Guest Workers Barrier to Immigration Reform

A guest worker program is now the biggest remaining barrier to comprehensive immigration reform in Congress.Influential U.S. senators toured border security facilities in Arizona this week. However, the battle over comprehensive immigration reform may already have migrated to how to deal with guest workers.

In their tour, senators witnessed the apprehension of a woman who tried to scale an 18-foot tall fence. Chances are their private conversations during the trip centered on how to find common ground between the views of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO on guest workers. 

Organized labor wants to avoid a flood of new workers that elbow aside Americans for jobs or erode U.S. wage rates for lower-skill employment. The Chamber says an influx of immigrant workers will fill vacant jobs, especially in agriculture, and add productivity to the U.S. economy by providing a source of lower-cost labor.

The knot of senators working on immigration reform, which includes Arizona's two Republican senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, had hoped to have a consensus measure ready for Senate consideration in April. In the world of politics, it is best to deal with controversial issues as far away as possible from the next election. As time drifts on, more Members of Congress may get cold feet.

Differences over a guest worker program scuttled immigration reform in 2007 and represent a major obstacle to a compromise this year, despite an alignment of political stars in which both Democrats and Republicans want to win points with swelling numbers of Latino voters.

According to Bloomberg News, Democrats have proposed to allocate 10,000 visas annually for low-skilled workers, in a manner similar to how visas are issued to high-skilled workers, with a maximum cap of 200,000 visas. Republicans, led by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, call that idea cumbersome and unworkable. Business interests have called for a program that issues 400,000 guest worker visas.

President Obama, who has deferred to Congress so far on writing an immigration measure, may be losing patience. Some worry an Obama immigration reform bill could create a convenient excuse for some wavering members of Congress to throw up their hands, blaming Obama for the political impasse.

While senators try to resolve the issue, stories have appeared examining Germany's decades-old experience with Turkish guest workers recruited during the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s. Maybe the biggest lesson to learn is that it is hard to tell guest workers to go home when you don't need them anymore. Germany has tried that and failed, leaving a largely marginalized society within its boundaries with different ethnic and religious traditions.

Guest workers from Mexico don't fit that profile because they share many of the values and religious traditions of other Americans. However, there is still a sense of alienation, which revealed itself in hearings this week before the Arizona Civil Rights Commission as witnesses described incidents of racial profiling by police and other forms of discrimination.

The history of America has been a bumpy road to acceptance of different waves of immigrants, many of whom fled their home countries to escape persecution or starvation. The 2012 election seemed to be a tipping point for the political influence of Latino-Americans. Their influence is here to stay. Now the question is whether that influence can trump the rival counterpoint of big business and big labor.