President Bush’s “guest worker” program is supposed to deal with the issue of undocumented immigration. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao made a presentation to the Senate Judiciary Committee Oct. 18 in which she outlined the administration’s approach. Though she specifically declined to endorse any existing legislation, it is clear that the Bush plan is essentially the same as the Cornyn-Kyle guest worker bill, S 1438. This approach, which offers only a temporary guest worker program, is unworkable and anti-worker and will do nothing but worsen the situation of undocumented immigrants and all workers. Here’s why.
The Bush plan would require all undocumented immigrants now in the country to “voluntarily” come forward and identify themselves, plus pay a “substantial fine or penalty,” before they could be allowed into the temporary worker program.
The idea that even a large fraction of the present undocumented immigrant population will voluntarily come forward to participate in the program Chao describes is ludicrous. In the first place, the Bush plan does not guarantee that those who apply will be able to get a job, even if they are already in the country. So undocumented workers who already have jobs are not going to voluntarily quit those jobs and apply for temporary worker slots which they have no guarantee of getting, meanwhile handing over all their information to a government which can use it to deport them.
Some undocumented workers have established families here, and even own houses and other property. Volunteering for the Bush plan would put all this at risk.
And once the workers have paid the “substantial fine or penalty,” there is no guarantee they can stay in the country even temporarily — it is contingent on being hired into the guest worker program.
The Bush plan only creates temporary worker positions, with no permanent right to stay in the country. There is no plan to increase permanent resident slots. After two three-year stints, the worker would have to “return home” to the country of origin. But what if, while here, the worker gets married or has children? What if the economic situation in the country of origin gets worse in the meantime instead of better, which is highly likely, given the dynamics of corporate globalization? What if there are no jobs or even homes to go back to?
Instead of meekly packing up and leaving, temporary workers will more likely go back into the underground economy. Then we are back where we started. To prevent this, the administration calls for stricter repression. This will only drive immigrants deeper underground, and force them to accept even worse wages and working conditions, to the detriment of all workers.
Temporary worker programs are by their very nature super-exploitative. Despite Chao’s pious language about protecting the workers’ rights under labor law, it is clear that the all-important right to collective bargaining will not be protected (and she pointedly does not mention the right to join a union and go on strike).
Immigrant workers who join the program will be at the mercy of employers, whose displeasure will most likely result in firing leading to deportation. To join the program in the first place requires that an employer wants you. To continue for a second-year stint requires that the employer be satisfied with your work. If you find yourself working for low pay in dirty and dangerous conditions, you can’t quit and look around for something better. The employer has the guest worker over a barrel.
The Bush plan, as articulated by the president himself (who claims the government is going to round up every single one of the 12 million undocumented workers) is based on a mythical view of how the world works and why immigration happens. It deliberately ignores the fact that the U.S. government and U.S.-based corporations impose trade policies, backed by military force, that perpetuate and worsen poverty in countries like Mexico.
Instead, it sees labor migration as entirely revolving around the needs of the U.S. economy, specifically U.S. employers who want cheap labor and have been getting it from the undocumented worker population.
The Republicans have used fear-mongering tactics to turn their social base against undocumented workers. Therefore, allowing this situation to continue is not politically viable.
So now, Bush offers to provide cheap labor through a guest worker program instead. Simple, if you can contrive to forget that immigrant workers are human beings, not robots.
There is nothing in Bush’s plan for workers, documented or undocumented, immigrant or U.S.-born. If we want to reduce forced labor migration, we must fight against imperialist policies which continually increase the wealth gap between poorer and richer countries. In the meanwhile, we have to keep pushing for a program of complete legalization for present undocumented immigrants, and a mechanism whereby workers who migrate here do so with full labor and civil rights and the real possibility of becoming citizens and voters. Elements of the McCain-Kennedy bill, S 1033 and HR 2330, and the Jackson-Lee Save America bill, HR 3118, need to be combined to achieve this. But it will be a hard fight.
Emile Schepers is an immigrant rights activist.