Whether inspired by Platonic idealism or a “paint by numbers” version of Marxism, some on the left continue to push the idea that there is no difference between Bush and Kerry. They call either for a vote for a minor-party candidate who can’t win, or for no vote at all. Some do understand that this might re-elect Bush, but claim that Kerry would be just as bad. Well, if you care about what happens to immigrant workers in this country, you should care about who ends up in the White House, because it will make a very big difference indeed.

In May, the House of Representatives defeated, 331–88, a bill that would have required hospital personnel to record and pass on to the government the fingerprints and photographs of undocumented immigrants, who came to them for health care. Medical care personnel quickly pointed out that this would discourage immigrants from seeking care except in dire emergencies, and thus would constitute a menace to the health of not only the immigrants themselves, but of the general public as well. The bill was promoted by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) with the connivance of House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Bush has now taken the gist of the Rohrabacher bill and turned it into an executive order that threatens health care institutions with a cutoff of some federal money if they don’t agree to snitch on their immigrant patients.

In spite of concessions made by labor and immigrants’ rights groups, the Bush administration killed the AgJobs bill, which would have authorized full legalization of undocumented farm workers. The concessions involved accepting a controlled guest worker program. Representatives of farm workers’ interests, including the United Farm Workers and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, say that their main goal is to legalize as many as they can, and that the tradeoff on guest workers was the only way they could get the bill passed. But even with this concession, the Bush administration says, “Nothing doing.”

The approach of the Bush administration is to make sure that there is always a supply of such workers for corporate exploitation, while not moving an inch to grant them the right to unionize and defend their interests in the workplace, or become citizens and voters. Bush only supports a guest worker program with no meaningful guarantees, either of workplace rights or of eventual U.S. citizenship. Immigrant workers will have the right to be exploited, period.

The Democratic Party has a sharply different approach. At the urging of organized labor and Latino and immigrants’ rights organizations, the Democratic congressional leadership has signed on to a large-scale amnesty for the undocumented. Several bills would accomplish this. None of them will pass with a Republican majority in Congress, and any that did pass would be vetoed by President Bush. The best known is the SOLVE Act, HR 4262 and S 2381, which would give a path to legality and citizenship to the vast majority of the undocumented. SOLVE also contains a concession on guest workers, but with language that would create a fighting chance to protect their labor rights. Although Kerry has not become a cosponsor of the SOLVE Act yet, he has committed to its general approach.

Why have the Democrats been more reasonable than the Republicans on this? Because they lean more heavily on the electoral support of labor and minorities than do the Republicans. The Democrats know that immigrants who are legalized and become citizens are more likely to vote for Democrats. Most Republicans oppose legalization because they know that such people are not likely to vote for them, and because the Republicans are closer to the economic interests that thrive on the exploitation of immigrant labor. It doesn’t make the Democrats — who also support the capitalist system, take corporate cash, and disappoint on many issues — paragons of civic virtue. But it does make a practical difference for the lives of 12 million working people in this country, and not only those 12 million. The presence of such a large bloc of people with no rights in the workplace or the community is bad for all working people.

Though most undocumented workers would like union representation, they can’t get it because bosses take advantage of their precarious situation to prevent it. In the community, corrupt policemen, exploitative landlords and many others sponge off the immigrant community because they know that immigrants without papers often have good reason to be afraid of speaking up for their rights. So the whole working class is weakened by this state of affairs. Legalized immigrant workers could participate in union organizing drives and labor actions, and could stand up to people who take advantage of them beyond the workplace. This would be of great advantage to all working people.

So don’t listen to the “not a dime’s worth of difference” rhetoric. For the pocketbooks of immigrant workers and many others, the difference is measured in billions.

Emile Schepers is an activist in Chicago. He can be reached at pww@pww.org.