What's wrong with guest-worker programs.

Lessons for the U.S. from abroad.
Aug. 15 2005 2:59 PM

Thanks for Your Hard Work. Now Get Out!

Can a Persian Gulf-style guest-worker program succeed in the U.S.?

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"Does Dubai feel like home?" I asked my Indian driver. It seemed like a reasonable question. He had lived in Dubai for 18 years. "No, sir," he said, incredulously, as if I had asked him if he likes scorpions in his shorts. "This is not home." Nor will it ever be. No matter how long he stays, he can't become a citizen.

His life is on hold, waiting for the day he can return home, a rich man, relatively speaking. I visited Kerala, the Indian state that provides the gulf with thousands of workers. Most houses were the faltering shacks you'd expect to see in rural, impoverished India. Every once in a while, though, I'd spot a house that was bigger, more elaborate, designed to impress. I asked my guide to explain. "Gulf worker," he chirped. Nothing more needed to be said. They may be on the bottom rung of the ladder in the gulf, but the foreign worker is a pasha at home.

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This kind of arrangement works, sort of, in the Persian Gulf, but it is not likely to catch on in this country. Americans are too enthusiastic about work themselves to wish for a lifetime of vacation. More important, an economy built on the sweat of foreign workers—even well-paid workers, humanely treated workers—does not jibe with the American notion of immigration. People come to America to escape a foreign devil, to pursue a dream, and, yes, to make a buck. But never is it only about the buck. That is our national myth, at least. And we certainly don't want an army of guest workers to convince us that we have been lying to ourselves.

Eric Weiner is author of the forthcoming book The Geography of Bliss, to be published in 2008.

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