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The case for amnesty

April 7, 2006 | Pages 6 and 7

JUSTIN AKERS CHACON, coauthor with Mike Davis of the upcoming book No One Is Illegal, discusses the crucial issue missing from the mainstream political debate on immigration--amnesty for undocumented workers.

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A SPECTER is haunting Congress--the specter of amnesty. As millions of immigrant workers and students strike, walk out and protest against anti-immigrant legislation being discussed in Congress, the debate over amnesty is beginning.

Taking place primarily as a fight within the Republican Party, amnesty is becoming the subtext for a polarization in the politics of immigration. Only no one in Washington is supporting it.

On one side are the "enforcement" Republicans, critical of any guest-worker proposals since they contain language about a "pathway to citizenship." Appealing to their conservative base to halt the march of immigrant rights, the "enforcement" Republicans pander to fears, insecurities and outright racism.

As Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) complained, "I disagree with [guest-worker proposals] not just as a matter of principle, but because granting amnesty now will only encourage future and further disrespect for the law. It will undermine our efforts to secure our homeland."

Anyone who supports such proposals, said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), should be "branded with a scarlet letter A," for "amnesty."

According to Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), a darling of the hard-line right-wing anti-immigrant organizations who launched his congressional career in 1998 on a platform of opposition to amnesty, immigrants are "a scourge that threatens the very future of our nation." Tancredo followed his latest tirade with a "Just Say No to Amnesty Week" campaign, urging supporters to turn the screws on Republican senators who are "selling out America" by supporting more moderate immigration legislation that includes plans for a guest-worker program.

On another side of the debate are the "guest-worker" Republicans and Democrats, eager to secure cheap labor for big business. They are determined to prove that the guest-worker proposals are not an amnesty, but rather a means to prevent one.

Referring to his own guest-worker proposal, Arizona Sen. John McCain explained that it focused on enforcement. In a statement on the Web site of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), who cosponsored the bill McCain supports, McCain stated, "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."

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who has entered the picture as a broker trying to reconcile the "enforcement" and "guest-worker" wings in Congress, has also come out firmly against amnesty. Promoting a recent compromise proposal that increases border militarization and includes a guest-worker proposal, Specter declared, "It is not an amnesty." In an amnesty, he told the Los Angeles Times, "lawbreakers do not have to pay for their transgressions."

Kennedy likewise assured his colleagues, "There is no free ticket...This is not amnesty."

There is a third side to the debate, and though it isn't recognized as an "official" voice, it is now shifting the terms of the debate. That side is the U.S. working class, led by millions of immigrant workers, their children and their supporters.

The past weeks of mass protests and student walkouts have shaken the country. This new civil rights movement has shifted the debate about immigration out of the executive boardrooms, golf clubs and annual stockholder meetings, and forced it into the open.

The movement is putting pressure on Congress to come up with a "plan B" to the Sensenbrenner Bill passed last December by the House, which embodies the program of the "enforcement" Republicans.

Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert summed up the new common ground. "Our first priority is to protect the border," Hastert said. "And we also know there is a need in some sectors of the economy for a guest-worker program. But we want to see what the Senate comes forward with, and we will go through the process."

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THERE ARE two reasons why a guest-worker program is emerging as the bipartisan consensus in Washington.

Guest-worker programs, by their very nature, create a second class of workers in the U.S. Current proposals would allow workers to remain in the country for a limited duration, after which they must leave or compete for a scarce number of visas.

While in this country, guest workers don't have the rights afforded to other workers. They aren't allowed to collectively bargain, join unions or speak out against exploitative bosses, and can only leave an oppressive job if they have another already lined up.

This is why Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers could only build the historic farmworker struggle after winning the abolition of the last guest-worker program, known as the bracero program, in 1964.

Under the bracero program, growers were able to turn agriculture into a $40 billion-a-year industry by keeping out unions and setting a standard for low wages. The legacy, according to a study by the Sacramento Bee, is that the many poor farmworkers make no more that $4,000 a year today.

As labor journalist David Bacon concluded, guest-worker "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."

The guest-worker proposals are designed to prevent or reduce unionism in industries beyond agriculture. Current proposals, embraced by a host of corporate interests, would allow guest workers to be used in construction, meatpacking, hotels and restaurants, manufacturing, transportation, health care and other sectors of the economy.

It is within these very industries that immigrant workers have played a key role revitalizing the union movement in the last two decades. While union membership has been declining over the last three decades, immigrant workers are a growth engine.

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 the difficulties associated with citizenship. Reflecting changing attitudes in the unions and militancy among immigrant workers themselves, the number of immigrants in unions has grown 23 percent between 1996 and 2003.

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

A new guest-worker program would halt union growth in those sectors and trigger a gradual erosion as braceros could be used as leverage against union drives and contract negotiations. A new guest-worker program would create a vast segregated workforce, controlled and exploited by big business--and set the workers' movement back to the days before Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers' movement.

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AN AMNESTY is a provision that allows for the immediate legalization of the undocumented, with a guaranteed means of attaining citizenship for those who want it. Unlike current proposals, which use the deceptive language of "earned" citizenship or a "path to" citizenship and which exclude the majority from obtaining permanent residency, amnesty would make immigrants equals with the rest of the working class.

The last amnesty, passed in 1986, led to legalization and citizenship for about 2.8 million immigrant workers. This set the stage for a new generation of organizing drives that fed unions like the SEIU, UNITE-HERE and others.

While other unions were pushed on the defensive, immigrant worker-led union drives demonstrated a willingness to fight. This led the AFL-CIO to support the organizing of immigrants, including the undocumented, and led to a growing demand amongst workers themselves for a new amnesty.

This is the demand now emanating from the streets, and it is sending chills down the spine of Corporate America.

If the 11 million undocumented workers in the U.S. today were given equal rights, it would abolish the legal segregation that serves as the means to exploit the powerless. It would also undermine the racism that justifies the militarization of the border. It would give a voice to the voiceless and increase the number of voters who could have recourse against politicians trying to build their careers by scapegoating immigrants. It would also help revitalize a labor movement in crisis.

As the new immigrant rights movement awakens, it must put forth its own proposal: Amnesty without criminalization. As Maria Gonzalez, a marcher at the demonstration of 1 million in Los Angeles March 25, commented as she considered the masses of workers around her, "With this many people, we should demand legalization and amnesty."

While Congress is being forced to respond to the demands of the protests, it is only as a means to defend corporate interests, reshuffle their cards and head off a new civil rights movement. Only when the politicians are forced to concede to the organized power of a united movement will they reluctantly accept our demands.

That is why we must continue to build the immigrant rights movement, independent of the bipartisan legislative proposals that serve Corporate America. We have to organize where we have the most power: in the workplaces, schools and communities.

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