That's Hospitality

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APRIL 17, 2006

That's Hospitality

It's rare these days for President Bush to be considered a voice of
reason, but that is precisely the role he has been granted in the
ongoing immigration debate. While many in the Republican Party
favor draconian legislation passed by the House last December that
would make it a felony rather than a civil offense to live in this
country without permission, Bush has proposed letting those already
here illegally stay. He would do that by creating a "guest-worker"
program through which U.S. businesses could hireimmigrants--either those already here or those who have yet to
come--for up to six years, after which they would have to return to
their home countries. Bush has described his own plan as "humane"
and "compassionate." Others have hailed it as "sensible" and
"practical." No one, however, has called it what it is:
un-American.

The problem with Bush's plan lies in the term--and the concept
of--"guest workers," because there is little that is more
antithetical to the American ideal than a guest worker. While there
are dangers in romanticizing this country's immigrant heritage, it
is an unmistakable part of the national ethos. For generations,
immigrants have come to the United States in search of a better
life. In the process, they often remake themselves--as Americans.
Even those who are here illegally, and whom we call illegal
immigrants, can transcend that identity--or at least see their
children who are born here transcend it.

But a guest worker and his family have no such opportunity for
transcendence. They are slotted into a caste, with no real hope of
ever rising above it. Indeed, Bush's guest-worker program would
codify a large group of people in the United States as second-class
citizens. Although they would enjoy many of the same legal
protections as American-born workers, they would never be viewed by
Americans as equals. Instead, they would be seen as transient
figures here only to make a buck. They would not be immigrants or
future Americans. They would merely be janitors, construction
workers, and housekeepers.

Indeed, to see the pernicious (and un-American) nature of a
guestworker program, one need only look across the Atlantic at the
misery such programs have wrought in Europe. Spurred by extreme
labor shortages in the 1950s, a host of European
countries--including West Germany, France, Norway, Denmark, Sweden,
and the Netherlands--adopted guest-worker programs. Those nations
sought temporary immigrants to address their manpower problems,
because they believed the labor shortages themselves were temporary
and would end once the generation born after World War II entered
the workforce. They also hoped that foreign workers would fill
low-status jobs while allowing citizens to enjoy better- paying
positions.

But the guest-worker programs also reflected European notions of
nationhood-- attitudes that could not be more different than those
of the United States. The guest-worker programs were a way in which
these European countries could avoid becoming ethnically plural
societies. Of course, those nations became ethnically heterogeneous
when the guest workers did not go home. But the workers, while
remaining in those European countries, never became of them.
Consider Germany, for instance, where more than two million Muslims
of Turkish origin--whose families came as guest workers four
decades ago--live today. They live in Germany not as Germans, but
in a strange sort of nationless limbo-- afforded certain benefits
of citizenship (such as health care) but denied the privilege of
actually being citizens. Which, of course, denies them any
incentive to assimilate to their new country. The prospect of such a
thing happening in the United States with Mexican guest workers is
only too real.

So what is to be done? The most sensible piece of immigration
legislation currently being considered is the one that passed the
Senate Judiciary Committee last week--a proposal that Bush seems to
be warming to, at least rhetorically. Sponsored by Edward Kennedy
and John McCain, it, too, includes a provision for a "temporary
worker" program. But Kennedy and McCain's program differs from
Bush's in one crucial respect: It outlines a clear path to
citizenship. Under Kennedy and McCain's proposal, participants in
the temporary worker program would be allowed to apply for a green
card after six years and would be eligible to apply for citizenship
five years after that. In other words, although they would be
called temporary workers, they would be anything but. They would be
potential future citizens, which, of course, is a prospect that has
long distinguished the United States from other nations. After all,
there is nothing more American than a willingness to expand the
notion of who can be one.

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