Low-wage U.S. workers aren't on Bush's mind


WASHINGTON -- President Bush's happy talk about his proposed guest-worker program is facing hard election-year questions from Republicans in Congress.

"Guest worker" means that foreigners would be allowed to gain legal status in the United States for a set amount of time to do specific jobs and then return home without the automatic path to citizenship that true amnesty would provide.

But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee surprised many by proposing an alternative bill that tightens border controls without creating the guest-worker program that the president wants.

Already passed in the House is the radical proposal by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Republican of Wisconsin, for a 700-mile system of walls along the Mexican-U.S. border. The idea was widely ridiculed as "Patrick Buchanan's spite fence" when the conservative columnist proposed it during his presidential campaigns in the 1990s. It is a sign of our times that the House approved it overwhelmingly in December. Mr. Sensenbrenner's bill also would declare millions of undocumented immigrants to be "aggravated felons" and threaten anyone who assists them with jail time. Technically, that could include priests, nuns and other nice people who give immigrants a helping hand.

Rising partisanship should not divert our eyes away from the real prize: a sensible immigration policy. You don't have to be anti-immigrant to oppose illegal immigration. You only have to be anti-lawbreaking.

As much as Americans should welcome the contributions that immigrants continue to make to this country's growth and dynamism, the inflow should be orderly. Immigration policy should be defined by reasoned debate, not by a chaotic daily death-defying dash across the border by the most desperate.

Nor should we throw open the doors and say "Y'all come" without considering the impact that new job seekers will have on the job seekers - and jobholders - here.

President Bush continues to say that his guest-worker program would match foreign workers with American employers "when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs."

There's hardly any job that Americans won't fill if you offer decent pay. But why offer more pay when you're seeking someone to work your fields, baby-sit your kids, tend your garden, work your factory, bus your restaurant tables, lay your bricks or put up your drywall when you can hire an illegal worker who will work longer hours for less money?

As a result, millions of undocumented immigrants have gained an economic foothold on the American dream while millions of the sort of people who used to fill those jobs, particularly undereducated black men, languish on street corners.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, illegal immigrants make up about a fourth of all drywall and ceiling-tile installers in the U.S., about a fourth of all meat and poultry workers and a fourth of all restaurant dishwashers. It is not a desperate need by America's employers that draws most illegal immigrants here. It is the higher income that they can make here than for the same type of work back home.

America's lax immigration enforcement of recent decades would be far more tolerable if the government and the private sector did more to "make work pay" for legal low-wage American workers.

Unfortunately, of all the people who have clout with Mr. Bush on the volatile issue of immigration, low-income legal American workers don't seem to rank very high. Perhaps the "spite-fence" fans will have better luck.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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