News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The time has come for a guest worker program

Although the $787 economic stimulus plan has passed, President Obama made it clear much more remains to be done. For the good of the country, a guest worker program must now become one of the key items on the national agenda.

The U.S. economy is at a tipping point. Very soon, workers idled from good paying jobs will exhaust their unemployment benefits. Then, like a game of musical chairs, these workers will look for work they’d previously shunned – the kind of jobs now being done by undocumented workers. If native-born workers find their access to jobs blocked by immigrants, tensions that are already high in many communities with large Latino populations may reach the boiling point.

To many, the solution is more workplace raids and E-Verify, an effort to use Social Security records to indentify undocumented workers. But what incentive is there for employers to cooperate? Right now, undocumented workers endure low pay and often unsafe workplaces. Will employers who profit from these conditions willingly act to replace undocumented workers? As long as the brunt of the law falls on the undocumented workers and not the employers, those carted off to jail or deported will be replaced by more undocumented workers.

Some will insist that sealing the border is the answer. But the fact remains that over half the undocumented workers in the U.S. did not sneak across the border. They overstayed a legal visa. And let’s not forget the price tag on the border wall is estimated at $3 million per mile. It’s hardly a bargain.

A guest worker program is the best alternative to the impending crisis we face. A guest worker program would allow undocumented workers to come out of the shadows. It would bring an end to exploitation and increase wages, making these jobs better paying for all workers. Finally, any undocumented workers being paid under the table would become taxpayers.

Without a guest worker program, unscrupulous employers can continue to pit immigrants against the native born, keeping wages low for both groups. The cultural tensions actually benefit the greedy bosses. We all gain from a guest worker program. But it won’t come without opposition.

You can be sure the nativists will scream “amnesty” once again. This small but highly vocal minority will try to stir hatred and resentment. But when seen without prejudice and fear, a guest worker program is the smartest, most humane solution for improving the health of our economy – and avoiding a cultural conflict that could be much worse than anything we face today.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez

No comments: