Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Can second-class (non)citizenship be a good thing?

Starting January 1, 2008, Arizona businesses face draconian new sanctions if they hire job-applicants who don't have the government's permission to be in the U.S., and they'll be mandated to use the feds' controversial and remarkably unreliable E-Verify system to check on the status of workers. So it's with some interest that I read "Guests in the Machine," an article in January's Reason magazine by Kerry Howley on Singapore's use of guest worker programs as an alternative to reliance on illegal workers and the possibility of implementing such a program in the United States.

Howley's piece isn't yet up at the Reason site, which is a shame because it's a important treatment of a contentious issue is available here. Bypassing all the political hype about "amnesty" and the racist mutterings about brown folks taking our jobs, she outlines Singapore's flawed, sometimes heartbreaking, but overall successful program for integrating a large class of foreign workers (42.6% of the city-state's population is foreign-born) into a nation that doesn't really want to open its borders to permanent immigrants. The result has been a flood of construction workers and household maids who help power Singapore's booming economy even as they are sometimes abused by employers, denied access to basic legal protections and made always-aware that they are guests who can be booted out of the country at short notice. Even so, they come for economic opportunities that don't exist back home, and they channel vast sums to families left behind, providing seed capital to build new homes and businesses and to buy education that makes previously undreamed-of opportunities available to the next generation.

Call it an imperfect, morally hazardous win-win.

As Howley makes clear, this example elicits both temptation and revulsion in a country like the United States, with a history of mixed feelings about immigration, as well as a mythology that suggests that everybody who comes here wants to be (and should become) American. Can Americans live with a large population of economically productive second-class (non)citizens eternally denied a soak in the melting pot? (Never mind that many past immigrants -- as many as half of all Italians who landed on these shores -- eventually took their earnings back to the old country.)

I'll admit to being extremely torn on this issue. On the one hand, I'm an open-borders guy. I don't care about government-drawn borders (or about governments, for that matter). I believe that people have the right to go where they wish, seek jobs from willing employers and enjoy the full protection of their rights no matter where they were born. I don't believe they should be a burden on others, but my opposition to reliance on a welfare state applies across the board, to the native-born as well as immigrants.

But I don't expect to see open borders anytime soon. The idea is essentially a political non-starter in a nativist age.

So, that leaves us with limited options.

1. There's continuing reliance on illegal workers who, because of their illegal status, are vulnerable to abusive employers, have little legal recourse, and are forever at risk of arrest, deportation, and the loss of whatever wealth they may have accumulated with their labor, but not yet sent home. That option may satisfy labor needs as well as immigrants' need for money (and their home countries' hunger for capital) but it comes at a high moral cost.

2. We could pursue a Lou Dobbs-style crackdown, imposing tough sanctions on employers, militarizing the border and rounding up illegals for shipment home. If it's successful, labor costs, and resulting costs of goods and services, rise. American businesses then operate, permanently, under an increasingly nerve-wracking regime of intrusive inspections and reliance on government-quality databases, with opening the door to customers every day treated ever-more as a privilege to be doled out for obedience to politicians and bureaucrats. Those who would have been immigrant workers stay at home, with few opportunities in their own poorer countries. Everybody loses, except for nativist rabble-rousers.

If it's unsuccessful, we end up with option one, but with less economic freedom and more tension at the border.

3. Or we could try a guest-worker program, providing access to labor, and opportunities for residents of poorer countries to accumulate skills and capital -- at the risk of creating a class of workers who can never hope to enjoy full rights or settle on a permanent basis.

I'm still holding out for open borders, but I think a guest-worker program deserves consideration.

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Blogger Jason said...

J.D. I was referred to your blog post by the Freedom News Daily email newsletter. Your fifth paragraph describing your views describes mine as well. So, we're on the same page. I just wanted to point out something about rights (since you brought it up a couple times). Not enough people realize that our constitution protects the rights of all people, not just citizens. Somewhere along the line people in the U.S. forgot that fact. Back in the early days of the country, people came here so that they could realize their natural rights. Not everyone that came here to work and live became a citizen, but the U.S. government still protected their rights. Sounds crazy now, doesn't it?

December 6, 2007 10:11 AM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...


Your point about natural rights is spot-on. Our country was founded on the notion that all people have the same rights. They're not privileges doled out for raising your right hand and reciting a pledge.

December 6, 2007 1:21 PM  

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