Post 4: A Look at Recent Republican Attempts to Reform Immigration

 photo c64b2900-8498-4ff5-8894-247cf6f7d645_zpsvhxjqmoa.jpg
Migrants walking from Mexico to the United States border.

Every summer while I was in middle school, my parents would send me to my grandmother’s house. She lived with my Uncle Simon in Grimes, California, a small town along the Sacramento River. My grandmother had emigrated from Mexico in the 1930s. Eventually, she and her husband established a migrant worker cooperative farm. The workers were paid, housed and fed for as long as they wished to stay.

After my grandfather passed and the farm was retired, my Uncle Simon continued to help migrant workers by establishing a consultant business. My uncle would meet with migrant families, advise them on gaining citizenship, and draft requisite documents. He did this all despite being a quadriplegic. When I came to visit, I was his ‘Assistant’. I answered the door, procured refreshments, and fetched documents that were out of wheelchair range. When he passed away two years ago, a flood of affection rushed to the house in the form of flowers, food, and letters of appreciation. He was a hero [1] to the people he helped.

My family history, along with Uncle Simon’s work, gave me a vested interest in immigration. As of now, 11 million undocumented people live in the US.[2] Consequently, immigration reform has been on Capitol Hill for decades. Though it is perceived as a liberal issue, two recent Republican presidents have broached immigration reform: Presidents Bush and Trump. That said, I would like to examine President Bush’s ‘Guest Worker Program’ in relation to President Trump’s ‘Merit-Based’ system in effort to devise a new strategy.

In 2006, President Bush proposed his ‘Guest-Worker Program’. [3] Broadly, Bush’s plan aimed to match US employers with workers and provide a method for undocumented immigrants to legally participate in the workforce. [4] To accomplish these goals, the program admitted undocumented people [5] and allocated permits based on available jobs. [6] Also, visas lasted three years and workers could apply for extensions or permanent residency. [7] Lastly, the program allowed workers to contribute to a savings account to be collected upon repatriation, and provided credit to their nation’s social security system for work performed in the US. [8]

However, Bush’s reform bill met opposition on Capitol Hill and in the private sector. Some Republican lawmakers called it amnesty. [9] Others argued that the bill would result in the past abuses of the Bracero Program. [10] That program began in 1942 as a contract between the US government and migrant workers from Mexico. [11] Under the contract, the US was obliged to provide workers with, among other things, transportation, living expenses and pay equal to domestic laborers. [12]

Nonetheless, post-World War II accords to the law required workers to contract with employers instead of the government. [13]As a result, employers regularly breached their contracts which led to rampant worker exploitation. [14] Given the structural similarities between Bush’s reform bill and the Bracero Program, labor advocates feared a return of the Program’s squalid conditions which included corporeal DDT fumigation, wage theft and unsanitary living quarters. [15]

 photo 85c6b0ca-7cfe-4908-9890-dfadd78b0755_zpsw7kkfezh.jpg
DDT fumigation of a Bracero. (Leonard Nadel).

Fast forward to February 28, 2017, when President Trump gave his first address to Congress. While providing few details, Trump called for a ‘Merit-Based’ immigration system. Since the 1960s, the US immigration process has largely based entry on family ties, giving preference to those with relatives who are citizens. [16] Conversely, ‘Merit-Based’ immigration focuses on prioritizing high-skilled immigrants. [17] In essence, ‘Merit-Based’ proponents argue that the system would lower immigration rates and attract high-skilled workers who won’t rely on public assistance. [18]

Comparatively, there are significant differences between Bush and Trump’s immigration proposals. First, Bush sought to provide undocumented low-skilled workers with temporary residency as an avenue for achieving legal status. Likely, Trump’s system would not offer a similar route and instead provide visas to skilled foreigners while dealing with undocumented workers through deportation. Secondly, Bush predicated visa allocation on job demand. With Merit-Based programs, entry is not based on demand, but rather on skill level. Thus, low-skilled workers would be precluded under Trump’s approach because they do not meet the visa qualifications.

That said, how should Congress address undocumented worker status and our country’s need for cheap labor? Well, my approach, while overly-simplistic, mirrors Bush’s program and emphasizes economic integration. First, a five-year visa would be provided to undocumented workers. A five-year period offers ample time to gain experience, establish contacts, build resources and become proficient participants in the US economy.

Secondly, the program would include counseling services. For example, workers would be advised on acquiring citizenship and receive instruction on how to navigate the American financial system. Also, contact information for legal services would be provided. So, in case they fall victim to labor law violations, the worker can contact a free legal clinic for advice. Additionally, the worker would be provided educational resources. This would include English language programs and information about enrolling children in grade school and college.

Lastly, workers would be taxed as regular employees. For instance, the worker’s paycheck would include deductions such as federal and state withholding taxes, and they would file a return each year. However, like Bush’s program, Social Security would be placed in a trust. The trust funds would be released into the US Treasury or their native countries program depending on where the worker eventually resides. In all, the worker contributes to the US government’s coffers and retains earned benefits. 

Overall, this proposal attempts to achieve two things. First, to transform undocumented people into informed taxpaying workers. Secondly, it seeks to honor migrant worker contributions to the US economy by offering legal residency or citizenship. Thus, we can keep our current ‘skilled-worker’ program, and provide essential low-skilled workers with a dignified avenue for economic and social integration. This was important when I was my Uncle’s ‘Assistant’, and it is essential now to our economy and the 11 million undocumented people living in our country.

[1] Click on the hyperlink for an excellent profile on the life of my Uncle Simon Robles.

[2] Jordan, M. (2016). Number of Illegal Immigrants in US Holds Steady at 11 Million. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/number-of-illegal-immigrants-in-u-s-holds-steady-at-11-million-1474394518.

[3] Bumiller, E. (2006). Bush is Facing a Difficult Path on Immigration. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/24/politics/bush-is-facing-a-difficult-path-on-immigration.html.

[4] Morgan, K. (2004). Evaluating Guest Worker Programs in the US: A Comparison of the Bracero Program and President Bush’s Proposed Immigration Reform Plan. Berkeley La Raza Law Journal. 15(2). Retrieved from http://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1191&context=blrlj.

[5] Jachimowicz, M. (2004). Bush Proposes New Temporary Worker Program. Migration Policy Institute. Retrieved from http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/bush-proposes-new-temporary-worker-program.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] CNN Politics, 2006.

[10] Jachimowicz, 2004.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] See the Smithsonian Institute’s ‘America on the Move’ (2017) for images and an overview of the Bracero Program. http://amhistory.si.edu/onthemove/themes/story_51_5.html.

[16] Alvarez, P. (2017). Is a ‘Merit-Based’ Immigration System a Good Idea?. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/03/trump-cotton-perdue-merit-based-immigration-system/518985/.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.


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