Daniel Sneider on global lessons for U.S. immigration policies

Shorenstein APARC Pantech Fellow and San Jose Mercury News foreign affairs columnist Daniel C. Sneider compares the effects of dual-class immigration policies in Singapore with those of the United States. "Rather than guest workers," he asks, "isn't it more American to set realistic immigration quotas and enforce them fairly?"

The fierce debate on immigration ignores a crucial reality -- what is happening to the United States is only one piece, although a big one, of a much larger global picture.

That hit me a couple of weeks ago when I was in Singapore. The Southeast Asian island nation has long been hailed as an economic model, the business capital for the entire region.

But it is an economy facing demographic peril. Its small population of 4 million is shrinking, thanks to a very low fertility rate. Prosperous Singaporean couples work hard, have fewer children and worry about how to take care of their aging parents. By 2050, Singapore will have a median age of over 52, one of the oldest in the world.

Singapore's answer is to import labor. A third of its workforce are migrants, from construction workers to maids. One out of seven households employs a domestic worker -- low-paid women mostly from neighboring Philippines and Indonesia.

Singapore tries to lure "talents'' -- highly skilled and affluent migrants -- to stay permanently. But the men hauling bricks and the maids washing laundry are in a separate class of temporary guest workers, with no chance to join Singaporean society. If a maid becomes pregnant, she is shipped out within seven days. Employers have to post bonds that must be paid should their servants break the rules and try to stay, putting them in the role of migrant police.

Problems of abuse of domestic workers, including physical and sexual violence and confinement, are serious enough to have prompted a report last December by Human Rights Watch.

Singapore's dependence on migrant labor and its guest-worker policy may be at the extreme end but it's very much on the global spectrum. Labor, like capital and goods before it, is part of a global market. The movement of people across borders in search of wages and work, most of it from developing countries to developed, is growing at a phenomenal pace.

The numbers are staggering. From 1980 to 2000, the number of migrants living in the developed world more than doubled from 48 million to 110 million. Migrants make up an average 12 percent of the workforce in high-income countries. About 4 million migrants cross borders illegally every year.

The demand for labor is driven in part by a demographic disaster -- the falling birth rates of developed countries. Almost all of those countries now have fertility rates that are well below 2.1, the level at which a population replaces itself. At the very low end are Hong Kong (0.94), Korea (1.22) and Singapore in Asia (1.24), along with much of Eastern Europe.

Low fertility means shrinking workforces and aging populations. Without migration, according to a recent study, Europe's population would have declined by 4.4 million from 1995 to 2000. Immigration accounted for 75 percent of U.S. population growth during the same period.

This movement of people cannot be stopped, certainly not by hundreds of miles of fences or even by tens of thousands of border guards. It is an issue that cries out for global cooperation, for common policies that cut across national boundaries. Already, we can benefit from looking at what has worked -- and not worked -- elsewhere.

A Global Commission on International Migration, formed in 2003 by the United Nations secretary-general, has taken an initial stab. Their report, issued last winter, supports the growth of guest-worker programs.

The Senate immigration bill now up for debate includes a provision for a guest-worker program. The bill is clearly preferable to the punitive and ineffective approach of the House version. But the Singapore experience -- and previous guest-worker programs like the German import of Turks -- should prompt second thoughts about going down this road.

One problem is that the guests don't leave. The United States has its own experience with this in the bracero program to import farmworkers, and more recently with the supposedly temporary H1-B visas used so extensively by the high-tech industry here in Silicon Valley.

Most troubling to me, these programs create an underclass of migrants who are never assimilated, as happened in Germany. It sets us on the Singapore road, encouraging inhumane policing mechanisms. And it is a gilded invitation to employers to depress the wages and incomes of American workers, and not just in the dirty jobs that are supposedly so hard to fill.

The United States has been rightfully proud of a tradition that treats all immigrants as citizens in the making. Rather than guest workers, isn't it more American to set realistic immigration quotas and enforce them fairly?