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Why you should oppose McCain-Kennedy

March 31, 2006 | Page 5

THE PUSH for a new anti-immigrant law is underway in Washington. Senators are bargaining over the provisions to be included in proposed legislation, which is expected to come to a vote in the coming weeks.

Last December, the House of Representatives passed its version--a vicious anti-immigrant bill sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.).

Known by its official designation HR 4437, the Sensenbrenner bill would classify undocumented workers as felons--and criminalize any individual or organization who assists them, including doctors, nurses and social workers. This would create tens of millions of felons in the U.S.--the largest criminal class in history.

In the Senate, the supposedly mainstream Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) wants some of the most repressive proposals in the Sensenbrenner bill to be adopted by the Senate--over the objections even of the Bush White House, which is pressing for tougher border enforcement, but would like new legislation to include a guest-worker program.

Meanwhile, Sens. Ted Kennedy and John McCain are co-sponsoring alternative legislation that has the support of sections of big business. It includes a guest-worker program and greater access to U.S. citizenship.

Some unions and immigrant rights organizations back this proposal as an acceptable alternative to the attacks of the anti-immigrant right. But as JUSTIN AKERS CHACON explains, the McCain-Kennedy proposal represents only a kinder, gentler attack on immigrants--and should be opposed.

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The McCain-Kennedy bill will increase violence and death on the border, and punish undocumented workers.

-- Continues a deadly policy. Since 1994, more than 4,000 migrant workers (more people than died in the World Trade Center attack) have perished along the U.S.-Mexico border as a result of the disastrous policies of then-Democratic President Bill Clinton.

Clinton's Operation Gatekeeper introduced the strategy of walling off migration in population centers and moving it into remote desert and mountainous regions. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, fiscal year 2005 was the worst yet, with 460 men, women and children dying while trying to cross.

McCain-Kennedy aims to continue the tragic legacy of Operation: Gatekeeper.

-- Increases "enforcement." McCain-Kennedy calls for even stricter border enforcement, including an increase in border technology to track migrants; a Border Security Advisory Committee to collaborate with Bush's Department of Homeland Security; expanded border policing on the Mexican side of the border; and increased spending for the Border Patrol.

Republican co-sponsor Sen. John McCain has summarized the bill as being designed to protect "Americans from immigrants," stating, "Homeland security is our nation's number-one priority. This legislation includes a number of provisions that together will make our nation more secure. For far too long, our nation's broken immigration laws have gone unreformed--leaving Americans vulnerable. We can no longer afford to delay reform. I am proud to join my colleagues today as an original sponsor of this legislation."

-- Punishes the undocumented. The bill increases employer sanctions, which punish companies that hire undocumented workers. It phases in a database to keep records of migrant workers, which will allow for the tracking of undocumented workers.

It empowers the Department of Labor to conduct "random audits" to ensure compliance with labor law, which could mean raids on worksites that employ undocumented workers. It also requires the expansion of "aerial surveillance technologies"--i.e., more planes, helicopters and unmanned drones to hunt for migrant crossers.

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It is designed to supply cheap, non-union labor to Corporate America.

-- Corporate sponsors. The main backer of the bill is a corporate conglomerate that calls itself the Essential Workers Immigration Coalition (EWIC). This alliance of industrial interests reflects the fact that this bill will extend the guest-worker program into virtually every sector of the economy. Comprised of representatives from construction, hotels and restaurants, transportation, health care, manufacturing, meat processing and other industries, EWIC is eager to get access to guest workers for a few reasons.

As David Bacon explains, "These proposals incorporate demands by the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition--36 of the U.S.'s largest trade and manufacturers' associations, headed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce...Despite their claims, there is no great shortage of workers in the U.S. There is a shortage of workers at the low wages industry would like to pay."

-- Anti-union. Since these are industries where unionization is growing among immigrant workers, guest workers (who have no stated right to be part of unions or an organizing effort) can be used to weaken and ultimately drive existing unions out of these industries. This is significant because immigrant workers are a growth engine for the labor movement.

According to a study of the Migrant Policy Institute, "11 percent of the 17.7 million foreign-born workers in the U.S. are represented by unions, despite difficulties associated with citizenship. Reflecting changing attitudes in the unions and militancy among the workers themselves, the number of immigrants in unions has grown 23 percent between 1996 and 2003.

"The Service Employees Industrial Union, with members primarily in property services, health care and the public sector, has become the largest and fastest-growing labor union in the U.S., claiming a membership of 1.8 million. Immigrant workers account for some two-thirds of that figure."

