December 16, 2005


Time To Say No To Unjust Immigration Bills

By David Bacon

It’s time to say no to repressive immigration bills.

Every new Republican proposal for immigration reform in Congress makes the prospect for winning legal status for the nation’s 12 million undocumented residents more remote. At the same time, Congress appears ready to pass measures that will increase border deaths, lead to wholesale violations of workers’ rights and give the largest corporations a huge new bracero program.

Supporters of immigrant and workers’ rights face a moment of truth. Can they defeat the right-wing “reform” offensive? Even more important, can they build a movement for a real alternative?

President Bush introduced his predictably corporate-friendly immigration reform proposal in September. Echoing proposals by the right-wing Cato Institute and GOP Sens. John Cornyn and Jon Kyl, Bush called for contract labor programs that would allow corporations to recruit hundreds of thousands of workers abroad. They could stay in the country only while they work, for a maximum of six years.

Republican Senator Chuck Hagel has now proposed four separate reform bills, the first three mirroring Bush’s proposal. One bill would beef up border enforcement, even though the increasingly militarized border has forced migrants to cross in the most remote and dangerous areas of the desert. Hundreds die every year as a result. More enforcement will simply lead to more deaths.

A second bill would strengthen employer sanctions, which make it a crime for a person without papers to hold a job. The Department of Labor and the Social Security Administration would become immigration police, hunting and deporting the undocumented. When such hiring prohibitions have been heavily enforced, they have engendered workplace fear, which destroyed unions and lowered wages.

The third bill would create a massive guest-worker program. Historically, bracero programs have exploited immigrants mercilessly, while undermining wages and rights of citizens and legal residents. Finally, in his only deviation from Bush, Hegel promises a fourth bill that would offer some form of legal status tied to employment.

While the details are still in flux, the politics are clear. The Republican majority in Congress can muster the votes for the enforcement elements, especially by waving the bloody flag of national security. Bush and the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition (an alliance of the nation’s 43 largest employer associations, from Wal-Mart to Tyson Foods) can win passage of new guest-worker programs, even over the opposition of the xenophobic right. But when Congress finally arrives at legalization, the political majority will evaporate. This reform agenda will bring repression and braceros and not much more.

For two years, immigrant rights advocates have been divided over strategy to win legalization for the undocumented. In Washington, D.C., some unions and civil rights organizations have opted to support another bill, proposed by Sens. Edward Kennedy and John McCain, which includes all four elements proposed by Hagel. Liberals formed an alliance with employers and enforcement advocates, tacking the promise of legalization onto a corporate guest worker program. The alliance even uses Tamar Jacoby, senior fellow at the anti-labor Manhattan Institute, as a spokesperson.

This strategy has led the national movement for immigrant rights into a blind alley. Once liberal organizations backed employer sanctions, border enforcement and bracero programs, they were in no position to rally opposition to more extreme, Republican versions of those same proposals. Other alternatives are urgently needed.

The Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations calls for recognizing the community rights of immigrants, instead of treating them as cheap labor. In 1999 the AFL-CIO proposed a freedom agenda that included legalization, repeal of employer sanctions, increased availability of family reunification visas and enforcement of workplace rights. Community coalitions around the country, including the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Filipino Civil Rights Advocates and the American Friends Service Committee have also crafted proposals that advance immigrant rights without tying them to guest worker or enforcement schemes.

This spring Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee introduced the Save America Comprehensive Immigration Act of 2005, HR 2092, with support from the Congressional Black Caucus. It provides legalization for currently undocumented workers and enforces migrants’ rights in the workplace. It has no guest-worker program, and doesn’t call for greater enforcement of employer sanctions. It would use fees paid by people applying for legal status for job creation and training programs in communities with high unemployment.

This effort to find common ground between African-Americans and immigrants also led the hotel union UNITE HERE to combine proposals for immigrant rights and affirmative action in recent contract negotiations and organize the 2003 Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride.

Common ground on immigration reform means fighting for jobs for everyone. Yet this basis for an alliance of mutual interest has largely fallen off the liberal agenda. Free-market ideologues propose to pile guest-worker programs and increased enforcement on top of unemployment and job competition. This is an explosive mixture that will produce insecurity and low wages. It will benefit employers, and no one else.

Congress will never consider pro-immigrant, pro-labor proposals if it’s current push for guest workers and increased enforcement isn’t defeated first. A strong coalition of immigrant rights groups, unions, civil rights organizations and working families can build a movement powerful enough to win legal status and rights for immigrants — and jobs and better wages for everyone. It can not only stop the rightward push, but win something much better.

It’s time to fight for that.

David Bacon (, a writer and photographer who covers labor and immigration issues. His latest book is “The Children of NAFTA” (University of California Press, 2004).

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