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21. New Immigration Plan Favors Business Over People

Sources: Interhemispheric Resource Center IRC, November 16, 2004, Washington Free Press, Nov/Dec, 2004, Title: How U.S. Corporations Won the Debate Over Immigration, Author: David Bacon;http://www.washingtonfreepress.org/72/howUsCorporationsWon.htm; MotherJones.com, November 11, 2004, Title: “Migrants No More,” Author: Maggie Jones; http://www.motherjones.com/news/feature/2004/11/11_404

Faculty Evaluator: Francisco Vazquez, Ph.D.
Student Researchers: Joseph F. Davis

A bi-partisan effort from the Federal government is emerging to close the borders with Mexico by increasing barriers that keep “illegal” immigrants from traveling to and from Mexico, and in turn creating a guest worker program with specific time limits for residency. Reminiscent of the defunct bracero program, the status of “guest worker” has reappeared as the preferred name for Mexican nationals working in this country.

The leading organization behind the guest worker legislation is The Essential Worker Immigration Coalition (EWIC), which was organized in 1999, while Bill Clinton was still president. The group quickly grew to include 36 of the country’s most powerful employer associations, headed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The National Association of Chain Drug Stores-including Wal Mart (which was sanctioned for employing undocumented workers last year)-belongs, as do the American Health Care Association, the American Hotel and Lodging Association, the National Council of Chain Restaurants, the National Restaurant Association, and the National Retail Federation. Each of these associations represents employers who depend on a workforce almost entirely without benefits and working at (or below) minimum wage.

Edward Kennedy, Democrat, and John McCain, Republican, are promoting a bi-partisan bill that would create the designation of “guest worker” for a three year period. About half a million workers would be eligible for the status if they are sponsored by American businesses and pay five hundred dollars. The over ten million undocumented workers residing in the United States who are not sponsored by businesses would be encouraged to come forward and pay a two-thousand-dollar fine to receive the new status. The guest worker category can be renewed after three years, or businesses could sponsor workers for green cards.

The proposed legislation does not address the growing problem of undocumented workers residing in the United States. Because of the nature of the work being offered under this program, most guest workers will be left with little more than minimum wage employment. There are no benefits or health care offered under the new program. The two-thousand-dollar price tag for uninvited potential guest workers means that most of the more than ten million undocumented workers will be unwilling to come forth. Historically, millions of Mexican laborers would return to Mexico during off-seasons to visit family. Today, with tighter border restrictions and the cost of paying a labor smuggler up to $300, few people return to Mexico, resulting in permanent under-class poverty communities spread out throughout the country.

There has been no serious discussion on Capitol Hill on realistically dealing with the undocumented worker situation in this country because U.S. corporations will continue to benefit from cheap labor sources from outside and inside the borders of the United States.

The official bracero program, negotiated in 1942 between the U.S. and Mexican governments was ended in 1964. Ernesto Galarza, a labor organizer, former diplomat and early hero of the Chicano movement, was its greatest opponent in Washington. But Cesar Chavez was also an early voice calling for abolition. Chavez later said he could never have organized the United Farm Workers until growers could no longer hire braceros during strikes. In fact, the great five-year grape strike in which the UFW was born began the year after the bracero program ended. According to the UFW’s Mark Grossman, “Chavez believed agribusiness’ chief farm labor strategy for decades was maintaining a surplus labor supply to keep wages and benefits depressed, and fight unionization.”

The organization of veterans of the bracero program, with chapters in both the U.S. and Mexico, was even more critical. “We’re totally opposed to the institution of new guest worker programs,” explained Ventura Gutierrez, head of the Union Sin Fronteras. “People who lived through the old program know the abuse they will cause.” One former bracero, Manual Herrera, told the Associated Press’s Julianna Barbassa, “they rented us, got our work, then sent us back when they had no more use for us.” Thousands of former braceros are still trying to collect money deducted from their pay during the 1940s and 1950s.

