President Bush's immigration reform plan is garnering praise from many would-be immigrant workers and their would-be employers. But it has a substantial political downside for an important subset of opinion-makers, who are disproportionately likely to vote, donate, and otherwise shape the political landscape beyond their numbers. The problem is, Bush's plan is based on immigrants as guest workers.
It's not the "guest" part that bothers these voters. It's the "workers."
I was already familiar with this mindset from any number of party conversations and bar arguments, but a couple of recent magazine articles silently articulate this view in a particularly absurd way.
The more prominent is the cover story in the March Atlantic Monthly, cover-lined "Dispatches from The Nanny Wars." The piece is a long cri de coeur over how author Caitlin Flanagan's generation of professional women has betrayed the values of feminism—hell, the values of humanity—through a shameful vice: hiring women from the Third World to work as nannies.
Flanagan goes on for pages and pages of rueful head shaking over this crime, which apparently makes women the modern-day equivalents of the plantation class of the Olde South. Never once does this very smart writer with many thousands of words to play with even offer a hint of an adumbration of a clue that it isn't an unequivocal moral wrong to give someone a job doing your domestic work. Flanagan merely assumes that the average Atlantic reader will surely see just how evil is the act of offering someone less well off than you compensation for labor.
It's certainly annoying to have to clean kitchens, mop bathrooms, wash endless loads of laundry, cope with mewling children, and confront the other rows that the modern nanny must hoe. But is it that controversial—in Flanagan's case, apparently literally unthinkable—to suggest that it might be a blessing for an average Central American woman to be doing those tasks in an upscale suburban home rather than, say, seamstressing in a poorly ventilated warehouse, working industrial food prep, or whatever she'd be doing if she stayed in Central America (a place she's already shown a demonstrated preference to escape from)?
Unquestionably, your nanny is less fortunate than you are. She has less disposable wealth, less security, fewer long-term options. But she is not your slave, and you have not condemned her to hell.
The kind of work that typically occupies male immigrant workers is called into deep moral suspicion in a cover story in L.A. Weekly with the must-to-avoid headline "Harvest of Pain." It's all about how guilty you should feel enjoying a Caesar salad because an actual human being had to pick that lettuce, under conditions and for a salary that we suspect you, ordering a $5.95 Caesar salad, would find inadequate or maybe even miserable.
Conditions often suck for lettuce pickers by any standard, no doubt; decent affordable housing is hard to find near their work, and some companies are so unscrupulous they take advantage of their legally disadvantaged workers by paying them less than their due. Bush's plan, by legalizing them, could do a lot to help at least that last problem.
Lots of work is so inherently unpleasant and wearying that, believe it or not, people demand compensation for doing it. The end of work for anything but creativity and pleasure is a consummation devoutly to be wished, and the human race is tantalizingly close to it. (This is why people are even able to entertain the attitude that manual labor for low pay is a moral evil to be abhorred.) The day may come—soon—when the nanobots are making our Caesar salad from molecular scratch and robots are swaddling our infants.
Until then, real human beings want real jobs to better their subjectively perceived circumstances. Bush's reform may help them do so. If we are ever to achieve a political consensus that welcomes more immigration, it will have to be one that openly embraces the reality of crappy jobs.