I was not particularly impressed with Paul Workman when he ran as a Republican for State Representative in Texas district 47. I supported his opponent in the primary and kind of ignored him in the general election as I live one district over from his district. But this week he got my attention in a way which I never expected, by proposing a state bill (HB2886) to implement a guest worker program for illegal aliens under the authority of the Texas state government.
I like the way that Workman is thinking outside of the box and looking for creative and realistic solutions to the problems posed by illegal immigration. He seems to be taking a lead from Arizona’s efforts to take the immigration issue away from the federal government, but instead of following their draconian course he’s acknowledging the benefits of immigrant labor and going after the real problems created by having those workers in an underground labor market which lowers wages, increases crime and makes the illegal population difficult to regulate effectively.
It’s a big step for a Republican to acknowledge that we might have to live with immigrant labor and need to find ways to make the best of it. Workman’s background in the construction industry presumably gives him a heightened awareness of the issue. While other legislators are trying to follow Arizona’s strategy of more legal restrictions and crippling penalties for businesses, Workman is going after the real problems with a realistic solution.
Most of the problems associated with having an underground labor force come directly from the fact that their illegal status encourages them to work for lower wages and not pay their way in society. Making them legal guest workers would put them into the normal wage market so that they would not undercut native workers. This addresses the complaint that they are taking jobs from Americans. You won’t be able to go out and hire an illegal for 30% less than a native worker anymore. Making them legal will also mean that they will no longer have to work off the books and it will bring them fully into the tax structure so that they will pay for the services they use, just like anyone else. This addresses the common complaint that illegals send their kids to schools and use medical services without paying for them. Making them legal also means that they are less likely to be forced into crime or be victimized by criminals because of the vulnerability created by their illegal status.
Just having a guest worker program will not suddenly start giving jobs to Mexicans and taking them away from American workers. It does nothing to make immigrants more qualified and takes away their low wage advantage. We’ve already seen that as unemployment has gone up, illegals have been going back to Mexico by the millions. Those who remain behind already have jobs or are part of the criminal underground. A guest worker program will make the working illegals visible and will expose those who are potential criminals. You would give the workers a work visa and round up everyone who doesn’t have one and send them home.
The illegal immigration problem is one which comes primarily from the conflict between a natural free market in labor and government’s attempts to limit that market and make it unfree. If you take away government’s negative role in suppressing the access of workers to available jobs, then you have a healthier and more free labor market where workers go where the opportunities are and everyone benefits.
This is not to say that Workman’s bill is perfect. It places an unreasonably high cost on a work visa at $4000. While he claims that’s equivalent to what these workers pay a coyote to get here, he overlooks the fact that it will likely be in addition to those expenses which were already paid or will still have to be paid to get into the country if the federal government is not cooperating at the border.
Workman’s bill includes some additional safeguards which may allay some concerns, but could be problematic. The guest worker permit would last for 8 years and applicants would have to pass a criminal background check. It also requires that employers provide guest workers the same benefits they offer other employees and that American workers be given preference in hiring. That last provision may be hard to enforce and along with the $4000 fee it might have a chilling effect and discourage workers from taking part in the program. For such a program to work it needs to be clearly advantageous for workers who are currently illegal to take advantage of it.
One thing which is clear is that Workman has done his homework. That 8 year duration is clearly based on studies which show that the average illegal worker stays in America for about 8 years before going back to Mexico voluntarily to enjoy the benefits of the money he has earned here. More than 80% of illegals do not want to stay in the US but want to return to Mexico and start their own businesses and thereby raise up the Mexican economy and create better jobs at higher wages there, ultimately reducing the pressure to come to America for work.
There are constitutional and jurisdictional issues raised by the bill. As Workman said, “the feds are going to blow a gasket.” As with the Arizona bill this proposal challenges federal authority to control immigration policy and it will butt heads directly with federal immigration enforcement efforts, feeble though they are. Once again this is state government stepping in to do a job which the federal government is supposed to do but has repeatedly failed at, particularly by not enacting a sensible policy like this themselves. Unlike the Arizona law this addresses real problems in a positive way.
Workman is not alone in this effort. A similar bill has already passed in Utah and is waiting for the Governor’s signature. If Workman also succeeds here in Texas it’s likely that other states will follow his lead when they see it is a more sensible alternative to doing nothing or taking the kind of action Arizona has taken.
I’m pleasantly surprised to see a proposal like this and Workman deserves a lot of credit for coming up with a good idea and not listening to the vocal nativist minority in his own party. A policy like this is good for business, good for legal and illegal workers and makes all of our citizens safer. Creating a more free market in labor reduces crime and increases prosperity for everyone.