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Countless news stories talk about a possible immigration reform bill, but for some very odd reason -- particularly on the left - - no one talks about what is really being debated: whether we implement the long sought Republican goal of a "guest worker" program and, specifically, whether a "guest worker" program makes sense as a matter of immigration policy and as a labor policy.

A recent Politico article laid bare the true debate:

An immigration package without a guest worker program is almost guaranteed to fail.

“I’m not going to be a part of a bill that doesn’t create a process so people can come temporarily to work if we need them,” Rubio said. “They can’t undercut American workers, but if we don’t have a system for foreign workers to come temporarily when we need them, we’re going to have an illegal immigration problem again.”

Rep. Raul Labrador added: “There’s no way that a Republican would vote for immigration without a workable guest worker program. I think the unions know that, and if you see any break apart in this immigration reform thing that we’re doing, it’s going to be because the unions and the Democratic senators are unwilling to do what the American people want because they are willing to put the labor unions ahead of the American people.”

Read more:

Republicans haven't been moving towards immigration reform, or a path to citizenship, or responding to the changing voter demographics.  Republicans have gotten excited by the real chance, at last, to enact a guest worker program:
Republicans working on immigration legislation believe that they’ve greatly increased their leverage on guest workers in recent weeks by proving they can recruit tea party conservatives like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) to the reform cause and keep talk radio relatively quiet.
In addition, on top of an official guest worker program, the currently discussed "immigration reform" proposals appear to contemplate millions of more guest workers, with current undocumented immigrants spending decades as "legal non-residents," moving to "green card" holders, and with no promise of citizenship:
[Mr. Rubio's] plan would give a temporary “nonimmigrant visa” to illegal immigrants, which would allow them to remain and work in the United States. They would have to wait a “significant but reasonable” period of time before they could apply to become legal permanent residents, going to the back of the line in the existing system. Once they became residents, they could go on like other legal immigrants to naturalize as citizens.

He acknowledged that major pieces of his plan remain to be worked out. According to current federal visa rosters, most Mexican-born immigrants applying to become permanent residents now face a wait of at least 17 years to receive their document — known as a green card — even if they followed the rules and were approved. Mr. Rubio’s proposal could add seven million more Mexican immigrants to those backlogs. The path to citizenship he proposes for illegal immigrants could be several decades long.

“I don’t have a solution for that question right now,” Mr. Rubio said.

This is a very big deal, and unprecedented.  The U.S. has never had a guest worker program. It has never had an official class of transient, non-citizen laborers.  That also is no accident. To date, Democrats have stood firm against repeated efforts to enact a guest worker program, and this specific issue has been the sticking point preventing past immigration reform bills. As recently as George Bush's 2007 immigration bill, the guest worker program was a central flashpoint and part of the reason the bill failed:
The American Immigration Lawyers Association decried the proposal as "large-scale social experimentation," singling out the "guest worker" program as one that would preclude a path to permanent residence for new temporary workers.

"A practical solution for the undocumented population is an enormously important step in the right direction," the association said in a written statement. "But the cost of fixing our current problems cannot be the creation of bigger problems in the future."

The guest worker program would grant special visas to 400,000 temporary workers per year. The two-year visas would require workers to return home for a year, then be allowed to re-enter the country for two more years. The process could be repeated twice more.

Workers would be allowed to bring their families into the country on 30-day visitor visas, and each year, they would earn points toward a merit-based green card.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, said that he would introduce an amendment striking the guest worker progam from any legislation.

Dorgan said that large corporations favor the guest worker program because it would drive down wages in the United States.

"America's workers have enough downward pressure on their wages because of unfair trade deals and corporate outsourcing of millions of jobs every year," Dorgan said in a statement. "The last thing they need now is to have an inflow of millions of more immigrants competing for their jobs at substandard wages."

AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said guest worker programs frequently amount to "virtual servitude," allowing employers to import temporary workers to do permanent jobs.

"All workers will suffer because employers will have available a ready pool of labor they can exploit to drive down wages, benefits, health and safety protections and other workplace standards," Sweeney said in a statement.

But . . . today . . . we are passively watching whether an "immigration reform" bill passes that in reality turns entirely on whether the country agrees to implement a guest worker program.  A central policy question that has driven past immigration reform debates is now largely unmentioned and ignored.  What happened?

Obviously, the millions of undocumented workers have been serving as a tacit and unremarked upon guest worker program. And I agree that this turn-a-blind-eye social policy should stop.  But should it stop by recognizing that, as always, we need immigrant labor and immigrants should be embraced?  Is there a reason Ellis Island is a tourist artifact?  Or, is there a "new normal" and we need guest workers who toil in a permanent second class status for certain limited industries?  (agriculture?  other areas?) Is it possible to implement a "guest worker" program that is not racially discriminatory and/or exploitative of labor?  Will this program drive wages and benefits down for all?  Are there lessons from other countries that have tried this? Are Republicans pushing hard to implement this policy now because they know it is a last chance before Hispanic-Americans gain further electoral clout? Should Democrats then hold out longer? etc.

I think a guest worker program is corrosive and a bad social policy.  But I remain open to discussing the idea, particularly with the Hispanic-American community and labor unions, both of which stand to be disproportionately hit by this policy.

But mostly all I hear is silence. Why is that?    

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