May 23, 2005
- By David Bacon
- Pacific News Service, Commentary
Proposals for a new temporary worker program are
popular in corporate America. Now they're popular in Congress as well.
President Bush a main proponent of temporary worker
programs since early in his first term. Bush, who opposes legalization for
undocumented workers currently here, calls instead for linking "willing
employees with willing employers."
Corporate pressure for these programs has grown so strong that even
bipartisan proposals for immigration reform now include them. The word in
Washington, D.C., is that no immigration reform is worth discussing unless
corporate America gets what it wants. Last week, a new bipartisan bill was
introduced by Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain, which includes a
program even larger than that proposed by Bush.
The President's program calls for three-year temporary visas for 300,000
people, renewable for another three. It was adopted point-by-point from a
report written by Daniel T. Griswold for the conservative Cato Institute in
2002. The Kennedy-McCain bill calls for 400,000 temporary visas.
The Cato report, Bush's proposal and the bipartisan bill all incorporate
demands by the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, made up of 36 of the
country's largest trade and manufacturers' associations, headed by the U.S.
Chamber of Commerce. This group includes the National Association of Chain
Drug Stores (think Wal-Mart), the American Health Care Association, the
American Hotel and Lodging Association, the National Council of Chain
Restaurants, the National Retail Federation and the Associated Builders and
These industries are already heavily dependent on immigrant labor. In fact,
if Mexicans in the United States disappeared tomorrow, as imagined by the
movie "A Day Without Mexicans," their operations would quickly grind to a
Since these industries already have an immigrant workforce, why do they want
workers on temporary visas? Despite their claims, there is no great shortage
of workers in the United States, immigrant or native-born. But today's
immigrants are actively organizing unions and fighting for better
conditions. There is a shortage of workers at the low wages industry would
like to pay.
Temporary worker proposals are not new. In fact, they're a fast track to the
past. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers were contracted to come to
the United States from 1942 to 1964, to work in the fields and on the
railroads. The "bracero" program was abusive. Workers were kept in
military-style barracks, paid low wages and sent home if they complained.
Resident workers didn't like it either, because when they tried to strike,
they were easily replaced. Growers kept wages low, and when they were
through with the "braceros," they just sent them somewhere else.
Eventually, Mexican-American activists, including Cesar Chavez and Ernesto
Galarza, fought successfully to end the program. Chavez later said that
organizing the United Farm Workers, a union mostly made up of immigrants,
would never have been possible if the program hadn't been stopped.
Some surveys claim undocumented workers here in the United States like the
idea of temporary visas. But a choice between becoming a bracero or risking
death by crossing the desert illegally is no choice at all. One respected
group of Mexican immigrants, the Indigenous Front of Binational
Organizations "disapproves (of the Bush proposal) because it doesn't
guarantee respect for labor and human rights." Instead, the organization
calls for legalizing current undocumented workers. Ventura Gutierrez, head
of the Union Sin Fronteras, a group of veterans of the original bracero
program, says "people who lived through the old program know the abuse (the
new programs) will cause."
Real immigration reform could encourage immigrants to form stable families
and communities. But temporary workers cannot do this, since they have no
right to live with their families, to develop their culture, to housing and
health care or to political representation. All that counts is their ability
to work. When the work is done, so are they.
Seven years ago American unions came out on the side of immigrants, agreeing
to fight for equality and legalization for the 10 million undocumented
already here. Unions voted to seek the end of employer sanctions, a law
which makes it a crime to hire undocumented workers and is frequently used
to bust union organizing efforts. If unions support temporary worker
programs, these goals will be harder to reach.
The flow of immigrants into the United States will not stop as long as huge
differences persist between the world's rich and poor. Over 130 million
people today live outside the countries in which they were born. Employers
would like to channel this flow into temporary worker programs, eventually
replacing their current workforce, whether all at once or over time. What
other advantage can these programs give them?
Instead of increasing job competition and pitting one group of low-wage
workers against another, the needs of all low-wage workers should be
considered instead. African American and other minority communities need
more jobs and training. Immigrant workers would benefit from legalization,
permanent residence visas and stronger defense of their rights.
One bill, by Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Houston), takes this approach.
Getting it passed may not be easy, and may take time and require
demonstrations, marches and visits to Congressional offices. But a real
solution, benefiting all workers, is worth fighting for.
PNS associate editor David Bacon
(firstname.lastname@example.org), a freelance writer and photographer who writes
regularly on labor and immigration issues. His latest book is "The Children
of NAFTA" (University of California Press, 2004).