For hardliners who refuse to consider a guest worker program for illegal immigrants, a moment of truth may be approaching. If undocumented workers are truly taking jobs that would otherwise go to Americans, then unskilled workers should be flocking to the fields of states like Arizona and Alabama, which have instituted draconian crackdowns on illegal immigrants.
Alas, it isn’t happening. The American Farm Bureau Federation recently estimated that labor shortages from state crackdowns on illegal immigration are costing the economy between $5 billion and $9 billion. In some states, farms are heavily dependant on undocumented labor both to plant and harvest crops. Now, they simply do not have the bodies to work the fields.
Not all of these shortages are due to state laws targeting illegal immigration; the weak US economy and improved opportunities in Mexico have also led to a dwindling of undocumented workers. These factors, combined with tougher border enforcement, have squeezed the net flow of Mexicans coming into the United States to zero.
This is mostly good news. The border-control problem is getting better. And employers who’ve taken advantage of cheap illegal labor have no grounds to claim injury now that they can’t find people to pick their crops. But if employers literally cannot recruit enough documented workers to do these jobs, after agreeing to pay the minimum wage, one argument against a guest-worker program has disappeared.
For years, conservatives have blocked comprehensive immigration reform by insisting that a guest-worker program would be amnesty for lawbreakers. But many of those politicians also used illegal immigrants as scapegoats to appeal to angry voters. Cut down on illegal immigrants, the politicians said, and more Americans will find jobs.
Now, however, the loudest calls for a guest worker program are coming not from liberals but from the farming and restaurant lobbies. Republicans are listening. Their platform now endorses a guest-worker visa in some circumstances. With $9 billion at stake, it’s a policy whose time has come.