March 3, 2006

Immigration Matters — Equality, or Not

David Bacon
New America Media


Equality is the unmentionable word in the national debate over immigration, at least in Congress. It doesn’t occur even once in the 300-page omnibus immigration bill introduced into the Senate last week by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). Yet this bill will deny equality to millions of people living in the United States. The assumption that this is a good idea underlies the basic difference in direction between those inside the beltway, like Specter, who urge new immigration restrictions, and those outside who want to stop them.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, the African-American representative from Houston and ranking Democrat on the House Immigration Subcommittee, calls immigration “the civil rights struggle of our time.” She recalls how the struggle for equality polarized the South in the 1960s, when sit-ins and registration drives challenged segregation and the denial of voting rights and jobs. It’s not so different today, she says — immigrants crossing borders look for the same thing sought by black people trying to recover from four centuries of slavery and forced segregation.

Linda Chavez-Thompson, a fellow Texan and now executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, says the Specter bill’s emphasis on temporary workers, or guestworkers, is as much a denial of equality as the south’s old Jim Crow strictures. According to Chavez Thompson, “there is absolutely no good reason 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 guestworker status.”

Specter’s bill treats immigrants as people completely separate from the community surrounding them. In 1954 the Supreme Court, in its Brown v. Board of Education decision, found such forcible separation was a breeding ground for inequality.

Some 10-12 million people, according to the Pew Hispanic Trust, now live in the United States without proper immigration documents. For them, the Specter 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 lose their jobs, and remain out of work for more than six weeks they will be deported, regardless of how many years their families have lived here.

For those immigrants yet to come, the bill draws an even harsher line. And people will come. Poverty and war — the global inequality produced by market reforms — have already displaced 170 million people from their countries of origin, according to Geneva-based Migrant Rights International. Corporations and their contractors see them as a convenient labor source. Specter’s bill will let them recruit would-be immigrants to work in the United States for three years, renewable for another three. After that, the immigrants must leave.

At the same time, making it a crime to work without papers will ensure that these temporary workers don’t simply walk away from the contract labor program. Social Security inspectors, abandoning their historic mission of ensuring that people receive pension and disability benefits, will become the workplace police, requiring every U.S. employee to carry a national work permit.

These ideas bear the fingerprints of the Bush administration, which proposed the same basic scheme in January. Specter’s bill is designed, as the president so often puts it, to connect willing employers with willing employees. In the future they envision, plants like Nebraska Beef in Omaha will have a steady supply of workers coming in on temporary visas. The law will immunize the company for hiring the undocumented, who labor on the meat packing lines today, without giving those same workers a way to become full members of the communities they live in.

In 2000, immigration authorities caught Nebraska Beef smuggling workers from Mexico onto its production lines, promising fake documents and high wages. The immigrants, however, found wages well below $10 per hour in most cases, for some of the hardest and dirtiest jobs in U.S. industry. In the raid, 212 were deported while the company went unpunished. The Specter and Bush reforms will give Nebraska Beef and other employers a seamless transition from an undocumented work force to workers on temporary visas, facing certain termination and deportation.

For two years, a few unions and Washington, D.C., 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 Sens. John McCain and Edward Kennedy, has stalled, however, as Congressional Republicans line up behind Specter and Bush. In the meantime, other unions in the AFL-CIO have become Bush and Specter’s most vocal critics.

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.

Cathi Tactaquin, director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, supports the AFL-CIO’s criticism of Bush and Specter. She recalls that in 2000 the labor federation reversed a decades-long hostility to immigrants and called for repeal of employer sanctions and an immigration amnesty. “We certainly don’t need more programs that see immigrants just as cheap labor,” she says, “that segregate them and treat them as less than equal.

Unfortunately, Congress isn’t offering any real protection for native or foreign born workers — just a lot of tough talk and guestworker programs to ensure a supply of cheap labor.”

For Chavez-Thompson, the proposed expansion of temporary guestworker programs can only lead to “the creation of an undemocratic, two-tiered society. We should embrace these 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 fault line in U.S. racial, labor and immigration policies.

It still is.

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

Sidebar: 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 guestworker 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.

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