Blogs > Cliopatria > Politics, the Art of the Possible

Jan 11, 2004 4:33 am

Politics, the Art of the Possible

Politics has been described as"the art of the possible." I'm not sure who said it first: I first heard it in Evita, the musical, in college. But that phrase has been rattling around my head since President Bush's announced proposal for a new amnesty program for illegal immigrant workers. The program would convert the illegal workers into legal guest workers, but attempts to mitigate the free-for-all of illegal immigration by tying the migrants to specific jobs, requiring that US citizens (what about other legal residents?) be offered the jobs first, and applying minimum wage protections. The downside is that the work visas would only be good for three years, renewable once, so this is a definite step down from the permanent resident --"green" card -- status.

There have been objections from both pro- and anti- factions. Pro-immigrant folks, most of whom (correctly) see the proposal as an election ploy to win favor with Hispanic and Asian voters (could these be the hot swing group of the year?), want the amnesty to be more complete, allowing long-term illegal workers to be eligible for permanent residence and eventually citizenship. Anti-immigrant folks are afraid that the amnesty will do just that: legitimize millions of illegal workers, moving them closer to permanent status and creating an economic void at the bottom that will be filled with millions more illegal immigrant workers. This is one of those issues where the"usually associated with" rubrics break down: I think both parties have both pro- and anti-immigrant wings, at both the leadership and grass roots levels.

This certainly doesn't solve the illegal immigration issue: even if the program works as intended, protecting current migrant workers while creating mechanisms by which most of them eventually leave, there is still going to be illegal immigration and those workers will continue to take jobs in industries that aren't profitable enough to employ legal residents. (There just aren't that many industries in which legal and illegal residents are seriously competing for jobs. Taxi driving and janitorial work are about the only ones I can think of offhand. Construction doesn't count, because the illegal workers are used as a unskilled/semi-skilled flexible labor supplement, whereas legal residents are used as a skilled, inflexible core labor. Job exporting is another matter, of course, but without illegal migrant workers there'd be even more of that going on, too.)

Does that mean that the amnesty is a bad idea? Remarkably, no. This is something that we do every decade or so in some form or another. It looks like busy-work, doing something just to say that government is doing something, but it isn't. It is a mechanism for getting a better handle on the immigration numbers, reducing abuses against immigrants, integrating long-term immigrants into legal and social structures, and allowing immigrants to take a step up the socio-economic ladder. Yes, officially we're discouraging settlement, but I've never yet seen a government program designed to encourage sojourner (temporary or guest) labor migration which actually succeeded in getting more than two-thirds of the workers home (and neither has expert David Abraham). That's why we have both Japanese and Chinese communities in the United States: Back in the 19th century, the Chinese were brought in, and when they began settling in too great numbers the employers tried to switch to Japanese workers, whom they hoped would go home with greater frequency; they were wrong about that too. When the anti-Asian sentiment got bad enough, and the 1924 Immigration Act shut them out entirely, illegal Mexican migration picked up, along with the legal European migration, which the act was designed to promote. Illegal migration slacked, I think, during the Depression, but it picked up again in the post-1945 boom, and then we get to the bracero program, and the occasional amnesty, etc., etc., and here we are.

What I'm trying to say is that the US economy seems to be able to absorb more cheap labor than we let in legally, our" cheap" labor pays pretty good by international standards, and neither of those are going to change anytime soon. So the occasional amnesty, or guest worker program, is going to be necessary to keep the mess to a minimum. Understand that the program won't work as advertised, but it will work as intended. Which, I guess, just goes to show that even a "blind man in a room full of deaf people" can find his way sometimes.

SUNDAY UPDATE: It seems that I was a little premature in my above bipartisanship. Most of the Democratic candidates are attacking the proposal as inadequately generous to immigrants and the Republicans in Congress are considered highly unlikely to actually implement the President's proposal. I still think both parties have both pro- and anti- camps, but clearly there is some meaning in the differences. It's too bad, because it's nice to see something kind of moderate come out of this administration.

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More Comments:

Ralph E. Luker - 1/11/2004

I think you've got it pegged, David.

David Salmanson - 1/11/2004

George Sanchez also discusses repatriation in Becoming Mexican American. I will blatently violate Tim's rule on historical analogy and say that this bill reminds me of the bracero program, especially in it's guest worker approach to immigration. Does anybody else see big agriculture and the meat packing industry behind this? Further proof that in domestic policy, at least, Bush has little vision beyond crony capitalism and pleasing various constituencies that he thinks will help him get re-elected in the crassest of ways.

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/10/2004

One reason that immigration from Mexico eased off during the Depression were actions of many cities and states to send back Mexicans who had come in the 1910s and 20s.

I believe that D.N. Valdés, discusses these "repatriation" campaigns in his book, "Barrios Nortenos. St. Paul and Midwestern Mexican Communities in the Twentieth Century."