Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Guest worker issue may kill immigration reform

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
February 19, 2013 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Congress should create a guest worker program, says Ruben Navarrette.
Congress should create a guest worker program, says Ruben Navarrette.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Congress may not pass immigration reform this year
  • Navarrette: What the plan needs is a guest worker program, which Republicans want
  • He says Congress can create a guest worker program where laborers are not exploited
  • Navarrette: If agriculture want reliable workers to do the dirty and hard jobs, there is a cost

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

(CNN) -- All those who are hoping that comprehensive immigration reform is going to happen this year -- Latinos, businesses, churches, agriculture industry, law enforcement and others -- are in for a rude awakening.

The trick for politicians will be to look as if they're doing something, when really they're doing nothing. But, regardless of how it looks, it's a long shot that Congress will pass immigration reform this year.

That's bad news for those who want to give the undocumented a chance to get right with the law and develop a sensible, fair and efficient policy for future immigrants. But it's good news for those who resist legalizing the undocumented because they're afraid of foreigners -- either because of competition with their work ethic, or that they're changing the culture and complexion of the country.

Is enforcement key to fixing America's immigration system?

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

The problem isn't just Republicans, who can't get on the same page about whether they want to be reformers. It's also Democrats, who seem to be playing the immigration reform camp for chumps.

The signs are everywhere, if you know where to look. For instance, a few days ago, a draft of President Obama's immigration reform plan was leaked. It took four years to write, and yet its key points fit on a cocktail napkin with room to spare.

Here's what is in the plan: more border security, a requirement that employers use an electronic system to verify if prospective hires are eligible to work, and a long path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Obama's immigration plan leaked
Obama: Harvest immigrants' talents

How long? The undocumented could immediately apply for a special protective status to avoid deportation, but it would take them about eight years to get legal permanent residency (a green card) and another four or five years to become a U.S. citizen.

Here's what is not in the plan: a guest worker program. Republicans have repeatedly insisted that this needs to be in the mix for them to vote for any reform package. The fact that it was left out tells us that Obama isn't serious about reform and ensures that his plan would be, as Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said, "dead on arrival" in Congress.

Opinion: Economy and immigration linked to American dream

The idea would be to bring in a few hundred thousand temporary "guest workers" to do the hard and dirty jobs that Americans won't do at any wage. When the work is done, and the workers have been paid a fair salary, they go home. And another batch is brought in. It's not a perfect solution. But you won't find any of those in the immigration debate.

The first U.S. president to push for guest workers was Abraham Lincoln. Industries were facing labor shortages during the Civil War and, with Lincoln's support, Congress in 1864 passed The Act to Encourage Immigration. The bill allowed employers to recruit foreign workers and pay their way to America. There were more guest workers during World War I. But the concept really became popular during World War II and the Cold War. From 1942 to 1964, under the Bracero program (as in "brazo", which is Spanish for arm as in someone who works with his arms and hands), nearly 5 million guest workers came in and out of the United States.

In fact, arguably, the reason the Braceros stopped coming was because journalist Edward R. Murrow -- in the 1960 CBS documentary, "Harvest of Shame" -- exposed the horrible treatments the workers received at the hands of employers, including low wages, unsanitary conditions, dilapidated housing, etc. Congress pulled the plug soon thereafter.

But exploitation doesn't have to be part of the deal, and not every guest worker program is run as badly as that one. There are apple growers in Washington State who don't have to scramble for pickers at harvest time because the same crews return every year. The growers lure them back by paying decent wages and providing clean living quarters. Everyone is happy.

Well, maybe not everyone. Many in organized labor hate the concept of guest workers because their leaders are busy peddling the fantasy that the hard and dirty jobs in question are sought after by union members. Sure. Then why aren't they doing them now? Answer: Because they're hard and dirty.

It's time for Congress to create a new guest worker program for the agriculture industry where employees can have decent wages, access to health clinics, livable housing, workers comp in case of injury, and legal protection so that they aren't exploited. Of course, there's the catch. If growers have to pay for all that, labor economists say, it might well kill the incentive for them to participate.

Immigration debate: High-stakes political poker

But it's those same growers who are now complaining that they aren't able to find American workers who are willing to pick a variety of crops that can't be harvested by machine -- peaches, plums, apples, lettuce, tomatoes, avocadoes, nectarines, strawberries, blueberries, apricots, table grapes, etc. So those employers will have to make some tough choices. If they want a reliable labor supply, it'll cost them. That's the way it should be. There is no free lunch.

Either way, it's a guest workers program that will make or break the prospects for immigration reform. I'm betting it's the latter.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 2124 GMT (0524 HKT)
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2331 GMT (0731 HKT)
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2350 GMT (0750 HKT)
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2300 GMT (0700 HKT)
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT