David Bacon: Equality, or Not
- Equality, or Not
By David Bacon
Friday 03 March 2006
Oakland, California - Equality has become an unmentionable word in
Congress. It doesn't come even once in the 300-page omnibus
immigration bill introduced last week by Senator Arlen Specter, nor in
any of the others Congress is considering. They all deny equality to
millions of people. In the testimony before the Senate Judiciary
Committee, which Specter chairs, no one even dares to advocate it.
Is this what we stand for?
The assumption that reinforcing social inequality is a good idea
defines the basic difference in direction between those in Washington,
like Specter, urging new immigration restrictions, and those who want
to stop them.
Sheila Jackson Lee, Houston's African American Congresswoman,
calls immigration "the civil rights struggle of our time." Immigrants
crossing borders, she says, want the same thing sought by African
American people trying to recover from slavery and Jim Crow -- equal
rights, to really belong to the communities where they live, and
economic opportunity for their families.
Yet Congress is divided between the supposed "conservatives" who
want to stop immigration and turn the undocumented into criminals, and
the "liberals" who want to give employers new guest worker programs.
But proposals will cause immense suffering, and benefit only a tiny elite.
There is an alternative, in best traditions of our country - the
expansion of rights for all people.
To Linda Chavez Thompson, executive vice-president of the AFL-CIO,
guest worker programs are like the old south's Jim Crow strictures.
"There is absolutely no good reason," she says, "why any immigrant who
comes to this country prepared to work, to pay taxes, and to abide by
our laws and rules should be relegated to a repressive, second-class
guest worker status."
Specter's bill (which President Bush supports) treats migrants as
people completely separate from the community surrounding them. In
1954 the Supreme Court found that such forcible separation bred
Some 10-12 million people, according to the Pew Hispanic Trust,
now live in the United States without proper immigration documents.
Poverty and global inequality, produced largely by current free trade
policies, have already displaced 170 million people from their
countries of origin, according to Geneva-based Migrant Rights
International. With no change in those policies, people will continue
to cross borders.
For the undocumented already here, the bill holds no promise of
rights and equal status. Instead, it requires them to report to
immigration authorities, and apply for work permits. If approved, they
get no visa or even formal permission to stay in the country, much
less any prospect of obtaining citizenship in the future. If they
become unemployed, they will be deported, regardless of the roots they
and their families have planted.
For those migrants yet to come, the bill draws an even harsher
line. Corporations and labor contractors see them as a convenient
source of low-wage labor. Specter's bill will let them recruit
immigrants to work in the US for three years, renewable for another
three. After that, they must leave.
Almost all the bills in Congress increase penalties for working
without papers, to ensure that the undocumented sign up as contract
laborers, and that temporary migrants don't simply walk away from
these new bracero programs. Social Security inspectors, abandoning
their historic mission of ensuring that people receive pension and
disability benefits, will become the workplace police, requiring every
US employee to carry a national work permit.
But history shows that making work a crime doesn't create
employment for anyone, although it does weaken unions and lowers
wages. Nebraska's huge Operation Vanguard workplace enforcement
operation in 1998, for instance, didn't produce a single job for
citizens or legal residents.
Specter's bill will provide companies a seamless transition from
an undocumented workforce to workers on temporary visas, facing
certain termination and deportation. But it won't give workers a way
to become full members of the communities they live in.
These ideas bear the fingerprints of the Bush administration,
which proposed the same basic scheme in January. Their main promoter
since 1998 has been the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, which
includes 43 of the largest corporate industry associations in the US,
including Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and other large employers of immigrant
labor. As the President so often puts it, the idea is to connect
willing employers with willing employees.
For two years, a few unions and Washington DC lobby groups have
hoped that a milder guest worker and enforcement regime might be
attached to a promise of legal status for the undocumented. Their
proposal, sponsored by Senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy, has
stalled, however, as Congressional Republicans line up behind Specter
In the new Change to Win union federation, two unions still
support the basic guest worker/legalization tradeoff - the Service
Employees and UNITE HERE, the union for hotel and clothing workers.
Two other unions in the federation, however, have spoken out against
it - the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers.
In a recent letter to the New York Times, UFCW President Joe
Hansen cautioned that "historically, guest worker programs have led to
worker mistreatment. There's every reason to believe that an expanded
guest worker program would lead to increased worker abuse at a time
when the current climate is to relax, if not outright ignore, labor
protections in many workplaces." For the UFCW, "a constructive
immigration policy would respect and provide a legalization process
for the millions of immigrant workers already contributing to our
economy and society, while protecting wages and workplace protections
for all workers."
Meanwhile, other unions in the AFL-CIO have become the most vocal
critics of Congress' proposed reforms. Comparing the Specter bill to
the reviled bracero program of the 1940s and 50s, Chavez-Thompson
calls for "a more just and democratic immigration system that protects
the interests of all workers-immigrants and U.S.-born alike." Reform
proposals, she says, must provide a clear path to permanent residency,
and enforcement of workplace standards.
"We certainly don't need more programs that see immigrants just as
cheap labor," says Cathi Tactaquin, director of the National Network
for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, "that segregate them and treat them
as less than equal. Congress isn't offering real protection for native
or foreign born workers -- just a lot of tough talk and guest worker
Chavez Thompson warns that Congress' current direction will
produce "an undemocratic, two-tiered society. We should embrace
[immigrant] workers not as 'guests' but as full members of society
--as permanent residents with full rights and full mobility."
The choice between second-class status and equality has always
been the faultline in US racial, labor and immigration policies.
It still is.
The Other Main Immigration Bills in Congress
HR 4437: Introduced in December 2005 by Ohio Congressman F. James
Sensenbrenner, this bill would make undocumented status a felony, as
well as any action by another person (nurses, teachers, religious
leaders, etc.) to assist an undocumented immigrant. It would build a
wall along 700 miles of the U.S./Mexico border and increase
enforcement of employer sanctions. It has no guest worker or
legalization provision. It would require the immediate detention and
deportation of any undocumented person.
HR 2330: Introduced by Sens. John McCain and Edward Kennedy, this
"bipartisan" bill would allow employers to recruit 400,000 guest
workers under temporary visas every year. Undocumented immigrants
could also get temporary visas. Both would be able to apply for legal
status after four and six years, respectively. The bill would increase
enforcement of employer sanctions, including sanctions by Social
Security and the Department of Labor, and increase border enforcement
as well. It would make it easier for immigrants to reunite their families.
Comprehensive Enforcement and Immigration Control Act: Introduced
in July 2005 by Sens. John Cornyn and Jon Kyl, this bill would allow
corporations to recruit workers under 2-year temporary visas. It would
allow undocumented workers to qualify for temporary visas also, but
they would have to leave the country to apply, and then again after
five years. Ten thousand new immigration agents would enforce the
prohibition on undocumented immigrants holding jobs, and prisons would
be built to house 10,000 deportees.
HR 2092: Introduced last spring by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson
Lee, this bill takes a radically different approach from all others.
It has no guest worker provision. It grants legal status to anyone
living in the United States for five years from the date of passage.
It enforces protections for the rights of migrants. It requires that
fees paid by those applying for legal status be used for job training
and creation programs in communities with high unemployment. It makes
it easier for immigrants to reunite their families.
David Bacon is a California photojournalist who documents labor,
migration and globalization. His book The Children of NAFTA: Labor
Wars on the US/Mexico Border was published last year by University of
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