"The plight of the undocumented has been forgotten in the security whirlwind that followed the Sept. 11 attacks," said Kanstroom, who has spoken on immigration issues with WBZ-TV and the Providence Journal-Bulletin, among others. "It is surely a good thing that it, along with other immigration issues, is back on the administration's agenda. But a poorly thought-out plan that continues to treat workers as commodities and not as human beings will, in the long run, create more problems than it will solve."
Kanstroom says the Bush proposal smacks of a guest worker-type program, a type of social policy "that has failed spectacularly in Europe, where it was tried for many years. Contrary to what some critics have suggested, the proposal is not an 'amnesty.' The affected workers would be granted some kind of legal status for three years - undoubtedly a good thing - but it would be far from citizenship or even permanent residence.
"What will happen to them three years from now? The administration says they can apply for permanent residence. But many may not be eligible under the existing immigration categories, and even those who are eligible may face waits of many years or even decades, due to backlogs in the Mexican category.
"What will happen to those who do not qualify? Will they simply be deported, having relinquished the one aspect of their unhappy situation that protected them - their anonymity?
"If this seems unlikely, recall that hundreds, perhaps thousands of people who signed up for 'special registration' recently found themselves facing deportation for an array of minor violations. The last true amnesty law, passed in 1986, contained a protective clause that encouraged people to come out of the shadows by guaranteeing that the information they gave would not be used against them."
Recent estimates put the number of illegal immigrants in the range of 10 million, more than one quarter of the total foreign-born population of the US, says Kanstroom. It is a group often painted as law-breakers more deserving of punishment than help, a judgment Kanstroom believes to be "wrong, both empirically and morally."
The labor force participation rate of undocumented men, 96 percent, far exceeds that for legal immigrants or US citizens, he said. "Virtually without exception, the undocumented do the dirty, back-breaking, unglamorous work that legal immigrants and US citizens decline.
"Illegal immigrants did not create the labor market that requires them. They were drawn here, as they have been for decades, by US employers who seek their labor. If we want to focus on law-breakers perhaps a better target would be the agri-business concerns of the southwest, the chicken farmers of the south, the apple growers of the north, and the thousands of laundries, restaurants, cleaning companies, and so on - not to mention the middle-class families who hire undocumented nannies and gardeners."
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