WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?
by SHARON SMITH | August 3, 2001 | Page 6
IS GEORGE W. Bush getting ready to grant permanent residency to millions of immigrants--including the estimated 11 million undocumented workers already living in the U.S.--as his top advisers have hinted recently?
"Over my cold, dead body," said Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), summarizing the viewpoint of the right wing of the Republican Party on a broad amnesty for undocumented immigrants.
So what does Bush--who is beholden to the right wing--plan to present to Mexican President Vicente Fox when they meet next month to negotiate new terms of entry into the U.S. for Mexican workers?
Bush has floated the idea of granting "legal status" to Mexican immigrants who meet certain criteria. But this is nothing but a public relations ploy.
Bush hasn't developed a sudden concern for the plight of undocumented immigrant workers, who pay taxes here yet have no legal rights on this side of the border. In fact, Bush's budget proposal increases the number of Border Patrol agents at the U.S.-Mexico border by 1,140 over the next two years.
Bush's plan is actually a massive expansion of guest worker programs that will only benefit the growing number of U.S. employers who rely on cheap immigrant labor.
Unlike workers with legal permanent residency status, guest workers are recruited by individual employers, who can terminate them at any time. While they have legal rights on paper, guest workers face certain deportation if they are fired for organizing to defend those rights.
That was how the Bracero program worked in the 1940s and 1950s--when U.S. growers were allowed to bring in contract farm workers from Mexico, and then send them back again when they were no longer needed.
Despite flagrant labor violations and horrible working conditions, farm workers were unable to organize into the United Farm Workers union until after the Bracero program was ended. Now the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Association of Manufacturers and the American Health Care Association have joined agribusiness to form the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, which is pushing Congress to pass a new guest worker program.
This reflects the widespread dependence of employers throughout the U.S. economy on low-paid immigrant workers--many of them undocumented, who can be ruthlessly exploited and denied union rights.
Numbering 30 million, immigrants now make up 17 percent of the U.S. labor force (the highest percentage since the 1930s) and 35 percent of workers in unskilled jobs--not just in farm or restaurant work, but in manufacturing and technical jobs as well.
Latino workers now hold a majority of the unskilled jobs in poultry plants and textile mills around the South. Up to a third of dot-com technicians in Silicon Valley were Asian immigrants at the height of the 1990s economic boom.
Immigrant workers seeking better lives for themselves and their families aren't the enemy for U.S. workers. Since 1994, real wages in Mexico have fallen by 40 percent, and 2 million jobs have disappeared.
Millions are forced to risk their lives to cross the border to seek employment in the U.S.--while U.S. corporations enjoy an unlimited ability to exploit workers on both sides of the border.
The existence of a large section of low-paid immigrant workers has allowed employers not only to super-exploit immigrant labor, but to drive down the wages of all workers and keep unions out of entire industries. Nevertheless, until recently, the AFL-CIO did nothing to help immigrant workers organize--and lobbied heavily to keep immigrant workers out of the country.
Last year, the federation finally reversed its position to call for a blanket amnesty for undocumented immigrants and an end to sanctions against employers who hire them. This has made it possible for unions to begin organizing, with some success, among immigrant workers--especially in the hotel industry.
The AFL-CIO is also on record opposing an expansion of guest worker programs, noting that U.S. labor law denies workers hired under individual contracts the right to organize unions. This shift on the part of the labor movement holds the potential, for the first time, of uniting native-born and immigrant workers into a joint fightback for immigrant rights.
Next May, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) union plans to stage an "Immigrants Freedom Ride" to Washington, D.C., to demand legalization and rights for immigrant workers. All workers have an interest in fighting to help immigrant workers win the right to live and work in freedom and with dignity.