As illegal immigration rises higher and higher on political radar screens across America, proposals abound for dealing with the seemingly never-ending influx from more downtrodden parts of the world.
There's the idea of a 1,900-mile-long wall along the Mexican border to keep illegal immigrants out, a la the "separation wall" that has proven so effective at keeping suicide bombers out of Israel.
There are plans to beef up the Border Patrol, making it into a force that can control the entire southern border rather than just a few selected areas. There are proposals to make it a crime rather than today's civil offense to be in America illegally. And there are plans to increase fines for employers who hire illegal immigrants. Some states are even beginning to act on their own, with New Mexico declaring a state of emergency along the border and Arizona threatening to send its National Guard to help crack down on illegal border crossings.
Some of these tactics are embodied in immigration bills now getting serious debate in both houses of Congress. But so far, only one item appears to be a sure thing for inclusion in any new plan: a guest worker program of some kind.
It's unclear whether that program might be seasonal, allowing workers in to alleviate labor shortages like the one that afflicted some farms in California and other states last fall, but forcing those workers to return to their home country, usually Mexico, after a few weeks or months. Or it might be something like President Bush proposed last year, with workers allowed to stay for periods of three or six years before supposedly returning home.
This kind of long-term guest worker system would put unskilled immigrants on a virtual par with those admitted under the H1-B program, where employers must certify they are bringing in workers to meet needs they cannot fill with United States citizens or legal residents.
Plus, a rare alliance of big businesses and big labor unions now supports another plan that would allow some of the current approximately 11 million or so illegal aliens to become citizens, as the amnesty program of the late 1980s did with more than 3 million previously illegal immigrants.
"The immigration reform we support would encourage illegal aliens to come out of the shadows and extend to them the legal rights other workers enjoy now," said Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
There's only one reason the chamber and a president ardently supported by most of its members would seek a legalization program for illegal immigrants: Big business saves big bucks by employing these workers and wants to keep on doing so.
Pressure from the president and the chamber even brought many hard-line anti-illegal immigrant members of the Republican National Committee into line behind guest workers, as the RNC voted early this year to back the Bush plan.
But no such plan will pass without a battle.
"The national committee's failure to pass a get-tough border security resolution shows the extent to which the White House will use strong-arm tactics to secure an amnesty," said Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado, one of the leading foes of illegal immigration of all types. "The president should prepare himself for one heck of a fight."
If there's one solid ground for opposing guest workers, it is their past history. Almost half of all H1-B workers whose six-year terms in this country expire routinely refuse to go home and simply melt into whichever immigrant community fits them best.
The last big farm-oriented guest worker plan, the bracero program that began during World War II and continued into the 1960s, saw millions of so-called temporary immigrants stay put, with those who stayed here illegally having little trouble getting or holding jobs. Many of those stayovers were finally legalized in the amnesty program that began in 1986.
This history likely won't prevent Congress from passing a guest worker plan, if only because many financial backers of both the president and individual senators and congressmen want one.
Which means that while Congress will almost surely act on immigration this year, whatever it does will not solve the problem, might exacerbate it and will just as surely leave this issue an open sore inviting exploitation by politicians this fall and beyond.