would overhaul the existing H-2A visa program by
streamlining an impractical and cumbersome bureaucratic hiring
process that invites noncompliance. To wit, somewhere between
one-half and three-quarters of the U.S. agriculture workforce is
Second, AgJobs would give those illegal aliens who
can pass a background check and demonstrate an employment history
the opportunity to continue working here under a temporary status
and ultimately earn a green card. This approach is branded an
"amnesty" and therefore dismissed out of hand by conservative
opponents of AgJobs. Not that these critics are proposing any viable
As a political matter there's no majority support
-- bipartisan or otherwise -- for any immigration reform that
doesn't realistically address the illegal aliens already here. A
counterproposal considered by the Senate that would have required
undocumented workers to return home to apply for legal status
garnered all of 21 votes.
Moreover, the Senate floor debate made it clear
that there's a real world demand for immigrant workers if U.S.
agriculture is going to remain productive and competitive. Senator
George Voinovich of Ohio, where agribusiness contributes $73 billion
a year to the economy, told fellow Members that AgJobs reforms are
necessary for the industry to stay strong and vibrant.
Mr. Voinovich also described how flexible labor
markets can operate to everyone's advantage. "Agricultural
economists tell us each farmworker job in these [fruit, vegetable,
nursery crops] industries supports 3 1/2 jobs in the surrounding
economy: processing, packaging, transportation, equipment, supplies,
lending, and insurance," said the Senator. "They are good jobs,
filled by Americans. We lose them if we do not do this the right
President Bush believes the "right way" is a
guest-worker program not only for agriculture but other industries
as well. But restrictionists continue to insist that illegal
immigration can be stopped through enforcement measures alone, such
as those in the REAL ID Act that passed the House in March and is
now being considered by Congress as part of the supplemental
Among other things, illegal immigrants would be
denied drivers' licenses under REAL ID, and asylum seekers would
face greater scrutiny. Last week, the White House lent its support
to the bill in hopes of receiving some reciprocal cooperation for
its guest-worker initiative. We understand the strategy, but the
asylum measures are unnecessary given reforms of the mid-1990s. As
for licenses, applying for one is an act of trying to obey the law;
denying them will merely cause immigrants to drive unlicensed and
uninsured. The spectacle of a GOP Congress imposing this unfunded
mandate on the states is also embarrassing; what's next, a return of
the 55 mile-per-hour national speed limit?
So long as the U.S. shares a 2,000-mile border with
a developing nation, we'll never reduce the illegal flow with
punitive measures that ignore the market forces luring foreign
workers here in the first place. The best way to decrease the number
of illegal crossings, while also satisfying our economic needs, is
to give immigrants more legal ways to come. Under the World War
II-era bracero program, which allowed Mexican workers entry to meet
the labor demands of American growers, illegal border crossings
The U.S. border-enforcement budget has quintupled
since 1993 -- one of the highest growth rates in the federal
government after defense spending. Yet the illegal immigrant
population in the U.S. has continued to increase. Readers may
remember the days when conservatives criticized liberals for
throwing money at policies that aren't working.
With its majority Senate support, the AgJobs bill
is a sign that Mr. Bush's guest-worker idea isn't as dead as
advertised by the anti-immigration right. It deserves to be
considered as a stand-alone measure, and the sooner the better.
Everyone complains about the lack of bipartisanship in Washington.
But here's a case where business and labor have joined with
Democrats and Republicans to address what all agree is a problem. So
why not get it done?