President Reagan, as he said on Walter Cronkite's last regular newscast, is "intrigued" by the suggestion made by a number of border-state governors that the United States institute a guest-worker program with Mexico -- in effect, legalizing much of the illegal immigration of Mexicans to the United States.
It would, he said, constitute a "safety valve" for a friendly neighbor with an "unemployment rate that is far beyond anthing. . . ."
Well, not quite beyond anything. Mexico's jobless rate is estimated at between 30 and 40 percent, which is to say that it is roughly comparable to the unemployment rate among young black Americans in our big cities.
But while the president is talking, in marvelously sympathetic tones, about a special program to attract Mexico's huddled masses, he seems nearly oblivious to the huddled masses in his own country. One of the early proposals for reducing federal spending was to put the ax to the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program that has made it possible for thousands of jobless Americans to get training and jobs.
If there is any safe bet, it is that a new influx of guest-workers, added to the virtual flood of so-called "undocumented workers" from Latin America, will increase joblessness among minorities here. And yet it is precisely such a guest-worker program that "intrigues" Presiden Reagan to the point that he expects to talk about it when he visits Mexico's President Lopez Portillo later this month. How can it be that President Reagan can be so sensitive to the yearnings of Mexicans and so insensitive to what is happening right under his nose? Gary Imhoff thinks he knows the answer:
To Reagan and the governors who are urging the guest-worker program, he says, "a Mexican who is unemployed is a victim of the Mexican economy; an American who is unemployed is a lazy, shiftless character who doesn't want to work."
Imhoff, an official of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), sent me a copy of a Texas Observer interview with Texas Gov. Clements, one of the key backers of the guest-worker idea. It is Clements' opinion that "anyone who really wants to work, who wants to work, in the state of Texas . . . can find a job." The governor cites the "pages" of want ads in the newspapers for jobs there for the taking.
It is an argument frequently heard, and it persists in the face of news reports of lines of unemployed blacks stretched out for blocks because they have heard that local employers were hiring in Baltimore, or Muncie, or wherever. There have been reports of near-violence among the disappointed seekers of jobs to shovel snow off subway tracks in Washington or to clean up debris in New York.
These people don't want to work? What is nearer the truth is that there are people who don't want to take the low pay and frequent abuse that go with certain kinds of work, who want jobs that pay a living wage. It is also true that many "undocumented workers" -- and presumably a large number of guest-workers, if such a program is undertaken -- will take jobs at less than the minimum wage and with fewer of the worker protections that have become the standard in America.
But if that fact provides Mexico with a "safety valve," it also saddles America with a time bomb.
Surely it cannot serve this country's interests to import millions of desperate people whose chief role would be to undercut America's jobless millions. A guest-worker program might make a good deal of sense in a country with unusually low jobless rates. But that manifestly is not the case here. I'm looking right now at a news item that reports overall U.S. employment at 7.3 percent -- a figure virtually unchanged since last summer. "The largest change," the article says, "was in the unemployment rate for blacks, which rose sharply from 13.1 percent to 13.7 percent."
Right next to that story is another one that begins: "The Labor Department has served notice that it will cut or cancel about 400 job-training contracts under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. . . ."
Guest-worker program indeed!