News Analysis

In the teeth of an incredibly vicious anti-immigrant campaign by the ultra-right, a bipartisan group in Congress has submitted legislation to restructure the system, dealing simultaneously with the needs of undocumented workers and concerns about security.

The bill, called the “Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005”

(S 1033 and HR 2330), is sponsored by Senators Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) and Jeff Flake (both Arizona republicans) and Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.).

One provision allows undocumented immigrants currently living and working in the United States to gain “legal” status. They will be allowed to participate in a new H-5B temporary visa program and, after six years, apply for permanent residency. They will have to pay at least $2,000 as a penalty for their previous undocumented status, plus pass various kinds of background checks and security tests.

This is a more stringent process than those included in previous immigrant legalization bills, but those were presented — and failed to pass — in years when the Republicans did not control the White House, the courts and both houses of Congress. The additional hoops for immigrants to jump through are included to capture some Republican votes, essential for passage, according to the bill’s supporters.

The most controversial element of the bill is the “Essential Worker Visa Program,” a program that annually will allow into the country some 400,000 guest workers in low-skill jobs. There are supposed safeguards so that this program does not displace American workers or lead to super-exploitation of the guest workers, including protections for labor rights and the prior advertisement of the jobs in question for U.S. workers.

Guest workers would be able to quit an unsatisfactory job, but would be deported if they don’t find another within 60 days. At the end of two three-year stints, the guest workers and their families would be eligible to apply for permanent residency, leading eventually to citizenship.

There are some 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country and thousands come across the U.S.-Mexico border every year, a product of the increasing impoverishment of Mexico and other countries under the blows of imperialism and corporate globalization. Hundreds die in the desert trying to reach the U.S. every year. This situation not only is extremely hard on the immigrant workers, but also undercuts all workers in this country.

Something has to be done about both the number of undocumented here and the ongoing migration, but it is hard to do anything constructive given the present balance of power in all three branches of government.

Supporters of the Kennedy-McCain initiative point out that without some Republican support, nothing can get through Congress at this point, so some compromises are required.

Others are instead supporting HR 257, a straightforward legalization bill without a guest worker component, which has been resubmitted by Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), but has no co-sponsors so far.

One possible scenario would be to amend the Kennedy-McCain bill to make the legalization process easier and the labor migration part less subject to abuse. It is clear that for the struggle for immigrant rights, it is vital to reverse the Republican majority in Congress in 2006.