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Not very hospitable

Political pressures have produced a proposed guest worker program that is neither practical nor fair.

June 02, 2007

THE GREAT PROMISE of immigration reform is that it offers the opportunity for millions of illegal immigrants to join mainstream society. The greatest threat to that promise, in the bill as it stands, is a proposed guest worker program that would codify a permanent underclass.

A viable guest worker program should ensure a steady supply of labor for jobs not filled by Americans, provide for safe working conditions and fair pay and offer the potential for advancement that is the reward of diligence. But the bill seeks to reap the benefits of immigrant labor without giving enough back to those who would offer it. One provision, for instance, would force workers to leave the country for a year after two years of working and before asking for the chance to work again. That would be a pointless burden on employers and, especially, employees who would be forced to repeatedly pull up roots two years deep.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) intends to propose an amendment eliminating the one-year absence rule. Rational people will support it. Better still would be to offer a way for guest workers to pursue legal permanent residency. Such a plan was included in last year's failed immigration reform bill, and it's an idea worth revisiting, allowing employers to sponsor workers, or workers to sponsor themselves, for residency.

As is, the bill's approach to guest workers is a concession to politics. Democrats agreed to deny guest workers residency or citizenship to secure Republican support. Specifically, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) insisted that guest workers remain just that -- guests. That is a hardhearted deal, and it ignores the economic realities for these working people. Guest workers leave family and homeland to escape destitution and, once here, work for U.S. employers and pay U.S. taxes. Although many have no desire to remain permanently, many others do. If they have demonstrated their worthiness to be full members of this society, we should not turn them away.

In its central provisions, the immigration reform bill offers a realistic opportunity for permanent legal residency, but its approach to guest workers departs from what should be the polestar of the debate: the recognition that immigrants are vital to this country and that they are entitled to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

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