WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - President Bush announced a sweeping new immigration reform proposal this week that could become a hot-button issue in the November election.
For months, insiders have hinted that the president would propose a new guest worker program aimed at allowing more foreign workers into the country on a temporary basis.
Widely favored by the American business community, a guest worker program would allow employers to fill jobs in industries that routinely experience shortages of workers willing to do the often difficult, dangerous jobs Americans shun - at least at wages that allow employers to remain in business.
But the guest worker provisions won't be the most controversial part of the administration's new proposal. Although some groups that want to limit immigration altogether - such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) - oppose guest worker plans, even such staunch restrictionists as Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado are on record as supporting the idea of guest workers. The real battle will be over what to do with those millions of illegal aliens who are already here.
Some 8 million to 12 million illegal aliens reside in the United States now, up threefold or fourfold from a decade ago. An estimated 60 percent of these are from Mexico alone, and it is no accident that the Bush plan was announced in anticipation of the president's meeting with his Mexican counterpart, Vicente Fox, next week.
The White House announced less than a week before the Fox meeting that millions of illegal aliens from Mexico and elsewhere will be allowed, over time, to earn legal status in the United States, so long as they have been working continuously, have paid taxes and have not broken other laws. The plan will impose some penalties on these workers - most likely fines similar to those proposed in legislation sponsored by Republican Reps. Jeff Flake and Jim Kolbe and Sen. John McCain, all from Arizona.
These proposals may not offer perfect justice - who can blame those who resent rewarding "line jumpers" with legal status while millions of other would-be immigrants wait patiently to enter the country legally? But "earned legalization" is probably the best solution to a largely intractable problem.
There is no way that the United States can find and deport the millions of illegal aliens in this country, and even if we could, we would do more harm than good.
The American economy depends on these workers, who, along with legal immigrants, contributed significantly to the economic boon of the 1990s. If FAIR could wave a magic wand and make these illegal aliens disappear overnight, the rest of us would suffer by having to pay more for everything from the food we put on the table to the houses in which we live. Our office buildings wouldn't get cleaned, our crops wouldn't get picked, our meat wouldn't get processed, our tables wouldn't get cleaned when we go out to eat.
Sure, we could double wages to attract American-born workers to some of these jobs, but at even twice the salary it would be difficult to fill the nastiest of these tasks, such as processing poultry. But why would we want American workers, whom we've spent trillions of dollars educating for 13 or 14 years on average, to perform jobs that require only the most minimal skills? Even if we got rid of all illegal aliens in the United States, these jobs would likely go to foreign workers, like it or not.
What sense does it make to insist that we get rid of the very people doing these jobs now in order to make way for other foreign workers to take them under a new guest worker plan? It makes a lot more sense to figure out how to get those illegal aliens already employed at these jobs to come in from the shadows and become part of the legal system.
They should pay a penalty for having broken the law in the first place by sneaking into the country or overstaying their visas, but it is better for all of us if they earn their way toward legal status rather than remain in the illegal netherworld where they now hide.
Linda Chavez's syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun.