After surviving a series of potentially killer amendments from both the left and the right, the wide-ranging Senate immigration bill has suffered what some consider a fatal blow over its guest worker provision. In a surprise move early Thursday morning, senators voted to end the program after five years. Critics say this upsets the bill's delicate compromise to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants here now, and shift future immigration away from family reunification to better accommodate business needs.
The temporary worker program has been hard to defend even by the bill's supporters. It would have foreign workers come here for two years, then return home for one year, then repeat the process two more times before returning home for good. Critics call it unwieldy and unworkable. Wednesday night, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) said it's also unfair.
"All of these jobs which temporary workers will assume are going to compete with workers at the bottom of the economic ladder of this country," he said.
Dorgan also questioned whether all the temporary workers would actually leave when they're supposed to, leading to a whole new population of illegal immigrants. He said the program could be re-evaluated after five years, though some said it would be hard to restore once ended.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) tried to keep the program intact. He's a main sponsor of the immigration bill, which would require businesses to seek U.S. workers before signing up foreign ones. Kennedy said that if there's economic demand, workers will find one way or another to meet it.
"If they come in the back door as they are now," he said, "they're going to be exploited, humiliated. If they come in through the front door, as a result of there being no American prepared to take that job, they're going to get labor protections."
When Kennedy lost the vote, business groups supporting the Senate bill were stunned.
"It is a slap in the face to the underlying problem here," said Laura Reiff, co-chair of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition. She said you only have to look back at the amnesty of 1986 to see why a guest worker program is needed. That law made no accommodation for future demand for low-wage workers.
"So we've seen 500,000 people come across the border every year," Reiff said, "taking jobs in the United States, using fraudulent documents, and really helping the U.S. economy."
Bush administration officials say demand for low-wage jobs is growing even as U.S. birth rates fall, and the percentage of Americans without a high school diploma shrinks. The original Senate bill called for 400,000 to 600,000 guest workers each year, based on projected labor shortages. Business had already suffered a setback two weeks ago when that was cut to just 200,000 a year. Reiff says that ending the program altogether after five years would hurt the economy.
Critics don't buy that.
"The fact is, a 21st-century economy does not need an ongoing flow of 19th-century peasant labor to prosper," said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which seeks less immigration. Krikorian points out the that a decade ago, the bipartisan Jordan Commission declared the U.S. had no need for a guest worker program. He contends that such schemes actually prevent industries such as agriculture from becoming more productive.
"Not because farmers are doing anything bad," he said. "They're simply making a rational calculation that putting the money into developing new varieties of crops, or new machinery, or what have you, isn't worth it because you can get the labor so cheap."
Business lobbyist Laura Reiff said her coalition has decided it can't win this battle in the Senate. It hopes to win a permanent guest worker program during negotiations in the U.S. House. That is, if the embattled immigration bill actually makes it there.