-- Lower wages for all workers. While the language of the legislation includes the phrase "Gives temporary workers and U.S. workers remedies for violations of their rights," it is unclear how this will be enforced beyond vague notions of oversight. The last guest-worker program in the U.S., the bracero program, contained the same promises, but enforcement was virtually abandoned.

Employers will therefore be empowered to use a guest-worker program to push down the wages of all workers--which is what led to the degradation of agricultural labor during the bracero program's existence. Workers will only have access to health care in case of emergency, so regular health maintenance and preventative care will not be provided.

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It will block access to work, citizenship or residency for most migrants.

-- Blacklists. Although guest workers would be able to quit an oppressive job, they would be deported if they don't find another within 60 days. This creates the conditions for employers to have complete control over their workers. Employers could blacklist and deport those who speak out or form unions. Workers will be at the mercy of the "good will" of their employers to provide work, which means their ability to remain in the U.S. will be dependent on the discretion of employers.

-- Head tax. The bill also includes an exclusive head tax, which, like other Jim Crow laws before, is meant to exclude the poor. Applicants in Mexico must show that they have a job waiting in the U.S., pay a fee of $500 in addition to application fees, and clear all security, medical and other checks.

For the 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S., they can only apply for temporary work visas if they pay an exorbitant fee of at least $3,000 (application fee, plus fines), prove they are "not a security threat" and show they paid taxes while in the U.S. without authorization. They can only remain in the U.S. if they can prove that they have long-term work and have learned English.

This will discourage most undocumented workers from participating in the program, perpetuating their segregated status.

-- Extremely limited path to residence. The bill allows guest workers to remain in the country for a maximum of six years, after which they will have to return to their country of origin, or "be in the pipeline for a green card." This is tricky language since it doesn't explain how difficult it actually is to get a green card.

The bill will raise the number of yearly employment visas available to guest-worker applicants to 290,000 a year (from the current 140,000). But this language is also deceptive since under current law, such visas are divided on a per-country basis (currently 7 percent). This means that under the legislation, Mexican workers would only be eligible for a maximum of 28,000 visas a year.

Furthermore, visas are distributed according to "types of employment." Unskilled workers, for instance, are only eligible for about 30 percent of these visas according to the bill, although leftovers from other categories could be added to this total.

So the majority of the 400,000 annual guest workers and the 12 million undocumented currently in the U.S. will be bottlenecked out, or priced out of the process. The bill also excludes those undocumented workers who have been in the country for less than a year, and those who have not been consistently employed while in the United States.

Furthermore, there is an average four- to seven-year waiting period for the green card process. An employer can sponsor a worker for a green card, or a worker can apply themselves only after four successive years of work, and even then, there is no guarantee that they will receive one.

There is no reference in the proposal to change the waiting period--only that if the four years passes without a green card, "delays are recaptured for future allotments." In other words, the status of the vast majority of workers will remain uncertain for indefinite periods. The bill allows for indefinite one-year extensions until the case comes before a court.

If the applicant loses a job or leaves the country, they could lose their opportunity. Since names and information will be on file, the bill will likely facilitate the process of regularized deportation of those not "in the pipeline," and likely increase funding for such a process.

-- Families will have difficulty being united. Only after getting permanent residence can guest workers apply to bring their families into the country (if they are already here, they get status along with the undocumented applicant). Since only a minority of workers will likely get green cards, this will exclude most from reuniting with their families, and increase the pressure on them to return.

Currently, the waiting time for bringing immediate family members into the country through this process is four to seven years, and only 27,000 slots are allotted to Mexico (although the bill makes reference to raising this cap another 19 percent). Furthermore, workers must have an income at least equal to the federal poverty line to qualify. In other words, poorer workers will not be reunited with their families.

-- Sends them home. Under the heading "Promoting Circular Migration Patterns," the legislation contains language meant to encourage guest-workers to return home, which expresses the true nature of this bill: to discourage permanent residency.

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It won't change the deadly pattern of migration and segregation.

-- The excluded will still cross. The McCain-Kennedy law offers only 400,000 slots for applicants (although this can be raised an extra 20 percent), far less than current levels of migration, as well as the increase of low-wage jobs in immigrant-receiving states. This means that the majority of migrants will still cross through deserts and mountains. Family members eager to reunite with loved ones will bypass the long waits and risk crossing through the rough terrain. With increased border militarization, this will mean more deaths.

-- The undocumented will remain in the shadows. The bill would require undocumented workers to register with the state, pay huge fines and run the risk of being deported. It reinforces the status quo--the segregation of undocumented workers--which will continue the cycle of racism and exploitation.

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