Guest Workers

GUEST WORKERS….I’ve always been uncomfortable with guest worker programs. Germany’s famous Gastarbeiter program of the 60s and 70s, for example, has produced a large population of Turks who do plenty of scut work but have little incentive to assimilate since they have no chance of becoming citizens. The result, as the Germans themselves have discovered, is alienation, distrust, and bitterness on all sides.

In the Washington Post today, Tamar Jacoby writes that if you sit down and talk to them, most Americans agree:

The Manhattan Institute and the National Immigration Forum recently conducted a series of focus groups testing two contrasting options: a guest worker program or a more traditional immigration plan based on the idea of citizenship. The results ran sharply counter to the expectations of policymakers in Washington. Democrats and Republicans alike overwhelmingly preferred the citizenship model for reasons of both principle and practicality.

It might make sense initially, these voters said, to admit workers on a provisional basis. It might also make sense to create incentives for the more transient to go home at the end of their work stints. But if they worked hard, put down roots and invested in their communities, wouldn’t we want to encourage them to stay? Don’t we want immigrants to assimilate? Don’t we want to attract the kind of hard-working, committed folks who plan for the future and invest?

If we truly decide that we want to keep immigration limited, then we should face down the low-wage business bloc of the Republican Party and get serious about keeping illegal immigrants out of the country in the first place. But if we want to allow more legal immigrants into the country ? as a guest worker program tacitly acknowledges ? then we should encourage them to be good citizens by offering them the chance to earn actual citizenship. Because they don’t do that, guest worker programs end up perpetuating both a culture of low-wage labor that’s ripe for exploitation and insular communities that have no incentive to think of themselves as Americans ? because they aren’t. It’s the worst of both worlds.