The American Way on Immigration -- Or Germany's?

By Tamar Jacoby
Special to washingtonpost.com't Think Tank Town
Friday, May 11, 2007; 12:00 AM

It's one of the hoariest chestnuts in the immigration debate: "There's nothing more permanent than a temporary worker" -- and it's not entirely wrong. Just look at Germany, which admitted more than a million Gastarbeiter, or guest workers, in the 1950s and '60s, most of them from Turkey and southern Europe. The idea was that they would do a year or two of manual labor, then go home -- and some 80 percent did. But others stayed and eventually brought family, and today there are some two million people of Turkish descent living in Germany, permanent residents but often on the margins of society.

Still, this issue cuts two ways for Americans, particularly American conservatives. Remember, the American system of immigration is based on assimilation -- not temporary, but permanent, the more permanent the better. And today, with the social fabric stretched thin by multiculturalism, conservatives have led the way in making the case for assimilation. So why are some of the most conservative members of Congress -- Jon Kyl of Arizona, John Cornyn of Texas, among others -- advocating a strictly temporary worker program rather than the melting pot model that has traditionally worked so well for America?

Temporary or permanent? It's the question at the heart of this year's immigration debate -- and far more important in the long run than what we do with the 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country. Legalization is a transitional issue, after all: it's about acknowledging and remedying the mistakes of the past. The choice between temporary and permanent is about how the immigration system will work going forward -- and if the past is any guide, today's choices could shape the system for a generation or more.

But in truth, temporary vs. permanent is an oversimplification. It's not the either/or dichotomy it appears to be -- and the best answer for the U.S. today is almost surely a combination. The challenge is coming up with the right combination.

The case being made for temporary programs mixes several arguments, some more attractive than others. Of course, some folks just don't want any foreigners to stay too long, no matter how useful they are to the economy. But there's also a principled case for a circular flow. It's good for the countries the migrants come from: they go back not just with money to invest, but also new skills and, often, a new work ethic. And temporary programs have advantages for the U.S. as well, safeguarding us against the possibility of an economic downturn when we no longer need so many foreign workers.

But what about the foreigners who do so well here -- moving up on the job, putting down roots, falling in love with America and all it stands for -- that they want to settle permanently and, like generations of immigrants before them, become citizens? We need a program that works for them, too. And we need a program that recognizes the diversity of our labor needs: slots not just for newcomers with no experience, but also for more seasoned workers, the semi-skilled, foremen, supervisors and the like.

What exactly is the right mix of temporary and permanent? We don't know -- and shouldn't pretend to. Congress shouldn't be second-guessing our changing labor needs -- and it shouldn't be second-guessing how well foreign workers will adapt to life in the U.S. We need a flexible system that creates incentives for most workers to go home, but which permits those we need, and those who prove they merit it, to stay on permanently in the U.S.

One option would be with a point system. Allow foreign workers to enter the country on temporary visas, then use a merit-based calculation to determine who can stay. But unlike most point systems, this one wouldn't measure just skill and education. It would also give credit for enterprise, hard work, job advancement, abiding by the law, learning English, putting down roots and investing in your community. We could figure in economics: perhaps a limit on the number to be admitted permanently based on the unemployment rate or GDP growth. But as much as economics, our annual quota -- a flexible, adjustable quota -- should be based on assimilation. The foreigners we allow to stay permanently should be those already tested by the system -- those who've tried and succeeded at making it in America.

Wouldn't this just be repeating the German mistake? Quite the opposite: We would be learning from the German lesson. Germany's failure wasn't in its temporary program; the failure was thinking that one size would fit all, not making provision for the relatively small share of workers who wanted stay, and then not encouraging them to assimilate.

The good news: Neither conservatives, nor other Americans have to choose. We can have both a responsive temporary system and assimilation too. The first step is recognizing that we need both, and that it isn't necessarily a failure -- far from it -- when a foreign worker graduates from one track to the other.

Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is launching a new nonprofit called "Our Pledge" devoted to advancing assimilation.


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