A working plan

September 25, 2005

STUNG BY accusations of federal neglect at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Department of Homeland Security last month announced initiatives to detain and deport more illegal immigrants. The criticisms, lodged by the governors of Arizona and New Mexico, capped a growing national chorus for better immigration control. Congressional lawmakers should use this momentum to reform immigration law during the current legislative session and establish the guest worker program proposed by President Bush.

The continuous illegal crossings from Mexico into the U.S. and the spike in related violence at the border demand action. The question should no longer be whether there should be a guest worker program but rather how many immigrants, and from where, should be allowed to participate, and for how long. The answers have important implications and will determine if the program decreases the number of illegal crossings. True border security will not be achieved until this occurs.

A recent survey by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization, indicates that the flow of job-seeking Mexican migrants heading to the United States is unlikely to slow anytime soon. The survey found that a majority of Mexicans (52 percent in February, 54 percent in May) said they would be inclined to go to the United States through a temporary worker program. One-fifth of Mexican adults said they would live and work in the U.S. without legal authorization. Among those with college degrees, more than a third said they would go to the U.S. if they had the means and opportunity, and more than one in eight said they were inclined to do so without legal authorization.

The results support lawmakers who contend that immigration reform will not work without a guest worker component to regulate the undocumented immigrants arriving and track those already here, all of whom would be screened and accounted for by the federal government.

President Bush's original proposal was crafted with Mexican workers in mind, and it seems reasonable that they should make up the majority of participants since they constitute more than half of the nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country. Some 400,000 more enter the United States illegally each year. A program targeted at Mexico would also be a formal acknowledgment of the two countries' binational labor market and would give the U.S. more leverage to pressure the Mexican government to aggressively police its borders and better address the economic and social disparities driving Mexicans to leave in the first place.

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