Truthout, January 27, 2007
Title: “Which Side Are You On?”
Author: David Bacon
The Nation, February 6, 2007
Title: “Workers, Not Guests”
Author: David Bacon
Foreign Policy in Focus, February 26, 2007
Title: “Migrants: Globalization’s Junk Mail?”
Author: Laura Carlsen
Student Researcher: Fernanda Borras
Faculty Evaluator: Diana Grant, Ph.D.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) flooded Mexico with cheap subsidized US agricultural products that displaced millions of Mexican farmers. Between 2000 and 2005, Mexico lost 900,000 rural jobs and 700,000 industrial jobs, resulting in deep unemployment throughout the country. Desperate poverty has forced millions of Mexican workers north in order to feed their families.
The National Campesino Front estimates that two million farmers have been displaced by NAFTA, in many cases related to the increase in US imports. In 1994, the first year of the agreement, the United States exported $4.59 billion of agricultural products to Mexico, according to the Department of Agriculture. By 2006 the figure had risen to $9.85 billion—an increase of 114 percent. US exports of corn, Mexico’s staple crop and largest source of rural employment, alone doubled to over $2.5 billion in 2006.
This combination of unemployment in Mexico, the huge gap between salaries in the United States and Mexico, and US demand for cheap labor to compete on global markets has created the current situation. The demand for undocumented labor in the US economy is structural. It is not just a few companies seeking to cut corners. These are not just jobs that “US workers won’t take.” Migrants work in nearly all low-paying occupations and have become essential to the US economy in the age of global competition.
The meatpacking industry provides a good example. The US meat industry as it went global shows a fast slide in working conditions over the past decades as a result of de-unionization, erosion of wages and benefits, and increasing safety and health hazards. Part and parcel of that slide has been the replacement of unionized US workers with migrants.
Aside from traditional employment in agriculture, another major use of migrant labor has been through the advent of subcontracting. This practice, well in place since the early 1980s, has contributed to the de-unionization of the workforce. It conveniently releases employees from direct responsibility for the legal status and treatment of workers in their employment.
In the wake of 9/11, Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) has conducted workplace and home invasions across the country in an attempt to round up “illegal” immigrants. ICE justifies these raids under the rubric of keeping our homeland safe and preventing terrorism. However the real goal of these actions is to disrupt the immigrant work force in the US and replace it with a tightly regulated non-union guest-worker program. This policy is endorsed by companies seeking permanent low-wage workers through a lobby group called Essential Worker Immigrations Coalition (EWIC). EWIC’s fifty-two members include the US Chamber of Commerce, Wal-Mart, Marriott, Tyson Foods, American Meat Institute, California Landscape Contractors Association, and the Association of Builders and Contractors.
ICE now has Operation Return to Sender, a program, supposedly designed to target fugitive aliens. The program has resulted in the indiscriminate roundup of over 13,000 undocumented immigrants in cities throughout the United States.
Immigrant rights organizations have noted that the crackdown has led to serious human rights violations. Families are separated. Hearings are slow, and often families do not know for long periods of time where their loved ones are being held. A January 16 report from the Homeland Security Department’s Inspector General of conditions at five detention centers identified frequent violation of federal standards, overcrowding, and health and safety violations.
The firings and raids highlight the vulnerability of immigrant workers under current US law. In 1986 Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, making it a federal crime for an employer to hire a worker without valid immigration documents. While few employers have ever faced penalties, in reality the law made it a crime for undocumented workers to hold a job. No current law requires employers to fire workers whose Social Security numbers don’t jibe. But President Bush proposed a new administrative rule, which would tell employers to fire anyone with a no-match. The regulation has never been officially issued, but many companies claim they’re already complying with it.
Both the enforcement and the agenda behind this crackdown are alarming many unions. In 1999 the AFL-CIO called for the repeal of employer sanctions, as well as for a generous legalization program, greater chances for family reunification, and enforcement of workplace rights. The federation was already on record opposing new guest worker programs. The Service Employees, and the two garment unions were among the first to push for this position. “We still call for the repeal of employer sanctions, as we have from the time it was passed,” says Bruce Raynor, UNITE HERE president. “There are 12 million undocumented people living here, who are important to the economy,” he fumes. “They have a right to seek employment, and employers have a right to hire them. The only way to deal with this is to give workers rights and a path to citizenship.”
UPDATE BY DAVID BACON
“Which Side are you On?” and “Workers, not Guests” expose the way US immigration law is being transformed into a mechanism for supplying labor to some of the country’s largest corporations. Immigration law is creating a two-tier society, in which millions of people are denied fundamental rights and social benefits, because they are recruited to come to the US by those corporations on visas that condemn them to a second-class status. Those guest workers face increased poverty and exploitation, and their status is being used to put pressure on wages, benefits and workplace rights for all workers.
“Workers, not Guests” describes the way that the Bush administration uses immigration raids to attack union organizing campaigns and efforts by immigrant workers to enforce basic workplace rights and protections. Further, the administration uses the raids to pressure Congress into adopting new, vastly expanded guest worker programs.
Both articles describe the way some groups have abandoned their historic opposition to contract labor programs. Instead, the National Council of La Raza, the National Immigration Forum, and other labor and religious organizations have developed a political alliance with some of the country’s largest corporations, with the objective of passing new guest worker legislation. This legislation also includes provisions that will make future immigration raids much harsher and more widespread.
Since publication, the Bush administration and both Democratic and Republican senators have announced new proposals that go even further. They would end the ability of immigrant families to reunite in the US, and instead institute a corporate-driven point system intended to supply skilled labor to big companies. Raids and enforcement would become even harsher, with huge detention centers built on the border. The proposals would allow corporations to recruit as many as 600,000 contract guest workers a year.
The use of immigration policy to funnel labor to corporate employers is growing at the same time that Congress is debating new corporate trade legislation, including the renewal of fast track negotiating authority for the administration, and four new trade agreements—with South Korea, Peru, Panama, and Colombia. These bills would all increase the displacement of workers and farmers in other countries, sending many of them into the migrant stream to the US. This displacement is being coordinated with Congress’s immigration proposals, which would then channel displaced workers into industries where their labor can be used profitably, and ensure that they can only remain in the US in a status vulnerable to exploitation.
The mainstream press has carried many articles about the proposals and raids. There has been very little coverage of the corporate backing for the immigration bills in Congress, however. Many reporters refer to the guest worker bills as “pro-immigrant” and “left.” This has not only been inaccurate reporting, but has actually covered up the corporate domination of the immigration agenda in Congress. There has been virtually no coverage of the connection between US trade policy and immigration policy.
For more accurate information, readers can contact the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights,http://www.nnirr.org. Global Exchange organized a national speaking tour on trade and immigration policy by David Bacon and Juan Manuel Sandoval, a leading Mexican critic of NAFTA and US immigration policy. The presentations made during that tour are available on the Global Exchange website, http://www.globalexchange.org.