In the early 17th century the English government established systems of servitude, slave and indentured, for much of the labor imported to its North American colonies. Today the Republican-led U.S. Senate has started debate on establishing a new system of servitude for imported labor through a proposal to massively expand categories of “non-immigrant workers,” complete with repressive structures to transition undocumented workers into the system and keep them under tight control.
The over 300-page proposal was introduced Feb. 23 by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). Committee discussion was set to begin March 2, with a vote expected on or before March 16. The full Senate may start floor debate by March 27.
The proposal projects two non-immigrant worker statuses — one for undocumented workers employed here before Jan. 4, 2004, and another for future temporary or guest workers. The control structures borrow much from the notorious HR 4437 railroaded through the House by GOP leadership last December.
Labor, immigrants and civil rights groups, religious organizations and local governments are mobilizing mass opposition to the repressive enforcement and temporary worker measures of Specter’s proposal as well as the enforcement-only HR 4437.
At a Feb. 28 press conference, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson called the Specter proposal “a blueprint for exploitation” for immigrant and citizen workers by creating a two-tier work force, with temporary workers kept from participating in the struggles for labor rights.
Specter projects a conditional non-immigrant worker status for the undocumented here since 2004 — some 6-8 million workers and their undocumented family members. The duration of the status is conditional. To be eligible the worker must have been working here before Jan. 4, 2004, and would have to waive “any rights to administrative or judicial review or appeal of his eligibility.”
The major condition is continuous work, with a maximum allowance of 45 continuous days out of work. There are no provisions for retirement, pregnancy, downsizing, strikes or recession. Immediate family could accompany the worker but could not work without separate permits.
Specter would add a “non-immigrant temporary guest worker” visa, called H-2C, employer-based and unlimited in number. The employer would have to first offer the job to U.S. workers in the geographical area; if none were found, the job could be opened to H-2C workers. These would have to apply from their countries, probably through recruiting agencies tied to employers. The visa would be for three years and could be renewed once. Workers would then have to return to their countries for at least one year before being eligible again. There is also a 45-day limit between jobs.
Neither program contains provisions ensuring the right to organize or to strike, or any real path to permanent legal status and citizenship.
Specter’s enforcement proposals include making undocumented presence, or providing social, cultural or economic services to undocumented people, a criminal rather than civil offense. Every procedure features harsher penalties, fewer or no appeal rights or judicial review, and greater powers to Homeland Security officers for arbitrary decisions over the lives of immigrant workers. The government will have greater power to deny entry, deport or detain people for poorly defined “security reasons.”
The proposal has foreign policy ramifications. Mexico and Canada would be called on to join in developing plans with the U.S. on how Guatemala and Belize can shore up their border. To have their workers considered for temporary status, sending countries would have to enter into bilateral agreements with the U.S. on joint “anti-drug,” anti-gang, anti-smuggling and anti-illegal immigration programs.
Thousands of new personnel would police the borders, ports and other points of entry, as well as employment practices. Greater military surveillance technology, biometric identifying systems, roads and barriers would create a “virtual fence” around land and maritime borders of the U.S.
The continuous work provisions in these programs give employers greater advantage over the guest workers than over citizen and permanent resident immigrants, thus encouraging discrimination and exploitation, said AFL-CIO legislative analyst Sonia Ramirez. “Anything short of permanent residency will create a two-tier class of workers,” she added.
As the Senate Judiciary Committee vote nears, immigrant rights groups are urging daily calls, visits, letters and e-mails to committee members to reject the anti-immigrant positions of the Specter proposal and HR 4437. Mass demonstrations are planned in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and other major cities as awareness of the dangers of both House and Senate Republican plans increases.
Emile Schepers contributed to this story.