A privatized guest worker program?

Hillary Wicai May 23, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Immigration has been tying up the Senate for almost two months. And there were some procedural maneuvers in Washington this afternoon that could get the bill passed soon. Maybe by Memorial Day. Which would please Mexican President Vicente Fox. Fox arrived in Utah today. He’s making a four-day western swing to lobby for comprehensive reform. He gets to skip the hard part, though. When the House and Senate try reconcile their competing plans. They’re still pretty far apart. But one conservative Indiana Congressman thinks there is a middle ground. And he wants to put it firmly in the hands of the private sector. From Washington, Marketplace’s Hillary Wicai reports.

HILLARY WICAI: Rep. Mike Pence’s proposal would establish private employment agencies called Ellis Island centers outside the United States. Illegal workers would have to leave the country to get a visa. Employers that hired without those visas would face stiff fines. In a speech this afternoon, Pence admitted his proposal to set up a system that encourages immigrants to “self – deport” can sound . . . well . . . far-fetched.

MIKE PENCE: So, is all of this pie in the sky? Only if you don’t believe in the private market or in American business.

But can he sell the idea to other lawmakers focused on border security? Tamar Jacobi at the Manhattan Institute, a free-market think tank, says Pence’s proposal is middle ground. And she’s intrigued by the business component. Certainly the private sector could administer millions of applications and make worker matches faster than the government:

TAMAR JACOBI: Could they do it better? Yeah probably, think about the difference between Fed Ex and the Post Office.

But she’s doubtful it’ll pass. John Keely is with the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors more enforcement. He also has doubts:

JOHN KEELY: Fundamentally, the Pence legislation would require all illegal aliens currently in the United States to leave the United States. And that’s just not what the President wants and not what the United States Senate as a chamber wants.

But, it just might be a place to begin building a bridge from the Senate’s bill to the House’s. The White House says it welcomes the contribution to the discussion.

In Washington, I’m Hillary Wicai for Marketplace.

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