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Why business wants a guest-worker program

April 27, 2007 | Page 9

LANCE SELFA explains why labor has to reject any bill that establishes a second-class category.

A RECENT Wall Street Journal report on discussions in Congress over immigration legislation disclosed that two administration officials, Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, are closely involved in the negotiations.

"With ... Gutierrez, Mr. Chertoff has participated in weeks of meetings, first with Senate Republicans and now members of both parties," David Rogers reported April 18. "Senior White House aides are part of the talks, which sometimes resemble political focus groups, as the administration tries to find the right formula to bring in Republican support. But Mr. Chertoff--who would have to certify that the border-security requirements have been met--is the most crucial player."

If the bill that emerges from these discussions foregrounds "enforcement" as the main element of immigration "reform," it should be clear why.

But the heavy participation of Chertoff in legislative horse-trading--an unusual role for a high-level executive branch official--is even more noteworthy for what it illustrates about the two-faced nature of the immigration debate in Washington.

On the one hand, we have Chertoff, the chief official in charge of the agency that has been conducting raids and deportations in immigrant communities across the country. On the other, we have Gutierrez--himself an immigrant--whose job (to the extent that the commerce secretary actually does anything) is to promote American business.

Both are working to produce an immigration reform bill that will satisfy the "enforcement" demands of anti-immigrant politicians and the demands of big business for immigrant labor.

This may seem like a contradiction, but it's built into the system of capitalism and the way it deals with different groups of workers. The fact that the Bush administration has tapped Chertoff and Gutierrez jointly to help win over anti-immigrant xenophobes like Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) is proof of this.

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THE CAPITALIST system is international, with products manufactured and sold worldwide and a global labor pool. To fill the capitalists' demand for labor, this labor pool has to be somewhat mobile. National border controls ensure that capitalism, through its state, maintains control of labor, rather than allowing people to move at will.

When economic growth produces a demand for workers that the existing workforce can't satisfy, a "labor shortage" results. Just as women moved into arms industry jobs while men were fighting in the Second World War, immigrants often fill the ranks of workers when native-born workers can't.

In the economic boom of the 1990s, about half of all workers--and 80 percent of male workers--who entered the labor force were immigrants, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures analyzed by the Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies in 2002. In New England and the New York area, the workforce wouldn't have grown at all without immigration.

"The American economy absolutely needs immigrants," Northeastern University Center director Andrew Sum told the Washington Post last year. "I realize some workers have been hurt by this...but our economy has become more dependent on immigrant labor than at any time in the last 100 years."

Immigration itself does not lower workers' wages. But competition and division between groups of workers does. If one section of the workforce can be exploited without any legal recourse, it's easier for the bosses to lower all workers' living standards.

Wal-Mart--whose ads are omnipresent in the Spanish-language media--last year was found to have hired subcontractors that employed undocumented workers. It's likely that the company knew that its contractor didn't verify the immigration status of its employees. But no matter. The government's fine of $10,000 per violation is chump change to a company whose owners include five of the world's 10 richest people.

Yet it's Wal-Mart's deliberate policies of paying low wages, offering stingy benefits and opposing unions that drive down workers' living standards--even if the company didn't employ a single "illegal" worker. Employing immigrant labor at substandard conditions is another of its standard practices.

As goes the world's largest retailer, so goes U.S. business. The wide support in big business circles for what politicians euphemistically title a "guest-worker" program is a way to generalize and legalize the exploitation of immigrants and extend low wages and bad working conditions from particular immigrant-heavy niches to the U.S. economy as a whole.

Bosses and politicians know that crackdowns like the Wal-Mart raids or "Operation Gatekeeper" at the U.S.-Mexico border won't stop workers from coming to the U.S. Nor would they want to stop the flow of immigrant labor into the U.S.

But--and here's where Chertoff comes in--immigration crackdowns can increase pressure on bosses and even many immigrant rights supporters to surrender to whatever immigration "reform" the bosses are willing to offer. And it is obvious today, as it was in last year's immigration reform debate in Congress, that the bosses want a guest-worker program.

Historically, workers of different races or nationalities have advanced together, or they have sunk together. That's why all workers and their unions should not only welcome immigrants into the labor movement, but they should support a real reform that legalizes millions of undocumented workers--without forcing them to accept the second-class category of "guest worker."

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