Immigration reform returns to Congress

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NewsAnalysis

As Congress returns to the subject of immigration, the Bush administration has stepped up arrests and deportations of immigrants. Meanwhile, in his State of the Union message, Bush once again stressed the creation of a new guest worker program. Both have to be countered by the immigrant rights movement.

Bush’s motives for ratcheting up repression are not hard to guess. His administration has been extremely consistent in emphasizing a greatly expanded guest worker program as the “solution.” He also talks vaguely about legalization, but it is the guest worker part that really interests his corporate supporters.

And combining his talk about guest workers and reform with vicious raids makes sense tactically, for it tends to push both employers and immigrants into accepting a guest worker program in order to get out from under the pressure.

Service Employees Union President Andy Stern, in an open letter to Sen. Edward Kennedy last month, listed the following things as essential for any guest worker program to be acceptable to his union:

• Portability of visas (guest workers should be allowed to switch jobs in mid-stint),

• Right of guest workers to join unions and exercise all other labor rights,

• Right of guest workers to bring their families with them,

• Ability of guest workers to petition for permanent resident status without permission from the employer,

• Enforcement mechanisms to protect the interests of both the guest workers and other workers, and

• No requirement to return home after a limited stint working in the U.S.

This would be, on paper, a considerable improvement over what was in the bill the Senate passed last year, or even the McCain-Kennedy Bill that SEIU and others supported. But what Stern describes is not the kind of guest worker program that employers want or that Bush would accept.

Bush made clear that he wants a guest worker program in which workers would be forced to go back to their countries of origin after their stint. He promotes a guest worker program in order to please major sectors of big business that want the cheap labor “legally,” but also pitches to anti-immigrant forces with a promise that the workers brought here to be exploited will also not have either labor rights or social services. This is incompatible with Stern’s stipulations.

The AFL-CIO has taken a position in opposition to any guest worker program as “harmful to all workers.” Existing guest worker programs are prone to grotesque abuses. For example, last week Mexican guest workers in Louisiana protested against a contractor for holding onto their passports so that the workers could not escape his clutches, and would be forced to keep working despite the fact that the employer had reneged on promised conditions of work.

Supporters of guest worker programs say that even if all 12 million undocumented immigrants were legalized, huge numbers would still cross the border to find work, because the home country pressures that cause immigration would not have changed. It is better that such people be enabled to come legally. But it does not follow that a new guest worker program is the best or only way to do this. The U.S. government has been issuing only 5,000 work-related permanent resident visas per year to people in the main job categories in which most undocumented workers are employed. It would be far better to adjust this figure radically upward than to bring in guest workers, because permanent residents have more enforceable rights.

Right now, the immediate fight is to stop the current spate of raids and other repressive actions.

An important national initiative has begun. Under the leadership of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, the American Friends Service Committee, the League of United Latin American Citizens and hundreds of other local and national organizations, there is a push for a moratorium on all raids and deportations until Congress can craft an acceptable comprehensive immigration reform program.