WASHINGTON -- The bipartisan Gang of Eight senators hammering out immigration reform got through some dicey moments and was looking to finish its work. Until last week, that is, when they ran into the question of what to do about workers coming to the United States temporarily to fill jobs that most Americans are unwilling to do.
This conflict eternally separates the parties, far more than whether the children of undocumented immigrants should become citizens if they go to college or join the military. That issue isn't about money. The guest-worker program is. It removes the debate from the realm of the social and moral -- what do we owe the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants here -- to the economic and practical. Businesses (read: "Republicans") would like an oversupply of labor to ensure a cheap price. Unions (read: "Democrats") don't want cheap labor undercutting the jobs of their members, or potential members, especially with unemployment stubbornly high and an income gap reminiscent of the Gilded Age.
To solve the impasse, Democrats urged a compromise last week that would apply existing language governing high-skills visas to low-skilled workers. Under this proposal, foreign workers could be employed in the U.S. only when it "will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly situated workers in the United States."
Sounds benign enough. Who wants to adversely affect "wages and working conditions" of American workers? Employers, that's who. Former Republican Senator Alan K. Simpson, the engine behind the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration overhaul in 1986, said as much back then. To get his legislation passed, he included a guest-worker provision. Simpson said at the time that it wasn't "survival but greed" that drove agribusiness to demand more guest workers.
"They are heavy hitters," Simpson said, "They spend big bucks, and they are quite effective, thank you." As a result, he predicted "exploitation deluxe," for the low-paid and low- skilled.
These "guests," hardly treated as such, come to harvest lettuce, clean fish and wash dishes at minimum wage or below. They often end up living in filthy dorms with room, board and transportation deducted from their paychecks -- virtually indentured to their employers. Look out the window at the man pulling weeds in the yard; he might be a guest worker who owes more money than he makes.
We wouldn't have 11 million undocumented immigrants here today if it weren't for the desire of employers for cheap labor. Looking back at how Simpson-Mazzoli worked out, you wonder if Congress won't find itself years from now with another crisis engendered by a guest-worker program gone wrong.
In the process of helping growers find foreign labor to pick crops, Republicans also may have written their political obituary. The children of those guest workers have grown up -- and they vote Democratic. In the Republican "wave" election of 2010, Republicans didn't win one statewide office in California.
Are Republicans poised to let comprehensive immigration reform go down this time over guest workers? The most prominent member of the Gang, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a likely Republican presidential candidate, told Politico, "I'm not going to be a part of a bill that doesn't create a process so people can come temporarily to work if we need them."
He blamed the unions for the demise of the last reform effort, in 2007, when Democrats scuttled a guest-worker provision. He's ready to blame them again.
This time Democrats are willing to accept guest workers -- they're just asking that foreign low-skilled workers be paid wages above the median hourly wage, so employers have an incentive to hire domestic workers first. What Republicans are saying is that if we can't pay them less, what's the point?
By the time you're announcing who's to blame for failure, you're already toying with failure. Maybe both sides can cool off over spring break.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.