Fix broken system with guest worker program


WASHINGTON -- More than two in three Americans want Congress to pass an immigration bill that includes border security, employer enforcement, a temporary worker program and a means for illegal immigrants to earn citizenship, according to a recent nationwide poll.

They recognize that we have ignored the way America's broken immigration system has undermined our security, laws and economy for too long.

I should know: I represent America's restaurants. We are creating jobs faster than the overall economy, employing almost one in 10 American workers. We are also the nation's largest private-sector employer and largest employer of immigrants.

Immigration has fueled America's economic strength for a quarter-century. Research from the University of California shows that immigration has led to higher wages for U.S.-born employees - including those without a high school diploma - and that cities with the highest immigration rates recorded the highest wage increases.

Most Maryland residents might be surprised to learn that one in 15 employees in the state is undocumented. These employees often work long hours in more than one physically demanding job. But existing immigration policy prevents them from being fully integrated into America's security, legal and economic systems.

Take homeland security. Our broken immigration system provides huge incentives for undocumented employees to live and remain in society's shadows, making it much more difficult for the Department of Homeland Security to find those relative few who seek to do America harm.

America's borders have also been dangerously compromised by this system. Most of our ancestors came to America to fill jobs that those already here weren't doing. But they came in an age when immigration policy recognized that economic reality and provided them legal channels to enter. Today, there are jobs to support the half a million people who arrive or remain here illegally each year, but there are few work permits.

As a result, immigration that for my ancestors was safe, orderly and legal instead claims hundreds of immigrants' lives, tramples on the rights of border state residents, profits organized crime and is "policed" by human traffickers rather than U.S. officials. This wastes scarce border enforcement resources that would be better used in the war against terror, making America more vulnerable to attack.

This policy also makes undocumented employees vulnerable in the workplace. They lack the basic protections and freedoms that Americans have insisted upon in workplaces to prevent exploitation, and this makes it harder for them to leave their jobs for better opportunities. Employers who obey the law are also penalized, as unscrupulous competitors undercut them.

My industry - along with health care, construction, food processing and others - is creating entry-level positions faster than the supply of Americans willing to take them. Yet while America's job-creating industries have provided more than 5 million new jobs in the last 2 1/2 years, only 10,000 green cards have been available to service industry workers.

Now is the time for Democrats and Republicans in Washington to come together and pass the immigration reform Americans are asking of them.

A majority of senators approved a plan to stem the flow of illegal immigration and recognize the economic realities that bring people here by strengthening the border and creating a guest worker program for those who've been here for a while and those we'll need in the future. The House of Representatives has not included a guest worker plan in its legislation.

Opposing amnesty and penalizing lawbreaking, a Senate majority would require undocumented employees who have been working for five years or more to pay $2,000 in fines, get screened by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, pay any back taxes they owe, and learn English. Those who qualify could then apply for a temporary work permit. If they play by the rules during that six-year probationary period, they would be eligible to go to the back of the line to apply for a green card.

Americans know what they want out of immigration reform, and senators know the system is badly broken. They also know that every day we delay is a day our border is less secure, our laws less respected and our economy less strong than they could otherwise be.

Let's resist the temptation to allow midterm election politics to postpone the reform Americans want. Let's get this done.

Steve Anderson is CEO of the National Restaurant Association. His e-mail is

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