A Response:

This article is a response to "The End of Ellis Island" by Paul Donnelly.

In the online article entitled "The End of Ellis Island," Paul Donnelly ties a guest worker proposal being formulated by Senator Phil Gramm to proposals on U.S.-Mexico immigration policy developed by a binational panel of immigration experts. Both were announced just prior to the February meeting of Presidents Bush and Fox in Mexico that resulted in an agreement to begin high-level negotiations on the often-contentious topic of immigration.

Mr. Donnelly's central argument is that the Gramm proposal and the binational panel's recommendations would result in the admission of a large number of guest workers ineligible for U.S. citizenship, hence, "the end of the Ellis Island ideal, the citizenship-oriented model for immigration."

This is a serious charge, and, if true, one that should stir concern. As I have previously argued in the pages of The American Prospect, most guest worker programs currently implemented by the U.S. are fundamentally flawed. And with respect to the Gramm guest worker proposal, which essentially would have the U.S. revive and expand the "bracero program" that ended in 1964, Mr. Donnelly may well be right. But his attempts to link the Gramm proposal with the recommendations of the binational migration panel are completely off the mark.

I served on the binational panel, so I am familiar with its deliberations and its recommendations. The panel brought together 20 experts from Mexico and the U.S. to work on these issues over a six-month period. The U.S. delegation included religious, Latino, labor, and business leaders, former government officials, and academics.

Our recommendations seek to transform the current situation, characterized by rampant illegality and worker exploitation, into a set of policies that allow immigrants already in the U.S. and those who come in the future to enjoy legal status, full labor and appropriate social and civil rights, and, for those who meet designated criteria, legal permanent resident status. Rather than being the end of the Ellis Island ideal, such a policy would constitute a revival of its best days.

The panel's work is grounded in an honest assessment of the status quo and the failure of current policies. Legislation in the 1980s and 1990s was premised on the idea that enforcement actions taken on the U.S. side could unilaterally alter structural push and pull factors of migration from the countries in our neighborhood. The 1986 law that imposes sanctions on employers who hire aliens without work papers has had no perceptible effect on the flow of undocumented migrants to the U.S.: Millions of immigrants work with false papers, and the INS worksite enforcement efforts canvass only a small percentage of employers. Furthermore, there is little evidence that a massive enforcement build-up at the border has prevented determined migrants from coming to jobs waiting for them in the U.S.-- although it has raised the prices charged by smugglers and has contributed to increased numbers of deaths at the border as migrants use more remote crossing points.

These policies, combined with harsh laws adopted by Congress in 1996 that make access to legal status more difficult, have "locked in" an undocumented population that is ineligible for green cards and unlikely to return home because of the high cost of getting back to the U.S. This unintended result is supported by early analyses of the 2000 census that show many more undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. than had been anticipated.

The presence of millions of undocumented workers in low-wage labor markets exerts downward pressures on wages and working conditions. This is one of the primary reasons the U.S. labor movement has reversed its long-time support for employer sanctions, and come out for the legalization of undocumented immigrants and reform of the current regime of worksite enforcement.

The binational panel calls for a new approach -- one that recognizes labor market realities, expands channels of legal migration, moves toward sharing responsibility on enforcement, targets black marketers, and addresses physical infrastructure and development of the border region. This approach cannot be unilaterally imposed on either side of the border. It must be undertaken jointly, with Mexico and the United States working together toward mutually agreed upon goals. The panel's recommended "grand bargain" would expand access to U.S. labor markets and legal status for Mexican immigrants in exchange for Mexico's cooperation on enforcing limits and borders, and Mexican responsibility for development that reduces migration pressures over time.

The primary basis for transforming the U.S.-Mexico migration relationship, according to the panel, is to make legal migration the prevailing norm. To achieve this, the U.S. should move toward legalization of undocumented Mexican immigrants who are established and working in the U.S. Such measures enable employers to enjoy a more stable workforce, families to remain united, individuals to secure social protections, and, over time, immigrants to fully incorporate into and participate in their communities.

With respect to legal visas, the panel suggests that the U.S. consider increasing the number of visas available to both Canadian and Mexican nationals as a way to formally recognize our already special relationship with our contiguous neighbors. The current backlog in legal immigration categories separates families and provides an incentive to illegal migration.

The panel also accepts that a properly crafted temporary visa program may be part of the grand bargain, but only if these visas are issued in response to measurable labor market needs in the U.S., and if immigrants who enter with them are guaranteed equitable and enforceable labor rights, access to social and health protections, and a path to permanent residence for those who seek it. It may be that such an approach is contrary to the wishes of both Senator Gramm (no permanent legal status for guest workers under any conditions) and Mr. Donnelly (green cards for some family members, no temporary visas). But in view of an increasingly integrated labor market that operates outside the law, the panel realized that moving on one front and not the others would simply perpetuate the unacceptable status quo.

As Eliseo Medina, Vice President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and member of the binational panel, commented upon the release of the recommendations, "We all support the long-term goal of a prosperous Mexico that creates enough decent jobs for its own citizens. However, until that day arrives, it's not so much a question of whether workers will try to migrate from a developing country to a relatively wealthy country next door. Rather, it's a question of whether workers will come illegally and be subjected to exploitation, or whether they will come legally and with full labor rights. It's time to transform a dirty black market in migration into a clean regulated market that treats immigrant workers with the respect they deserve."

Mr. Medina got it right. It's time for a new approach to U.S.-Mexico immigration policy. And that approach should be modern enough to reflect the need for the intelligent regulation of an increasingly integrated labor market, and traditional enough to reflect our long and deeply held values as a country that allows and encourages immigrants to become full members of our nation.