Immigration, Saudi Style: A radical disconnect

By Mark Krikorian on January 13, 2004

National Review Online, January 13, 2004

President Vicente Fox of Mexico on Monday backed President Bush's guestworker/amnesty proposal at the "Summit of the Americas" in Monterrey, Mexico. Whether this helps or hurts its political prospects on Capitol Hill is another matter, but one question has not been asked during the week the Bush proposal has been debated: What would America's labor market, and society and polity, look like if Bush's plan were actually implemented?

Some have suggested that immigration promotes the "Brazilianization" of our economy, as the rich benefit from the importation of servants while native-born blue-collar workers see their wages suffer.

This is certainly true with regard to mass immigration as a whole, but the president's specific proposals suggest a different country as a model: Saudi Arabia. That country, and its Gulf neighbors, are home to a permanent guestworker class, millions strong, lacking any real possibility of becoming full members of the host society. These foreign workers are very large in number, with the six million in Saudi Arabia accounting for about one-quarter of the kingdom's population. And they have virtually no chance of becoming citizens, even after living there for decades.

How would the president's plan "Saudi-ize" America's immigration policy? A Saudi approach to immigration has three characteristics: large numbers, permanence, and lack of political rights.

Large Numbers
Even under current law, there has been explosive growth in the number of foreigners admitted under "non-immigrant" (i.e., ostensibly temporary) visas in recent years. The total number of visas issued by the State Department has increased 30 percent since 1985, and that's not including visitors from other industrialized countries, who in the interim were exempted from the visa process by the Visa Waiver Program. Regarding just employment visas, over the five years from 1997 to 2001, about 2.8 million were issued for foreign workers and their families.

The president's plan would dwarf the current work visa programs. In addition to the 8-9 million illegals currently here, who would be permitted to launder their status through the president's guestworker program, millions more would be permitted to enter from overseas. Since there are no numerical limits to the president's proposal, it's anyone's guess how many will come, but there's no reason to suppose that new foreign workers wouldn't outnumber the illegals enrolled in the program within five years or so.

What's more, labor-market tests that serve to limit current guestworker categories would be discarded, in favor of a "clear and efficient" system, in the president's words, that would enable employers "to find workers quickly and simply." I specifically asked a senior White House official whether the current job protections would be used - such as a labor-market test or a requirement that the employer offer the "prevailing wage" for that occupation - and was told that such mechanisms were too bureaucratic and would not be used. What would likely result would be an Internet job registry, permitting employers to offer jobs at any wage above the legal minimum, and when no Americans or legal immigrants applied after a specified number of days, they would be permitted to import foreigners. Without any statutory or administrative limits, this flow of new workers would quickly number in the millions.

The president assured the nation that the legal status accorded to foreign workers under his proposal "will have an end," and that he "expects that most temporary workers will eventually return permanently to their home countries." And one of the principles the president espoused for his proposal was that "new laws should provide incentives for temporary, foreign workers to return permanently to their home countries after their period of work in the United States has expired," incentives such as tax-free savings accounts that guestworkers could only access after they return.

But anyone familiar with the working of our immigration system - or anyone else's - knows the bulk of these workers would be permanent. (See this overview of past guestworker failures.) The White House sees the three-year visas that workers would come in on (and that illegals would use to launder their status) as renewable for however many times Congress sees fit. The relevant parallel in current law is the H-1b visa, which is for foreigners in "specialty occupations," and which lasts three years, renewable once. However, since the six years weren't enough for many H-1b visa holders to work their way to the head of the line for green cards, Congress in 2000 made the visa indefinitely renewable for one year at a time for people on a green card waiting list. Assuming that Congress didn't design the new guestworker program to be like this from the start, this kind of permanent status almost certainly would be granted eventually to everyone waiting in the queue for green cards.

And the time such workers would spend in "temporary" status would not be appreciably shortened by the White House plan's call for a "reasonable" increase in the number of green cards. The total annual number of green cards would have to be tripled or quadrupled beyond today's total level of one million-plus in order to make any dent in the existing backlogs and to satisfy the huge demand that would be unleashed by the guestworker program. And such huge increases in permanent immigration are politically impossible, unlike the soothing fairy tales of "temporary" worker programs. The result would be big increases in waiting lists for immigration, but the ability to live and work here until your number comes up, meaning that the "temporary" status would in actuality be permanent.

In addition, unless the president is suggesting a change to the current interpretation of the 14th Amendment, all children of guestworkers would be U.S. citizens at birth, as the children of illegals are today. This would root them even more permanently in this country.

No Political Rights
Though the White House has said that these foreign workers would have the normal workplace rights of other workers, the fact remains that their status would be contingent upon employment. Any worker who lost his job would become an illegal alien if he did not find another job within 45 days. This would give employers enormous power over the foreign workers, making them infinitely preferable to Americans or legal immigrants, who can cause all kinds of trouble by demanding higher wages and the like. In the words of Angela Kelley of the National Immigration Forum, "We've got all these people who are basically going to be a permanent underclass, they're never going to be able to be citizens and participate in a meaningful way." (I wouldn't ordinarily quote the National Immigration Forum approvingly, but just because the high-immigration left says something, doesn't mean it's not true.)

So, the president's proposal would create a permanent guestworker class, millions strong, but lacking any realistic timetable for becoming Americans. Advocacy for such an anti-immigrant policy of high immigration has a precedent in American history - the Know-Nothings of the 1850s. As historian Otis Graham discusses in his upcoming book Unguarded Gates, the Know-Nothings, officially known as the American Party, were not immigration restrictionists at all - they were content to let immigration continue at historically unprecedented levels, but wanted to make sure the new immigrants couldn't vote. The heirs of the Know-Nothings are many of today's libertarians, who espouse a similar decoupling of immigration and citizenship.

For instance, my research director several years ago confronted a libertarian speaker about the possibility of immigrant voters supporting bigger government (as they do), and he responded, "Well, then, we just won't let them vote!" Along the same lines, I appeared on a panel with Jacob Hornberger, founder of the libertarian Future of Freedom Foundation during which he was asked the same question, and gave essentially the same answer - immigration and citizenship are different things, and don't have to be connected.

Such a disconnect is the essence of the Saudi model of immigration, while maintaining the connection is central to the American model. This administration is enjoying some modest success in trying to make the Middle East more like America; it would be unfortunate if, with regard to immigration, it ends up making America more like the Middle East.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the



Topics: Guestworkers