Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Guest worker issue may kill immigration reform

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
updated 2:33 PM EST, Tue February 19, 2013
Congress should create a guest worker program, says Ruben Navarrette.
Congress should create a guest worker program, says Ruben Navarrette.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Congress may not pass immigration reform this year
  • Navarrette: What the plan needs is a guest worker program, which Republicans want
  • He says Congress can create a guest worker program where laborers are not exploited
  • Navarrette: If agriculture want reliable workers to do the dirty and hard jobs, there is a cost

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

(CNN) -- All those who are hoping that comprehensive immigration reform is going to happen this year -- Latinos, businesses, churches, agriculture industry, law enforcement and others -- are in for a rude awakening.

The trick for politicians will be to look as if they're doing something, when really they're doing nothing. But, regardless of how it looks, it's a long shot that Congress will pass immigration reform this year.

That's bad news for those who want to give the undocumented a chance to get right with the law and develop a sensible, fair and efficient policy for future immigrants. But it's good news for those who resist legalizing the undocumented because they're afraid of foreigners -- either because of competition with their work ethic, or that they're changing the culture and complexion of the country.

Is enforcement key to fixing America's immigration system?

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

The problem isn't just Republicans, who can't get on the same page about whether they want to be reformers. It's also Democrats, who seem to be playing the immigration reform camp for chumps.

The signs are everywhere, if you know where to look. For instance, a few days ago, a draft of President Obama's immigration reform plan was leaked. It took four years to write, and yet its key points fit on a cocktail napkin with room to spare.

Here's what is in the plan: more border security, a requirement that employers use an electronic system to verify if prospective hires are eligible to work, and a long path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Obama's immigration plan leaked
Obama: Harvest immigrants' talents

How long? The undocumented could immediately apply for a special protective status to avoid deportation, but it would take them about eight years to get legal permanent residency (a green card) and another four or five years to become a U.S. citizen.

Here's what is not in the plan: a guest worker program. Republicans have repeatedly insisted that this needs to be in the mix for them to vote for any reform package. The fact that it was left out tells us that Obama isn't serious about reform and ensures that his plan would be, as Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said, "dead on arrival" in Congress.

Opinion: Economy and immigration linked to American dream

The idea would be to bring in a few hundred thousand temporary "guest workers" to do the hard and dirty jobs that Americans won't do at any wage. When the work is done, and the workers have been paid a fair salary, they go home. And another batch is brought in. It's not a perfect solution. But you won't find any of those in the immigration debate.

The first U.S. president to push for guest workers was Abraham Lincoln. Industries were facing labor shortages during the Civil War and, with Lincoln's support, Congress in 1864 passed The Act to Encourage Immigration. The bill allowed employers to recruit foreign workers and pay their way to America. There were more guest workers during World War I. But the concept really became popular during World War II and the Cold War. From 1942 to 1964, under the Bracero program (as in "brazo", which is Spanish for arm as in someone who works with his arms and hands), nearly 5 million guest workers came in and out of the United States.

In fact, arguably, the reason the Braceros stopped coming was because journalist Edward R. Murrow -- in the 1960 CBS documentary, "Harvest of Shame" -- exposed the horrible treatments the workers received at the hands of employers, including low wages, unsanitary conditions, dilapidated housing, etc. Congress pulled the plug soon thereafter.

But exploitation doesn't have to be part of the deal, and not every guest worker program is run as badly as that one. There are apple growers in Washington State who don't have to scramble for pickers at harvest time because the same crews return every year. The growers lure them back by paying decent wages and providing clean living quarters. Everyone is happy.

Well, maybe not everyone. Many in organized labor hate the concept of guest workers because their leaders are busy peddling the fantasy that the hard and dirty jobs in question are sought after by union members. Sure. Then why aren't they doing them now? Answer: Because they're hard and dirty.

It's time for Congress to create a new guest worker program for the agriculture industry where employees can have decent wages, access to health clinics, livable housing, workers comp in case of injury, and legal protection so that they aren't exploited. Of course, there's the catch. If growers have to pay for all that, labor economists say, it might well kill the incentive for them to participate.

Immigration debate: High-stakes political poker

But it's those same growers who are now complaining that they aren't able to find American workers who are willing to pick a variety of crops that can't be harvested by machine -- peaches, plums, apples, lettuce, tomatoes, avocadoes, nectarines, strawberries, blueberries, apricots, table grapes, etc. So those employers will have to make some tough choices. If they want a reliable labor supply, it'll cost them. That's the way it should be. There is no free lunch.

Either way, it's a guest workers program that will make or break the prospects for immigration reform. I'm betting it's the latter.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT