Razing the House to Fix the Broken Door

On the eve of our Congress passing a “comprehensive immigration reform package,” and just about a week after our President gave a rare speech from the Oval Office calling for the same, this country has still not come to grips with the true nature of what we are about to undertake. The stakes are far higher than immigration or even border security, however even at this late hour few recognize the effect of what we are about to do.

President Bush defined in his speech last Monday the five elements he sees as comprising “comprehensive” reform. Among them, border security, a guest worker program and a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants already working in our country. It occurs to me that while Bush currently has the lowest approval rating of any president ever, we can consider ourselves at least mildly lucky to have a President now who is a former governor of a border state. We’ve already seen the proposals that equally radical conservatives without border experience have come up with: Santorum and Sensenbrenner just to name two.

Regardless, the current “immigration debate” in this country is laughably limited. In a political climate controlled by fear and religious radicalism, deporting 11 million people is presented as a reasonable part of the solution while our country’s role in destabilizing Latin America economically—and thus causing much of the immigration ourselves—is never mentioned.

But at this late hour we’re lead to believe that the “debate” has been defined, and it’s the details that our lawmakers still have to hash out for us. What worries me most is the guest worker program. Of course there must be a way for people to enter this country legally to work. It is both a personal necessity for them and a necessity for our entire economy. But we’re missing what a guest worker program as currently proposed would really be.

A guest worker program without a path to citizenship would be the formal murder of the American Dream. Further, we would be codifying an American caste system the likes of which haven’t been seen since slavery. If we invite poor workers to come into this country to work in our restaurants, pick our food, build our homes, maintain our roads, clean our buildings and in the same stroke of the pen deny them any chance to be come full, voting citizens of our country, where does our democracy stand?

It is the era of doublespeak. Under the guest worker program, employees would be tied to their employers for their status in this country. We once had another name for this system in this country, though it’s long out of fashion and longer out of use: indentured servitude.

How likely is a guest worker to report his or her employer to the government for withholding wages, if that worker knows that he or she could lose their right to be in this country? How likely is an indentured servant to report abuses when they fear the same? If we legally create a foreign working underclass, how far off could wide-spread discrimination and racism really be?

And, it cannot be mentioned enough, we tried this type of system before, not even that long ago. But how often do you hear the Bracero Program and its failure mentioned in the current debate?

All of this, however, isn’t very surprising. It is also the era of burning down a house to fix a broken door. Codifying an American underclass is seen as the only way to solve the immigration issue just as NSA wiretapping, the USA PATRIOT Act and the wholesale loss of civil liberties is billed as the only way to fight terrorism.

Many argue that the American dream has been dead a long time. As the chasm between the rich and the poor continues to swallow the middle class whole, I suspect they are right. But if we pass a law destroying this critical part of our national mythology, our country will have turned a corner and embarked down a path that we may never come back from.