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Analysis: Bush temp worker plan open-ended

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent   |   Jan. 9, 2004 at 2:09 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 9 (UPI) -- Initial reactions to President George W. Bush's new immigration initiative focused mostly on the emotional hot button of his call to legalize undocumented aliens. Yet, U.S. workers' wage levels might be affected even more in the long run by Bush's so-far little-discussed plan to open the nation's borders to foreign residents who can obtain a job offer from a U.S. employer.

While some details of the Bush guest worker program remain murky, and any actual legislation would have to be hammered out with Congress, the statements issued so far by the White House imply an open-ended, strikingly libertarian approach to globalizing the U.S. job market.

A fact sheet issued by the White House to accompany the president's speech on Wednesday made clear that the administration envisions bringing into the country a substantial increase in the supply of labor above that provided by current U.S. residents, both legal and presently illegal. The White House complained: "Current immigration law can also hinder companies from finding willing workers. The visas now available do not allow employers to fill jobs in many key sectors of our economy."

Bush announced: "I propose a new temporary worker program that will match willing foreign workers with willing American employers, when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs. This program will offer legal status, as temporary workers, to the millions of undocumented men and women now employed in the United States, and to those in foreign countries who seek to participate in the program and have been offered employment here. ... All who participate in the temporary worker program must have a job, or, if not living in the United States, a job offer."

This importing of foreign workers to fill jobs is seen as a process that will continue even after current illegal aliens are legalized. The fact sheet stated, "In the future, only people outside the U.S. may join the temporary worker program."

The immigration trial balloon lofted by the administration in July 2001 would have restricted potential benefits solely to Mexican nationals, who number somewhat more than 100 million. In contrast, any of the 6-billion-plus humans on Earth appear to be eligible to become temporary workers under the 2004.

Ironically, in this age of cheap jet travel, poor Mexican immigrant job hunters might find themselves undercut by even poorer temporary workers from, say, Bangladesh who may be willing to work for even less. According to U.N. figures, there are several billion people poorer than the average Mexican.

Two "senior administration officials" answered media questions about the plan Tuesday.

The higher-ups explained that the temporary worker program would be "non-sector specific." Unlike most previous guest workers programs, such as the one started during World War II to bring Mexican nationals in to work in the fields while U.S. farm boys were in the military, this one would not be limited to any particular industry or employer. Firms would decide for themselves whether they wanted to initiate the process of importing foreign labor.

Bush did caution, "Employers who extend job offers must first make every reasonable effort to find an American worker for the job at hand." But he also said, "This new system should be clear and efficient, so employers are able to find workers quickly and simply," suggesting that his working definition of "every reasonable effort" will turn out to be less than onerous.

In reality, the key issue is whether firms would be allowed to import foreigners to work for less than Americans would make if the temporary worker plan did not exist.

The president took a libertarian line, enunciating as the second of his immigration proposal's five principles, "If an American employer is offering a job that American citizens are not willing to take, we ought to welcome into our country a person who will fill that job."

The president's claim that there are jobs that Americans just won't do is disputed by many economists, such as Harvard Professor George Borjas, who is one of the best-known immigration specialists. These economists argue that, according to their field's basic law of supply and demand, some citizen will take any job -- if the pay offered is high enough.

To economists such as Borjas, wage levels are largely driven by supply and demand. All else being equal, an increase in the supply of labor, as the administration is requesting, would drive down its price -- namely, workers' wages.

Neither Bush nor the two senior administration officials who briefed the media Tuesday, however, made any suggestion that employers wishing to bring in workers from overseas would be required to first offer wages high enough to attract American workers. The only specific requirement that the senior officials mentioned was that the job offer meet the minimum wage. At the federal minimum of $5.15 per hour, a full-time worker earns $10,712 per year, well under the official poverty line for a family of three of $15,260.

It's logical that the White House didn't announce any other wage protection measures. After all, if employers were to be required to pay the current going rate for U.S. workers, they might as well hire current U.S. workers. So, why then would employers need a massive influx of foreign temporary workers? In other words, rules that would be effective at keeping up the wages of workers would undermine the fundamental goal of this plan.

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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