High on the agenda when President Lopez Portillo of Mexico meets with President Reagan today will be discussion of a "guest worker" program for Mexican workers. The White House domestic policy staff is developing a plan to admit up to 500,000 Mexican laborers each year for temporary work in the United States. Unless Lopez Portillo is wholly unreceptive, the White House will almost certainly ask Congress to create at least a pilot program. We believe that a guest worker program would do little or nothing to control illegal immigration while legitimizing the maintenance of a permanent, disenfranchised "subclass" within our society.
The United States has already tried and rejected a large-scale temporary labor program with Mexico. During World War II and for almost 20 years thereafter, the United States admitted Mexican "braceros" (agricultural workers) in large numbers -- more than 400,000 annually during the peak years. This program was ended in 1964 after it was shown to displace U.S. workers and depress U.S. wages and working conditions. In the words of a 1963 House Agriculture Committee report, the bracero program proved to be "simply a means of providing cheap, easily exploitable and docile labor."
Germany, France and Switzerland and most of the other northern European nations have also had unsuccessful and troubling experiences with guest worker programs.
A Reagan administration guest worker program would similarly fail to serve our long-term national interests. First, it would not eliminate or control illegal immigration. Temporary foreign worker programs are vehicles for admission, not exclusion. Mexican nationals now coming to this country illegally constitute only a fraction of the rural and urban poor potentially interested in employment in the United States. A government-sponsored program offering the opportunity to enter legally, eligible for any type of employment in any section of the country, would attract many workers who had not previously crossed the border. Likewise, U.S. employers who have not hired undocumented workers because of their status would feel free to use Mexican guest workers. Over time, these factors would multiply the number of Mexicans experienced in traveling north. Unless the temporary labor program were constantly expanded, creating an "open border" situation, workers unable to secure guest worker visas would enter illegally.
Much of our current illegal immigration from Mexico is in fact due to patterns set under the bracero program. Approximately 4.5 million Mexican workers were introduced to the U.S. economy and to the ease of illegal entry during the height of the program.
Further, 40 to 50 percent of the aliens illegally in this country are not from Mexico. A guest worker program limited solely to Mexico would do nothing to deal with migration from other countries.
Second, guest workers tend to remain permanently, regardless of the intent of the program. The assumption underlying most guest worker proposals is that foreign workers can be admitted in times of labor shortage and removed or excluded in periods of recession. But 50 percent of all guest workers admitted under the European programs remained more than five years, despite strenuous efforts to encourage them to depart. The guest workers remain in the host society, form families and become de facto immigrants.
Many undocumented Mexican workers perform farm labor or other seasonal work and return to Mexico after the season has ended. If admitted as guest workers eligible to accept year-round positions, many of them would remain in the United States permanently either through repeated visa extensions or by overstaying their visas. Thus a guest worker system would offer no greater control over the duration of the worker's stay in the United States than exists in the case of an illegal alien.
Finally, guest worker programs produce an internal "subclass" which is legally present but denied a full place in the host society. While it is impossible now to foresee the specific restrictions that would be imposed, the proposal being reviewed in the White House expressly provides that guest workers and their families would be denied access to "walfare, food stamps and unemployment insurance." Guest workers would, of course, also be barred from voting. The legislative creation of this type of "second class" legal status runs contrary to our most fundamental political and social values and would threaten the progress we have recently made in eliminating invidious ethnic, racial and class distinctions. The practical effects of this type of legislation would be to sanction exploitation and to foster an isolated and powerless subculture. While these problems already exist for many undocumented aliens, a large-scale guest worker program would legitimize, perpetuate and expand this situation.
Real progress in this area must begin with the recognition that the United States and Mexico share a special relationship based on proximity, family ties, economic interdependence and the flow of labor. There is no immediate solution to illegal immigration and certainly no legislative remedy for what is essentially an economic problem. We can, however, act now to use immigration law and policy to ameliorate this program and build a relationship with Mexico that would allow the necessary comprehensive ecomomic cooperation.
This can best be done by significantly increasing the number of Mexicans admitted permanently, under expanded immigration quotas, for family reunification and to meet specific labor needs. If admitted as permanent resident aliens, with the prospect of eventual citizenship, Mexican workers can fill any demonstrated labor need in our economy, thus gradually reducing the factors contributing to illegal immigration, without depressing U.S. employment standards. Equally important, as permanent residents these workers can share fully in our social, cultural and political life, avoiding further stratification of our society.