In December 2005, the US House of Representatives passed the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Reform Act of 2005 (known as HR 4437), a harsh immigration reform bill designed to punish the 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States illegally.
After widespread mass protests, led by working class Latinos and supported by other community groups and labour organisations, the Senate passed another bill, said to be more moderate, a compromise. It called the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 (CIRA). The Republicans were scared of losing their (large) Latino vote.
The two proposals have yet to be reconciled by the Senate. Whatever the legislative outcome of that process, it is unlikely to be popular with migrant workers or their “legal” allies in the Latino community.
Although CIRA allows some immigrants to apply for citizenship, it will leave many out in the cold. Besides, many Republicans vow that they will never approve such a measure.
The main plank of what CIRA will bring to the law is therefore likely to be a new visa for temporary guest workers. These new contract workers will be vulnerable to employer pressure. Their visa status will be dependent on their employment. They will be unable to stay in the USA if they are unemployed for over 60 days. And the scheme is a generalised attack on workers. Jobs now done by permanent employees with rights and benefits will be converted to jobs that can be done by temporary workers with fewer rights.
That is why the clear demand of the movement so far has rightly been for all immigrants to be given permanent resident status.
Both proposals include plans for increased border security, establishing a massive triple-layer fences at strategic points along the 1,952 mile US-Mexican border. Both plans include increased border patrols. And detention facilities (and guess what, the contract for that has gone to the Halliburton Corporation).
The so-called compromise legislation has according to Labor Notes, caused a great debate in the labour movement, with some unions welcoming the provisions for immigrants to get citizenship (albeit with many obstacles attached). The guest worker scheme has not, however, been welcomed.
What has been the response of the labour movement to the immigration reform up to now? David Bacon, who writes extensively on migrant and labour issues, explains below.
Among the most outspoken [supporters of the migrant workers movement] are the Teamsters in Orange County, heart of the anti-immigrant offensive, where the mayor of Costa Mesa told his police department to begin picking up immigrants who lack visas. Teamsters Local 952 says people need real legal status, not a guest worker program.
A recently passed resolution condemns both Congressional proposals, because they “do nothing to remove the economic incentives that unscrupulous employers have to hire and exploit immigrant workers, and fail to really address the fact that we have 11 million undocumented workers in this country contributing to our communities.”
The union “opposes any form of employer sanctions because they have historically resulted in ‘employee sanctions’ in the form of firings of workers for union organising and discrimination practices on the job,” and “opposes guest worker legislative proposals because [they] create an indentured servitude status for workers.”
The AFL-CIO says the same, pointing out that if there are jobs for 400,000 braceros a year (the goal of the Senate reform bill), those immigrants should be given 400,000 green cards, or residence visas, instead, which would guarantee them equal status in their workplaces and communities. The Senate bill, the AFL-CIO says, “tears at the heart of true reform and will drive millions of hard-working immigrants further into the shadows of American society.” Instead, “we should recognise immigrant workers as full members of society — as permanent residents with full rights and full mobility that employers may not exploit.”
When Senator John McCain, co-sponsor of the Senate’s main guest worker plan, tried to defend it to a building trades union audience in his home state, he was booed. He told the construction workers that even at $50 an hour they wouldn’t be willing to pick lettuce, implying that only Mexicans were willing to do farm labour. For some in the audience, McCain’s remarks recalled former California Senator George Murphy, who infamously declared in the 1960s that only Mexicans would perform stoop labor because “they’re built so close to the ground.” Needless to say, McCain didn’t actually include in his bill any wage guarantee for guest workers, much less $50/hour (about five times what lettuce cutters make today.)
A concerted effort by some lobbyists is underway in Washington, however, to convince legislators that guest worker status, while unpleasant, is something immigrants themselves are prepared to accept. But outside the beltway their proposal is meeting a rising tide of rejection. In New York City grassroots groups formed Immigrant Communities In Action, and condemned both House and Senate bills for not halting the wave of detentions and deportations visited on Muslim communities since 9/11...
Like the Teamsters, these groups say Congress should abolish employer sanctions instead, since they’re often used to retaliate against undocumented workers who demand labor rights.