Immigrants need a real amnesty
By Justin Akers | January 16, 2004 | Page 12
WITH A smile to Latino voters and a wink and nod at Corporate America, George W. Bush unveiled what he claims are "sweeping reforms" of U.S. immigration policy last week. But Bush's proposal won't improve the lives of immigrant workers. It's designed to ensure U.S. business a steady stream of low-wage workers with no rights--while consigning immigrant workers to a revolving door.
The centerpiece of Bush's plan would create a temporary "guest worker" system. Foreign workers wishing to enter the country--as well as the estimated 8 to 11 million undocumented workers already in the U.S.--could apply for a three-year work permit, with the possibility of one renewal.
Those who apply would have to have a job lined up with a U.S. employer--and jump through other hoops, including a "background check" and a permit fee. Temporary workers would be able to travel back and forth across the border, and would get credit in their home nation's retirement system.
Their family members could legally stay with them in the U.S., but wouldn't be able to work unless they also applied for a permit. Temporary workers would also be able to apply for a green card granting permanent legal residency--but the application would be handled separately.
This two-step process is one of the main scams in the Bush proposal. The administration hasn't revealed how many green cards would be made available to temporary workers.
Currently, only 144,000 green cards are issued each year to people who emigrate to the U.S. specifically to work--a far cry from the millions who would be eligible for the work permit program under Bush's proposal. Likewise, the six-year maximum time length for a work permit might run out before the lengthy process of getting a green card is finished.
As Demetrios Papademetriou, co-director of the Migration Policy Institute, put it: "Why should they show up, pay the fees that will be required of them, go through all the process...so, what, they can be thrown out of the country in six years?" Undocumented workers already in the U.S. will probably view the Bush program as more dangerous than "remaining in the shadows."
In reality, Bush's immigration proposal amounts to a colossal expansion of a previous guest worker program for farmworkers--the "Bracero Program" launched in the 1940s--into every sector of the economy. Such programs have always been popular with big business, because they ensure a steady flow of disposable, low-wage workers.
Neither employers nor the federal government bear the cost of social services to maintain workers over the long term. Plus, guest workers don't have the right to join a union or go on strike.
Even basic job protections are rarely enforced for guest workers, since the employees have so little power--and employers stand to make more in profit than they might pay out in fines. No wonder the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was an enthusiastic supporter of Bush's "momentous" proposal.
The National Restaurant Association commended the White House for addressing the concerns of its members, and a California tomato grower, Luawanna Hallstrom of Harry Singh & Sons, declared: "For me, this is like a Christmas present."
Bush's proposal also served another purpose--to counter the growing immigrant rights movement in the U.S. That struggle forced its way into the national spotlight last year with the Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides, in which 20 busloads of activists fanned out across the U.S. to bring the message of amnesty and legalization for undocumented immigrants--and better workplace protections for all workers.
Because of the sick bigotry of his own party, Bush's plan may have appeared more "compassionate" than it actually is. Right-wing Republicans were foaming at the mouth about the proposal.
"The administration's proposals make it harder to win the war on terrorism," declared Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas). "Guest worker programs and gradual amnesty provide cover for terrorists." Barbara Coe, founder and chairperson of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, which favors restrictions on immigration, accused Bush of "[putting] out a welcome mat to illegal immigrants, violent criminals, drug smugglers and terrorists."
Administration officials countered by pointing out that with Bush's program, the federal government would have records of where undocumented immigrants lived--so they could be kicked out when their time ran out.
Ultimately, Bush's proposal marks a recognition that immigrant labor is a reality in the U.S. economy, and that American immigration policy isn't working. But traditional anti-immigrant forces have set the terms of the debate in Washington--and the Democrats have followed right along.
Most of the contenders for the Democratic Party presidential nomination had no alternative to Bush's proposal--since they themselves support "earned legalization" programs for undocumented immigrants similar to the White House plan. In contrast, organized labor--which took the step of initiating last year's Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides--spoke out against the Bush plan.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said the proposal would create a new "second-tier" workforce, deepening "the potential for abuse and exploitation of these workers while undermining wages and labor protections for all workers." Union involvement in the struggle for immigrant rights is a huge step forward from the U.S. labor movement's traditions of anti-immigrant nationalism.
The campaign for amnesty and legalization that began with the Freedom Rides needs to be taken to the next step. This is a struggle that must involve all workers.
Employers don't recognize borders when it comes to their scramble for profit. Our side needs to organize the fight for an open border for workers--and for full rights for all workers in the U.S., regardless of what patch of earth they happened to be born on.