Guest Worker Permits Should Be at the Heart of U.S. Immigration Reform

By Helen Krieble | The Guardian | February 21, 2013

Suddenly, everyone in Washington seems to agree on the need for immigration reform and even on most of the details. But that's because nobody has firmly said what those details are yet. A "gang of eight" senators has proposed legislation, several House members have proposals, and a leaked White House immigration plan reveals that the president has very similar designs, so it seems that agreement must be forthcoming.

But only in Washington DC do leaders first vote for the bill so they can later find out what's in it. In the current immigration debate, what's in the bills matters a great deal. To solve one of America's greatest problems, success or failure depends on the details.

Almost every plan includes enhanced border security, better employment verification, a path to some legal status for people already here illegally, and lastly – almost an afterthought – a new guest worker program. But such a program cannot be an afterthought and cannot wait for the details to be added later. It is the cornerstone of the entire effort.

A simple work-permit system can solve the problem for future workers and those already here without authorization. Such a program doesn't need to blur the line between legal worker status and citizenship. Nor does it need to treat different groups differently, as would the Dream Act, an agricultural jobs bill, or plans that grant green cards to certain students or military service members.

Strong arguments can be made for those plans, but none of them solves more than a fraction of the problem, and they each have features contrary to the American principle of equal treatment under the law. Rather, a plan must guarantee three essential elements – opportunity, protection and fairness – for employers, for new immigrants, for those already here illegally, and for Americans worried about border security.

Opportunity, protection and fairness are in the eye of the beholder, which is why I support a market-driven plan called the Red Card Guest Worker Permit. This plan would let private employment firms set up databases, in which employers can post job listings and workers can post qualifications. Then the employment firms can match workers and jobs, run criminal background checks, and issue work permits. With smart-card technology that allows tracking, updates, renewing or cancelling as needed, these firms would be able to keep pace with the private sector, ahead of the government agencies playing catch-up. This plan has answers for both sides of the aisle.

For conservatives, that means opportunities for businesses to get the workers they need, for workers to find legal jobs and earn good money, and for the economy to grow. It also means protection from mass amnesty and a porous border. And it means fairness, by keeping families together and treating all equally – no special deals for special groups.

For liberals, the program offers opportunity: it gives workers upward mobility, portability and renewal as long as they stay employed and productive. They can apply for citizenship while working legally, as part of a separate process. It means protection against abusive employers, freedom from exploitation, and the ability for workers to enter through a gate rather than risking their lives sneaking across borders. It also means fairness in bringing families together (both sides of the political aisle care about that), equal treatment for all, and a chance for the undocumented to come out the shadows and be treated like all other workers.

Any plan that appeals to people on all sides of this debate should attract attention. A market-based guest worker permit should be part of any immigration reform, but it is more than just one part – it is the foundation.

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