The all-Democratic Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which includes 17 Latino members of Congress, has dug in its heels in an effort to bring relief to undocumented workers and their families who are currently being subjected to immigration raids. But in return, it is becoming the target of heavy pressure from the hotel, resort, seafood and other industries.

Last fall, the leadership of the Caucus developed a strategy to create leverage for progress on immigration reform. Concluding that the full package of “comprehensive immigration reform” was not achievable until the Democrats increased their congressional majority and replaced Bush in the White House, the Caucus decided to narrow its focus to measures that would undo the harm being done everyday by the immigration raids and other enforcement procedures ordered by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. So the Caucus tentatively adopted a proposal from grassroots immigrants’ rights activists to provide provisional, renewable five-year visas for most undocumented immigrants now living and working in the United States.

This measure, they believed, would blunt the repressive anti-immigrant offensive, and give everybody breathing space until after the elections. Then the plan for comprehensive reform, involving a path to citizenship and other things, could be taken up in a friendlier environment for immigrants.

Even such a modest measure, however, could not pass unless there was a trade-off with a portion of the Republicans and the business interests they represent. There aren’t enough Democratic votes pass the measure in both the House and Senate, and to override a possible presidential veto.

What do the Republicans want to get out of immigration legislation? Some Republicans have as their main objective the expansion of guest worker programs to provide cheap, easily controlled labor for certain industries. Others are more focused on increasing repression against immigrants as a means of permitting them to pose demagogically as defenders of our country against “foreign invaders.” All of them want to undercut organized labor.

Rather than offering the Republicans new concessions in either of these areas, the Hispanic Caucus decided on a strategy to block any new legislation controlling immigration or authorizing guest worker programs, unless it was part of a package that would authorize the five-year provisional visas for undocumented workers and their families.

On a related matter, something strange has been happening with existing H2B seasonal guest worker programs. While Congress originally authorized these programs for specific numbers of people, the Bush administration forgot to count how many individual workers it was letting in, and let far more come into the country than Congress had authorized.

This exacerbated the tendency for certain labor intensive industries, especially those with seasonal hiring patterns, to become dependent on guest workers to the exclusion of other possible sources of labor. Landscaping, gardening, seafood processing and summer resort industries were particularly eager to soak up the extra short-term workers. When it was suddenly discovered that far more guest workers had been let in than authorized, employers successfully pressured Congress to allow the extra numbers to come back the following year.

The current cap on H2B seasonal workers is 66,000 per year – half for the summer and half for the winter. The “special dispensation” that applied until this year allowed workers who had come here for the past three years to come back without being counted against the 66,000 limit. This more than doubled the number of H2B workers available to these employers.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus latched onto this situation to get leverage for its five-year provisional visa plan. Caucus members worked to bottle up requests for renewal of the “accidental extra” guest worker slots as a means of pressuring for action on the undocumented workers’ rights issue.

The industries that expected to be able to use the extra guest workers set up a howl. They heaped abuse on the Hispanic Caucus members and Caucus Chair Joe Baca (D-Calif.) for harming essential American industries and, what is more, being cruel to hard working immigrants who really need these jobs! Earlier this year, President Bush pitched in by proposing a whole new guest worker plan with even fewer worker guarantees than the existing ones.

Guest worker plans have a history of outrageous abuses against workers’ rights, and are categorically opposed by most of organized labor, including the AFL-CIO. Hispanic Caucus Chair Baca makes clear, however, that he is not absolutely opposed to all such programs. His stance is simply that it makes no sense to be throwing thousands of undocumented workers out of this country, and creating immense hardship for their families and communities in the process, while also bringing in thousands of new guest workers, sometimes from the same countries to which the undocumented are being deported.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats and others from areas where businesses use a lot of H2B guest workers have been pushing for the passage of legislation to expand the seasonal hiring programs. Whether the efforts of the Hispanic Caucus can hold up to this pressure remains to be seen.

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