Money that was supposedly held in trust to ensure they completed work contracts, but never turned over to them. Bush’s proposal contains a similar provision. “If we accept, then our grandsons and great-grandsons will go through what we went through,” ex-bracero Florentino Lararios told Barbassa. U.S. labor opposition focused on the lack of a real amnesty. Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, and one of the AFL-CIO’s key policy makers on immigration, said, “Bush tells immigrants you have no right to earn citizenship, but tells corporations you have the right to exploit workers, both American and immigrant….” This proposal allows hard-working, tax-paying immigrants to become a legitimate part of our economy, but it keeps them from fully participating in our democracy-making immigrants a permanent sub-class of our society.

Update by David Bacon: “How Corporations Won the Debate over Immigration” broke a story of national importance-how the largest U.S. corporations, dependent on a steady supply of immigrant workers, got the President and Congress to introduce legislation giving them a vastly expanded guest worker program. This program, like the old “bracero” program of the 1940s and ‘50s, used a system of contract labor to exploit immigrant workers and deny them their rights, while creating an oversupply of labor to drive down wages for all workers, immigrant and non-immigrant alike.

The story was originally published in the fall of 2004. By the spring of 2005, corporate pressure for expanded guestworker programs had grown so strong that even bipartisan proposals for immigration reform included them. The word in Washington DC is now that no immigration reform is worth discussing unless corporate America gets what it wants. In mid-May, a new bill was introduced by Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain, which includes a program even larger than that proposed by Bush.

The President’s program calls for 300,000 people to be given temporary visas for three years, renewable for another three. The Kennedy/McCain bill calls for 400,000 temporary visas. In addition, the bill calls for requiring the 9 million currently undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to enroll as guestworkers for six years to qualify for making application for a green card, and to pay a $2000 fine. Increased enforcement of employer sanctions, the law that makes it a federal crime for an undocumented worker to hold a job, would be used to force people into the program by making it even more risky to try to work without becoming a guest worker.

Despite these draconian provisions, the bill won the sponsorship of many Democrats, and almost no Republicans. In the meantime, Texas Senator Cornyn annouunced his intention to introduce an even more conservative bill in mid-July. The Cornyn bill is regarded as the legislative embodiment of the President’s program. It is a straight temporary worker bill, with no provisions for legalization.

No matter whether sponsored by Democrats or Republicans, the corporate lobby for temporary workers has legislation which corresponds to its program.

In the meantime, however, a much more liberal bill has been introduced by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Instead of increasing job competition and pitting one group of low-wage workers against another, the bill tries to balance the needs of all low-wage workers. African-American and other minority communities suffering high unemployment would receive job training and creation programs. The bill would set up a legalization program for undocumented immigrants based on their residency, rather than employment status. It has provisions to strengthen protection for the rights of immigrant workers, ends discrimination against immigrants from countries like Haiti and Liberia, and has no guest worker program.

Republicans and many Democrats have derided the Jackson Lee bill as incompatible with the atmosphere in Congress, which seeks both to reward corporations and increase punitive measures against immigrants, especially the undocumented. But a rising tide of protest in immigrant communities and other communities of color around the country has criticized the growing wave of anti-immigrant legislation, and is callling for a movement to defend their rights instead.

Generally, the story of corporate sponsorship of the guest worker proposals has been ignored by the mainstream media. Reports on the Kennedy-McCain and Bush proposals have treated them as “pro-immigrant” because they would allow workers to cross the border legally. They’ve ignored the actual conditions for immigrants under current guest worker programs, as well as the money and influence trail leading back from these proposals to the corporate lobby, the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition. They have also ignored the Jackson-Lee bill, even though it presents the unprecedented political situation in which the country’s most progressive immigration legislation is being proposed by African-American Congress members.

Readers who want more information about the overall situation of immigrants and legislation which affects them can contact the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, at 510-465-1984, http://www.nnirr.org. More information on pending immigration legislation and the Jackson Lee bill is available from Nolan Rappaport, minority counsel to the House Immigration Subcommittee, 202-225-2329.

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