In a guest column in the Washington Post on Tuesday, July 21, former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda and US commentator Tamar Jacoby criticize projected comprehensive immigration reform on the grounds that it does not provide US industry with massive new numbers of temporary workers, and Mexicans with enough opportunities to go and work (temporarily) in the United States.

Castañeda and Jacoby are wrong on facts and interpretation. Moreover, their class loyalties and biases are showing.

Jorge Castañeda is a former Marxist and one of the founders of Mexico’s major left-center parliamentary opposition party, the PRD or Democratic Revolutionary Party. Although in youth a member of the Mexican Communist Party, after helping to create the PRD in 1989 Castañeda began a move to the right. In 2000, Casteñeda joined with another major PRD figure, Senator Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, to urge a vote not for the PRD’s own presidential candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, but for the candidate of the right wing National Action Party (PAN), Vicente Fox. This was presented by Castañeda, Muñoz and their allies as the “useful vote”. They alleged that the PRD candidate could not be elected, and that therefore the priority should to break up the 70 year monopoly of power of the then ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), to provide new openings for the left in the future. The tactic was so successful that Fox was elected in 2000 and another PANista, Felipe Calderon, succeeded him in 2006. The Fox-Calderon PAN regime has pursued policies of a decidedly right-wing description, including swallowing whole the entire neo-liberal religion of free trade, privatization, austerity and anti-labor repression, which Casteñeda had criticized when the PRI governments did similar things. For example, back in the early 1990s, Castañeda was a vocal critic of NAFTA, about which he made some prescient predictions. This did not stop him from accepting a cabinet post from Fox, namely Minister of Foreign Affairs (“Canciller” in Spanish), in a government which shaped its whole international economic policy around NAFTA and neo-liberalism, policies that Castañeda had previously excoriated. Castañeda used this position to, among other things, launch slanderous attacks on socialist Cuba, while also working to get the United States to implement an immigration reform involving the legalizing of undocumented immigrants and providing more visas for new immigrants.

Tamar Jacoby is the President of Immigration Works and has been associated with the Manhattan Institute. Both of these are business sponsored entities interested in the labor market. During the last few years, Jacoby has been involved in the effort to get a comprehensive immigration reform, and supported the McCain-Kennedy bill and similar efforts. But the main contribution of Jacoby and her colleagues has been to insist that any immigration reform plan include a large guest worker program of 400,000 or so slots per year, as part of a deal that would (gradually) legalize the undocumented and other things. Many analysts point out that such guest-worker programs, where they already exist, are prone to extreme abuses on the part of employers who see the guest workers as a non-unionizable, easily exploitable source of cheap labor. Nevertheless, some sectors of labor (SEIU, UNITE-HERE, the Farmworkers and FLOC) and of the immigrants’ rights movement supported this deal, not because they did not understand what is wrong with guest worker programs, but because they felt that this was the only way they could get the votes in Congress to legalize the 11 million or more undocumented workers and their relatives. They figured that 8 million undocumented workers legalized and given access to full rights on the job, including the right to join a union and go on strike, outweighed 400,000 new slots for guest workers whom it would be difficult to organize and protect.

But now the situation has changed, with a Democrat in the White House and expanded Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, so those in labor and the immigrants’ rights movement who felt that they had to swallow the “guest worker” aspect of McCain-Kennedy, can now try for something better, meaning more pro-worker.

What brings Jacoby and Castañeda together on the Washington Post editorial page is that they both are opposed to the program of immigration reform proposed by the new “Reform Immigration FOR America” (RI4A) coalition, and fear that this coalition may have, or get, the ear of President Obama and Congress. The RI4A plan, supported by the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, many individual unions and the majority of immigrants’ rights organizations, would legalize the undocumented. But the issue of future visas would be channeled through a new labor needs commission, with labor and business participation, which would propose visa numbers on a year to year basis, using various economic criteria yet to be developed.

The RI4A proposal has united organized labor, which was sharply divided over previous immigration reform proposals. Yet in their column, Castañeda and Jacoby, using oblique and vague language, make the accusation that this proposal is divisive, on the grounds that it does not concede to the cheap labor demands of US business interests by immediately forking over massive numbers of guest worker visas. Castañeda also claims that the proposal is unrealistic because it does not take into account the certainty of future immigration to the US from Mexico, and the indisputable fact that if legal mechanisms for immigration are not provided, people will continue to come in illegally.

But the AFL-CIO and other members of the RI4A coalition have said over and over again that they are not against the issuance of new permanent resident visas based on expanded work based and family quotas, but only that they oppose guest worker visas. The difference is that a permanent resident non-citizen has most of the rights that citizens have, and can openly join unions, etc. without the fear that if she loses her job as a result of such exercise of her rights, she will be deported. Guest workers have no such rights, and are normally tied to specific employers; if they quit their jobs or are fired, they are normally kicked out of the country. (Under the Clinton and Bush administrations the rights of legal resident non-citizens were seriously eroded, but that’s another story for another article). Castañeda and Jacoby affect to assume that only guest worker visas will do for the purposes of absorbing emigration from Mexico to the United States (they don’t mention other countries from which undocumented immigrants come). But why not promote permanent resident visas instead? Permanent residents are under no obligation, by the way, to become US citizens and if they want to move back to their countries of origin at some point, they are welcome to do so. But meanwhile they have at least some rights as workers and, not as citizens, but as members of a community in which they can get married, have children and exercise some options as to what conditions on the job they can or can not accept.

Castañeda’s position on the need for the United States to provide guest worker visas for a continual stream of immigrants from Mexico is ironic. Having denounced NAFTA precisely because of the danger that it would lead to the displacement of millions of Mexican farmers and workers, Castañeda ended up working for a government that aggressively promoted the very policies he deplored. And under the conditions imposed along with NAFTA (and the 1994 – 1995 Clinton-Rubin bailout), life for millions of Mexicans, especially but not only in the countryside, has deteriorated so far that the number of undocumented immigrants coming to the US each year quickly doubled. And the best that Castañeda can think of for these his countrymen and women is “guest worker visas”.

My idea of paradise on earth is the town of Xalapa Enriquez, in Veracruz State in Mexico. I was only there briefly back in the 1970s, but the sheer beauty of the place took my breath away and I have never forgotten it. I can not imagine why anybody would leave such a beautiful place to go and live in the slums of Chicago or Milwaukee, unless they could absolutely not find a way to work, earn money and support their families in Xalapa. People like Jorge Casteñeda should be working to make it unnecessary for the xalapeños to migrate, instead of shilling for US big business interests. But that would entail returning to his Marxist roots, and maybe revising his views on Cuba and socialism, as these are the forces in Latin America that are actively developing economic and political models that will make mass emigration caused by economic desperation unnecessary.

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