National Review Online, April 11, 2006
This week's illegal-alien marches, with their Mexican flags and "This is stolen land" signs, reinforce the focus of the immigration debate on Mexico.
President Bush, after all, has always thought of his immigration proposals mainly in the context of Mexico, while that country's President Vicente Fox has said that in ten years, the United States would be begging for Mexican workers.
The discussion of amnesty, of course, is properly focused on Mexicans, because they constitute the majority of the illegal population, perhaps 60 percent of the total.
But the debate over the admission of future guest-workers - the issue that is of primary concern to the business lobbyists who are really driving this debate - also assumes that most would be Mexican. That's not likely.
The various immigration proposals in the Senate (which aren't quite dead yet) include numbers ranging from 400,000 "temporary" workers a year to proposals with no numerical limits at all. Even some backers of the enforcement bill approved in December by the House of Representatives have expressed support for some kind of guest-worker scheme.
Guest-worker supporters point to the old Bracero Program as their inspiration. That program ran for about 20 years, until 1964, and was limited to Mexicans - Mexican men, to be precise.
Whatever the many faults of the Bracero Program, one thing's for sure - today's anti-discrimination ethos makes such national-origin restrictions on guest-workers inconceivable.
And a guest-worker program available to all comers would inevitably result in a shift away from Mexican labor toward workers from Asia and the Middle East. Wages in Mexico are already so high, by world standards, that factories are increasingly moving to China. The illegality of the current flow is actually the only advantage Mexico has, because its proximity makes sneaking into the United States easier.
But once foreign workers no longer have to sneak in, and are instead shipped here by labor-recruitment companies, Mexico's advantage disappears. Cheap airfares and easy communications guarantee that employers will start looking farther afield for workers even cheaper and more compliant that Mexicans.
Mexico's per capita income, in purchasing-power terms, is nearly $10,000 a year - putting it near the top of the developing world.
Egypt, on the other hand, is home to nearly 80 million people who make less than half the average Mexican. India and Indonesia together have 1.3 billion people with one-third the average Mexican's income. And Pakistan and Bangladesh together have more than 300 million people with less than one-quarter the average Mexican's income.
And how much of Iraq's working-age population would leap at the chance to get out, regardless of the wages offered?
That's a lot of "willing workers" who will work cheaper than Mexicans.
The inevitable drift toward Asian and Middle Eastern guest-workers would have important security implications. America has been fortunate to have a comparatively small Muslim population that is well-educated, prosperous, ethnically diverse, and geographically dispersed - all factors making radicalism and alienation less likely. But a new foreign-worker scheme could replicate Europe's experience, by importing large numbers of poor, uneducated, ghettoized Muslim peasants. And there would be little chance of thorough security screening, given the combination of administrative overload in our immigration agencies and intense pressure from employers to rubber-stamp their cheap labor.
There are plenty of problems with guest-worker programs, regardless of sending country - they're morally dubious, they always result in permanent settlement, and they distort the industries where guest-workers are concentrated.
But at least these shortcomings are being debated. What policymakers do not even seem to be aware of is that a new guest-worker program would not simply be a regulated version of today's illegal flow from Mexico. And that kind of blind spot guarantees unintended consequences far into the future.
Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.