President Bush's recently announced plan to extend temporary worker status to illegal immigrants residing in the United States appears to be little more than a gamble for Hispanic votes in the run-up to the November 2004 elections and an ill-conceived attempt to gain Latin American support for U.S. trade policy in the region.
Though the details of the actual plan have yet to be announced, the plan would allow illegal workers to stay in the United States legally-if they are gainfully employed-for a limited amount of time. The initiative would likely create a job registry that would match U.S. employers with immigrant workers. Those that registered and accepted jobs would receive some sort of temporary legal status for three years with the ability to apply for an extension. Guest workers would be allowed to travel to their country of citizenship without fear of being barred a return entry. For most of the guest workers-over 60 percent of illegal immigrants-the country of citizenship is in Latin America and herein lies the proposal's most salient point for the Bush Administration with regard to domestic politics.
Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the population-they now account for some 13% of the population and 7% of the electorate. Mr. Bush won 35% of the Latino vote in the 2000 presidential election and increasing that percentage is a likely driving force behind the announcement for immigration reform, which is a key concern in the Latino population in the U.S. The 2000 Bush campaign did not fare well in key states with large Latino populations-such as California, Florida and New York. (Over 25% of the population of California is Latino, 16% of the population in Florida and 14% of the population in New York, according to the data from the 2000 census.) Some 53% of California's voters and 60% of New York's voters chose Al Gore over George Bush in the 2000 election, leaving much room for improvement. And in Florida, Mr. Bush won the state by a hair-according to Federal Election Commission data, Mr. Bush received 2,912,790 votes to Mr. Gore's 2,912,253 in Florida. With so little breathing room, it's no surprise that the Bush re-election committee is keen on courting the Latino vote. A recent opinion poll of Latinos in the U.S. found that 52% of them classified themselves as independents in terms of political affiliation-this lack of party affiliation makes Latinos one of the largest swing voting blocs in the country.
Yet, legislators and immigrants alike fear that the current proposal will muddy an already convoluted immigration system that leaves many out in the cold. This would not be the first administration to grant workers temporary legal status-it has been done in the past despite legitimate concerns by American labor and with brutal results for the guest workers. Mr. Bush says that America's security issues are a priority and immigration reform will be crucial to identifying the 8 to 10 million undocumented persons living in the U.S. However, giving illegal immigrants the right to travel home is little recompense for limiting their legal time in the U.S. to three years. If this is the only tangible benefit of the reform, it is unlikely that currently undocumented workers will make themselves known to the government if it will facilitate deportation sometime in the future. Additionally, there should be some recourse to allow temporary workers to seek permanent residency without skipping in front of those already waiting for green cards. Otherwise, there is little incentive to coming forward. All in all, the proposal provides little remedy for the "broken" immigration system in the U.S.
In terms of international relations, it appears the Bush administration was seeking to curry favor with some of its Latin American counterparts when it announced its plans for immigration reform. The announcement came just in time for the special session of the Summit of the Americas being held in Monterrey, Mexico from January 12-13, which pulls together the leaders of 34 countries in the Western Hemisphere (all the nations with the exception of Cuba). The immigration plan clearly targets Mexico and Central America-the main sources of illegal immigrants to the US. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Mr. Bush spoke highly in favor of immigration reform-in fact, his administration's relationship with Mexico was based almost wholly on the promise of such reform. The impetus for change faltered after September 11th and relations with Mexico have cooled since then.
And to a certain extent, the U.S. position in Latin America has weakened. In 2001 all 34 nations had agreed to the creation of a Free-Trade Area of the Americas by 2005 and yet negotiations on the trade scheme have faltered. The region has been angered by unilateral U.S. actions-such as the decision to impose steel tariffs and the passage of the 2002 Farm Bill-and support for U.S. initiatives in the region has eroded. And the U.S.'s entanglement in the Middle East continues to harm the U.S.'s image in the region. Policy makers in Latin America have begun to hold trade talks among themselves-Mercosur (made up of Argentina, Brazil Paraguay and Uruguay) agreed to a free-trade accord with the Andean Community (made up of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela) in December 2003. This agreement, which was aided along by the U.S.'s lack if involvement in the region, is but one of several that has expanded intra-regional trade while excluding the U.S.
Though leaders in Latin America have long clamored for immigration reform, it is unlikely that the current proposal will convince them of any U.S. commitment for change. Rather, observers will view the proposal as little more than a way to gain temporary workers without giving much in return. Domestically, the proposal may gain some currency with voters that believe the administration is at least addressing an important issue, but its passage is certainly not secure.
Luisa Angrisani is the regional editor (Americas) for The Economist Intelligence Unit. She is the author of the article, "More Latin, Less America," that appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of The National Interest.