By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
In Los Angeles, in an election year, the demand for amnesty has clear political repercussions. According to Fabian NuĂ±ez, the County Fed’s political director, fully 1 million of California‘s 1.1 million newly registered voters are Latino, and 44 percent of them are recent immigrants, many of them recipients of the last amnesty. Such local leaders as Assemblyman Gil Cedillo and former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa were not only elected with heavy support from new immigrant voters, but are former immigrant-rights activists themselves.
Contreras emphasizes that L.A. labor doesn’t see immigration law in a vacuum. “Amnesty is a means to an end -- the elimination of poverty and a better redistribution of wealth. L.A. is a county in crisis: 50 wealthy families have assets of $60 billion, more than the wages of 2 million of the city‘s lowest-paid workers, who are mostly immigrants. But in the midst of this crisis, we also have a crisis of leadership. Elected officials see amnesty as too controversial. This hearing is a signal to them that amnesty is important to this community.”
It’s also a signal that poses a quandary for the Clinton administration, which seeks to appear Latino-friendly on the one hand while at the same not appearing to ease up on the immigration-enforcement program it‘s touted for the past seven years. At least partly to solve this problem, a meeting was convened in Washington in mid-April by Henry Cisneros, past Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and mayor of San Antonio, now CEO of the Spanish-language TV network Univision and a Democratic Party heavyweight.
The meeting sought to craft a compromise on the immigration issue -- one that clearly fell short of the general amnesty and repeal of employer sanctions for which the AFL-CIO is calling. Cisneros joined Republican (and fellow former HUD Secretary) Jack Kemp in calling for a lifting of the cap on the recruitment of foreign high-tech workers (long a demand of Silicon Valley executives), in return for which, they predicted, some limited immigration reforms could move through Congress as well. Those reforms include extending to Haitians and other Central Americans the same liberal procedures accorded Cubans and Nicaraguans who seek asylum, allowing late applicants for the last amnesty to receive one now, moving the registry date for amnesty forward from the old one of January 1, 1982, and removing a provision that forces undocumented workers to return to their countries of origin, often separating their families for years, just to apply for legal status.
The number of people eligible for legalization under these proposals depends on the new registry date, but no one denies it would fall far short of the estimated 6 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country. Some immigration activists, while acknowledging the importance of those reforms, are wary of the deal, fearing it will cut short the effort to achieve a broader amnesty.
A number of immigrant workers, however, have voiced reservations for another reason. The computer industry’s scheme to recruit more foreign high-tech workers, the H-1B visa category, is a form of contract labor tying workers‘ immigration status to their employment. If contract workers are fired, they not only lose their job but can lose their right to stay in the U.S. as well.
“I was hired by a software company in Los Angeles that sponsored my visa,” Kim Singh, a former H-1B worker, told the AFL-CIO’s Silicon Valley hearing. “In every paycheck the company would deduct 25 percent of my salary. When I questioned this practice, I was told that I would get this money when I left. But I never got it.” At another company in Torrance, Singh‘s H-1B co-workers labored seven days a week with no overtime. A third company in Silicon Valley rented an apartment for Singh and three other contract workers for $1,450 a month -- then deducted $1,450 from each of their paychecks.
While Singh was able to change jobs and eventually obtain a normal visa, “other programmers stayed at the company because the employer had their passports and they were intimidated.”
“Why aren’t the companies training workers here for those jobs?” asks AFL-CIO executive vice-president Linda Chavez-Thompson, who presided over Saturday‘s hearings. While H-1B workers are paid considerably more than the minimum wage, “it still is like the old bracero program,” she asserts. (That program brought Mexican farmworkers into the U.S. to work in near-slavery conditions.) “Companies use this to keep workers in a position of dependence. And because they’re often hired under individual contracts, U.S. labor law says they don‘t even have the right to organize.”
In Congress, however, there’s overwhelming support for giving Silicon Valley employers (a major and potentially immense source of campaign contributions) the workers they want. Nor is support for H-1B confined to high-tech. Growers have bills in Congress to expand their “guestworker” program, and remove restrictions protecting workers. The garment industry and others dependent on immigrants also want contract labor.
The political problem for labor, according to its political strategists in Washington, is that some employer support is necessary to get a pro-immigrant bill through Congress. But if the price for that support is a series of contract labor programs, immigrant workers could wind up more chained than ever.