Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Mexico’s foreign minister will meet with members of Congress this week, and one topic of discussion will be allowing more Mexicans to live and work in the United States as part of a guest-worker program.

Guest workers are the hot topic in immigration right now, with politicians from border states calling on Congress to stem the tide of illegal immigrants dying as they try to cross the U.S.-Mexico border while addressing the economic situation that draws the immigrants.

“The overall goal is to recognize the reality of what is happening on the ground, and to try to deal with it,” says Rep. Jim Kolbe, who, with fellow Arizona Republicans Sen. John McCain and Rep. Jeff Flake, have introduced a guest-worker bill.

The bill would create two categories of visa — one for foreigners who want to enter the United States to work, and the other for illegal immigrants already holding jobs here.

The new foreign workers would have to be matched with an employer and would have a chance to earn permanent residence at the end of a three-year work period. Meanwhile, those already here illegally would have to pay a fine and work for two three-year periods before applying for legal residency.

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, also introduced a plan in July that would let foreigners apply to work on a year-to-year basis for up to three years, but would withhold part of their earnings to be repaid when they return to their country. It also emphasizes stricter enforcement to catch those trying to cheat the system.

Mr. Cornyn and the Arizona group have put forth their plans as reasonable solutions to economic needs as well as homeland security.

But opponents on both sides of the general immigration debate say that guest-worker programs are destined to fail.

According to a 2000 report for the Center for Immigration Studies, guest-worker programs implemented in the middle of the last century were accompanied by illegal immigration — usually from family and friends following the guest workers.

“The only way a guest-worker program could function and get a lot of people to sign up is if you had several years of vigorous enforcement in place first, and then say, ‘Here’s the alternative. You’ve got to sign up,’” said Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the center.

On the other side is the National Immigration Forum, which advocates for immigrants’ rights, and which praised Mr. Kolbe and his colleagues for introducing the bill but added that it doesn’t go far enough.

They demanded stronger worker protections, doubted whether the plan would succeed in matching employees to employers, and said it also must allow for the guest workers’ families to come to the United States.

But Mr. Kolbe said the one certain failure is the existing policy.

“We’ve tried the security. We’ve tried clamping down on the border, just as we have with drugs, with no success there. Why are we going to think more border security is going to work?” he said.

Mexican officials have asked for a broad program to recognize Mexican nationals working in the United States. Mr. Kolbe and the Arizona lawmakers sponsoring the bill plan to meet with Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez tomorrow to explain their proposal.

Mr. Cornyn met with Mr. Derbez and other officials last month when he traveled to Mexico to talk about his plan.

“I was particularly struck by the near unanimity among officials there that they want their workers to come home,” he said. “The best long-term solution to the immigration crisis is a rebirth of the economy south of the border, but that can’t happen without a stable work force of their own.”

Any guest-worker plan, though, must clear some big hurdles, particularly in the House. The chairmen of the Judiciary Committee and its immigration subcommittee have questioned the need and potential for success of guest-worker programs.

Mr. Kolbe said he doesn’t expect action now, but added that they hope to lay groundwork for the debate, possibly during the presidential campaign.

He said President Bush seemed receptive when he raised the issue with him several weeks ago: “I would say the president did indicate his views are very close to what we are proposing.”

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