President Bush's proposed immigration reform has yet to take shape as an actual policy proposal. Since it exists now only as a broad outline, any response has to be equally broad.
Immigration isn't an area I know a lot about, and my first reaction was that the president's plan could either be a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, depending on the details.
James K. Galbraith, who knows more about this sort of thing, thinks that Bush's plan will be a Bad Thing: for immigrants, for Mexico and for low-wage American workers. In his Salon article, "The no jobs president," he outlines one polar possibility for how this immigration reform could turn out to be a very, very Bad Thing:
The new class of migrants would have to leave when their permits are up, unless renewed. They would have to leave if fired from their jobs. In a word, employers would judge who stays in the country and who is kicked out. Forget labor rights. Forget unions. …
Worse, workers coming into the program would in practice be giving up their path to political rights. They would, for the most part, never become citizens. They would never get to vote. No one will represent their interests. No one will speak for their schools, their clinics, their wages. No one will stand in their defense when they are abused on the job, hurt, sacked, blacklisted, and sent home.
There is worse still. Bush made clear that this program is not just for workers presently in the country … This program will permit any employer to admit any worker. From any country. At any time. The only requirement is that it be for a job Americans are not willing to take. But it is easy to create such jobs: Cut wages. Terminate the unions. Lengthen the hours. Speed up the lines. Chicken farmers have known this for years. Bush's plan is a blank check for every bad boss this country has.
There is no reason why principal recruitment of new workers would be from Mexico. It might be, very massively, from China. Or perhaps from India, with its large English-speaking population. Temp agencies would go out on recruiting missions. Some of this competition may displace Mexican and Central American nationals presently working illegally in the United States (and hoping to stay). That would only drive them even further underground.
And for those who take up the program, register as temporary workers, and then see their permits expire? Bush is at pains to say that he expects this group to go home. But who will make them? Will the government organize a mass campaign of roundups and deportations? Or will the workers just quietly disappear back into the sub-underground of the truly illegal?
And for those who do go home, who will replace them? Another cohort of strangers? This is a program to create a rotating underclass of foreign workers, who never assimilate to American ways or adopt American values. It's hard to imagine anything worse for our social life — more productive of petty crime — or for that matter, riskier for our national security.
For millions of citizen workers, what would happen? The answer is clear: Bad bosses drive out the good. Good bosses will turn bad under pressure. The terms of our jobs would get worse and worse. Who would want a citizen worker? A bracero will be so much cheaper, more loyal, and under control.
Keep Galbraith's analysis in mind as we learn more details about the shape of Bush's coming immigration reform. He paints a horrifying picture. My fear is it also seems to be an accurate one.