The “more compassionate” immigration system for undocumented workers proposed by President George W. Bush on Jan. 7 will grant corporations greater ability to pit U.S. workers against the global work force for domestic jobs, say labor and immigrant rights leaders. It will also help businesses further exploit undocumented workers.

Bush is proposing a massive temporary worker program that will match “willing foreign workers with willing American employers.”

The program, which will be administered by the Department of Homeland Security, establishes a three-year temporary worker visa for which both employed undocumented immigrants and foreign workers with job offers can apply. “Participants who do not remain employed, who do not follow the rules, or who break the law will not be eligible for continued participation and will be required to return to their home,” Bush said.

But AFL-CIO President John Sweeney pointed out that the program will “serve large corporations’ needs over those of immigrant workers and their families.” Sweeney said the proposal “creates a permanent underclass of workers … (and) deepens the potential for abuse and exploitation of these workers.” It would “formalize an even larger class of workers accorded only second-tier status in American workplaces and will exacerbate the decline in job quality and job security for all workers,” he said.

Rep. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) called the temporary worker program “a rotation of human capital, to be used and discarded, with no hope of permanently legalizing one’s status.”

Bush said employers “must make every reasonable effort to find an American worker for the job at hand.” He promised that “the government will develop a quick and simple system for employers to search for American workers,” and says the new temporary worker system “should be clear and efficient, so employers are able to find workers quickly and simply.” Undocumented workers will have to pay a “one-time fee” to be eligible for consideration. Workers recruited abroad apparently will not have to pay a fee.

Laborers Union President Terence O’Sullivan told the Workday Minnesota news service that Bush is proposing to “chain a worker to an employer and claim to protect human rights.” Chaining workers to employers, he added, “protects corporations and employers … but leaves workers themselves vulnerable and beholden to those employers for the right to stay here.”

The program, said Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, appears to offer the business community full access to the immigrant workers it needs while providing very little to the workers themselves.” And because these workers would be vulnerable during their temporary status and even more vulnerable when it expires, “the program would have a negative impact on the wages and working conditions for their U.S.-born co-workers” as well.

The National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium said in a statement that Bush’s proposal fails to provide a reasonable and timely path to lawful permanent residence. “It is unrealistic to expect people to come out of the shadows and become fully integrated members of our community and economy if they know that they will be forced to leave everything behind when their period of stay under the program ends,” said NAPALC member Phil Y. Ting.

Bush’s temporary labor program has predecessors in the form of indentured servitude, contract labor, and coolie labor systems of past centuries. The Bracero Program, begun during World War II, brought temporary Mexican workers in to augment crop harvesting for agribusiness in the Southwest. Business forces greatly expanded the program after the war.

Government and business colluded to undermine labor rights of citizens, green card holders, bracero sand undocumented workers with the Bracero Program, pitting all against each other, according to Ernesto Galarza, who helped organize the Mexican-American/Labor alliance that won its repeal in the early ’60s.

Galarza’s book, “Merchants of Labor,” describes how the bracero workforce grew from 4,203 in 1942 to nearly 300,000 in 1959. Many braceros found that working without documents was more advantageous, so as the program grew, so did the number of undocumented workers. The government responded with increased deportations, which rose from 5,100 in 1942 to over 1 million in 1954 during the racist program the government called “Operation Wetback.”

The multi-tiered system fostered the continued growth of agribusiness over the family farm, prevented successful union organizing, and sharply reduced the number of citizens in the farm labor work force.

The Bush proposal will create a temporary work program on a scale potentially far broader and deeper than the Bracero Program. Undocumented workers are found in almost every job description that exists, professional, skilled, unskilled, and in every region of the country. According to the Bush statement, undocumented workers will be eligible to apply for permits for the jobs they now have, workers in other countries, perhaps now employed by U.S. global corporations, will also be able to seek invitation to such jobs.

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