May 19, 2006 | WebMemo on Immigration
The klieg lights of the media often turn thoughtful policy discussions into cartoonish debates, and this habit is distorting the Senate's consideration of immigration reform. Libertarians and pro-business conservatives who favor immigration and open borders are supposedly squaring off against conservatives who favor law, order, and national security. But the strongest libertarian advocates of free markets might want to take a closer look at the details of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (CIRA, S. 2611). The 600-page bill is stuffed with provisions that are difficult to decipher, some good, no doubt, and some that are alarming. Alarms bells should be ringing at the idea of creating a new bureaucracy within the Department of Labor tasked with centrally planning labor markets for untold numbers of guest workers. This would be a mistake.
If the goal of immigration reform is to enhance the liberty and prosperity of the U.S. and its citizens, then a robust flow of immigrants is desirable. But that logic hinges on two assumptions: that immigrants are coming to America for work, not welfare, and that reform will improve, not hinder, the labor market.
A central plank of the current Senate legislation is a guest worker program that treats existing illegal immigrants and future work migrants as completely different classes. Heritage Foundation scholars have been long-standing advocates of a temporary guest worker program-even arguing that immigration reform without it is "bound to fail." But why create a guest worker program that excludes existing migrant workers?
A smart reform bill would reject the false choice of treating guest workers as (A) felons or (B) citizens. Principled reform would simply give illegal immigrants a chance to become legal, identifiable, temporary workers. This would not preclude them from applying for citizenship; rather it would treat them the same as other hopeful applicants living abroad. No reform should preclude temporary workers from pursuing assimilation or citizenship; their status simply shouldn't guarantee them citizenship.
Neither Limited, Temporary, or Free-Market
The Senate has devised a guest worker program that would extend bureaucratic control over some 5 percent of the labor force, via wage controls on the private sector. Rather than establish a simple cap on the number of temporary visas issued each month (which could be distributed fairly in a simple monthly auction), the Senate bill would create of a new Department of Labor bureaucracy that would be nothing less than a central planning agency for the U.S. labor market. This is a bad solution for several reasons:
President Bush has rightly called for a principled approach to immigration. The President should clarify that, while immigration reform should incorporate a guest worker program, that program must be crafted carefully. It should not include a new citizenship guarantee. And just as importantly, policymakers should craft a free-market framework for guest workers, not a new federal planning agency. Not only is central planning of migrant labor markets bound to fail, but it is also ripe for corruption and political manipulation. This is exactly the wrong direction for immigration reform and sets a dangerous precedent for what a Labor Department might do to native workers in the future. These are criticisms of the current Senate bill that all conservatives, and indeed all Americans, should be able to agree on.
Tim Kane, Ph.D., is Director of the Center for International Trade and Economics at The Heritage Foundation.
 The positive economic impact of immigration was described in Heritage Backgrounder No. 1913, "The Real Problem with Immigration … and the Real Solution," by Tim Kane and Kirk Johnson, March 1, 2006.
 See S.2611. Section 404.