All Commentary
Friday, May 25, 2007

Be Our Guest (Worker)

The so-called guest-worker program, part of the controversial new compromise immigration bill now before Congress, sums up everything that is wrong in how many people think about immigration. On one side are those who want to keep foreigners out of the country on grounds that they will compete against American workers without providing offsetting benefits to the U.S. economy. On the other are those who want to admit some magic number of the right kind of foreign workers because it will benefit the U.S. economy. While they sling endless econometric studies at each other, some of us wonder: What about freedom? That question may seen quaint in the Age of Scientism, when economists and other practitioners of social science assume the role of high priests, but it's still worth asking, because a tower of statistical studies showing adverse effects on wages does not trump individual rights.

As amended the other day in the Senate, the provision would enable 200,000 (not the original 400,000 to 600,000) unskilled nonfarm workers each year to get special two-year visas. That visa could be renewed twice — but workers would have to return home for a year before coming back for the next work period. Participants in the program would not qualify for permanent status.

This scheme is unworthy of a country that sees itself as free and humane. Look at how its supporters talk about it:

Temporary workers are obviously needed. We have almost full employment in this country. –Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

When we need temporary workers to build houses, for example, we would issue more of these two-year visas. When we don’t need them, we would stop issuing the visas. –Sen. John Kyl, a chief Republican sponsor of the bill.

How magnanimous. What did Kant say about treating people as ends and not merely as means? But this generosity is combined with a stern warning described by the New York Times: A little-noticed provision of the bill would significantly increase penalties for immigrants who enter the country illegally or stay beyond the time allowed by their visas. Any foreign citizen who unlawfully enters the United States would be permanently barred from the country and could not receive any benefits under the immigration laws, except in extraordinary circumstances. People who overstayed their visas could not receive any immigration benefits for 10 years.

And let's not forget the punishment threatened for employers who hire migrants without the proper papers issued by the authorities. That provision has the enthusiastic approval of many who routinely proclaim their devotion to the free-enterprise system. They have an odd way of showing it.

The enthusiasts for the guest-worker plan are mostly economists with a planner mentality and the potential employers who say they can't find Americans to take the unskilled jobs. Opponents say, plausibly, that Americans would do those jobs if they paid more, which they don't because independent migrants (a.k.a. illegal aliens) drive wages down. Both sides have a point. Employers pay as little as possible, and a smaller unskilled labor pool would mean higher wages for unskilled jobs that consumers still want done. But the whole debate is skewed because illegals aren't free to do what they want. If they didn't have to fear la Migra, they'd have more bargaining power with employers, which would drive up wages. That would in turn attract some Americans to the jobs who don't want them now.

So the larger supply of unskilled labor does have some downward effect on wages, at least initially. (Of course, being consumers, migrants increase the demand for products and services too.)

But why are the wages of unskilled American labor a matter for government policy? Some will say Americans should come before foreigners. Really? We should violate the natural rights of unskilled workers born on the wrong side of an arbitrary border because it might benefit those born on the right side? What justifies this tribalism? As my old friend and George Mason economist Bryan Caplan asks, Are Low-Skilled Americans the Master Race? That is, Suppose you could give American high school dropouts an 8% raise by deporting every man, woman, and child from Latin America back to their home countries. Would that be the right thing to do? No, it wouldn't. (For more on employment picture, see Alvaro Vargas Llosa's article here).

Danger of Exploitation

An opponent of guest-worker programs, Kennedy School economist George Borjas, asks a valid question: Why would one want to start a program that essentially creates a huge class of disenfranchised workers in the labor market? Isn't there a real danger that the exploitation of poor foreign workers — the new crop of second-class citizens — becomes a trademark of that segment of the labor market?

The answer is yes. And that's an excellent reason to oppose the program. How could we tolerate anything with such a potential for exploitation? But Borjas's answer — maybe an increase in some types of immigration– is the wrong one. The right one is to recognize individual rights as universal principles and remove migration from public policy. How can we do less?

Borjas's opponent and Kennedy School colleague Dani Rodrik isn't much better on the question: I believe cosmopolitan considerations should enter our calculus when the gains abroad (or to foreign nationals) are sufficiently large, which they would be with temporary labor flows.

How . . . cosmopolitan. But this means that if, in Rodrik's calculations, the gains were not sufficiently large, he would conclude otherwise.

This debate among presumptuous social engineers is tiresome. Who are these comfortable number crunchers to sit around determining the fate of people willing to risk everything for a better life? They remind me of imperial Roman advisers helping the emperor to decide whether it's thumbs up or thumbs down.

What's wrong with the guest-worker idea is that it regards the rest of the world as America's temporary-employment agency. Foreigners are expected to wait — and suffer — patiently until we decide we have a use for them. At that point, a few may enter and work — for a while — where we tell them. But they'd better not get any ideas about moving into our neighborhoods and thinking they're Americans with inalienable rights.

This we who holds such awesome power isn't a particular employer. You, individually, cannot decide you want to hire a foreign worker. That sort of freedom couldn't be tolerated. Rather, it's the mystical we that in practice means the gang of petty politicians and bureaucrats who aspire to engineer the U.S. population and workforce.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.