Last week an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. seemed tantalizingly close to achieving new rights and legal status. But the problems dogging that possibility were never clearer than in the mixed signals emanating from the White House. And as usual, the new fault lines in the immigration debate were more visible in Los Angeles than anywhere else.
After a protest outside Santa Monicas Loews Hotel, where management has stalled its immigrant work force in its pursuit of a union contract, hundreds of delegates to the union convention of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) marched down the beachfront to the Fairmont Miramar. There, in a cavernous ballroom, they welcomed Jorge Castañeda, Mexicos foreign minister, with a standing ovation.
Just the appearance of a high official of the Mexican government is a sign of changing times. For decades, U.S. unions and the Mexican government have looked at each other across the border with deep suspicion and hostility. Unions have condemned Mexicos low-wage economic policies, while its government has accused U.S. unions of protectionism and racism toward Mexican migrants.
Ironically, Mexicos new president, Vicente Fox, is probably the most pro-business head of state the country has seen since the revolution. Yet his ability to engage George W. Bush in open dialogue on immigration, along with a new interest by U.S. unions in defending Mexican immigrants, has created a whole different relationship.
Finally the U.S. has accepted that both countries have to discuss immigration, Castañeda told HERE members. And for the first time, Mexico has agreed that it has joint responsibility with the United States for it. These are enormous changes -- we have to take advantage of them.
Earlier in the week, however, the White Houses own Mexican Migration Working Group, headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft, leaked its proposed recommendations. As soon as the capital press corps began reporting that there might be a recommendation for a legalization program for undocumented immigrants, the White House immediately made clear it would support no such move. In fact, the administration backed away so quickly it seemed an orchestrated move designed to show the right wing of the Republican Party it could still call the shots for Bush on immigration.
Despite the hopes of the undocumented for legalization, the more immediate possibility in Congress is a vast expansion of guest-worker programs. Legalization would allow undocumented immigrants currently in the country (and conceivably those yet to come) to apply for legal permanent residence. A guest-worker program, on the other hand, permits the recruitment of workers in other countries for only temporary jobs in the U.S., and grants no right to remain.
While guest workers have rights on paper, employers not only can fire those who protest bad conditions and organize, but in effect can deport them as well. Just last April, 20 guest workers in Canadas program were fired and expelled, after stopping work to protest harassment on an Ontario farm.
Opposition to guest workers from unions and Latino and AsianPacific Islander communities stems from the historical record of the old bracero program, under which growers brought contract farm workers from Mexico during the 1940s and 50s. Cesar Chavez could only begin organizing the United Farm Workers when workers became free of the system. Two limited temporary-visa programs still exist in the U.S., supplying workers to high-tech industry and farm laborers to contractors in agriculture.
Agribusiness has pushed hard for expansion of its program. At the end of the last congressional session, liberal Democrat Howard Berman and Oregon Republican Gordon Smith proposed a legalization program for undocumented farm laborers. In exchange, wage and housing requirements would have been relaxed. The compromise was supported by farm-worker unions, which argued that the existing glut of farm labor made it unlikely that growers would use more guest workers, and that some expansion of the program was likely to pass in any case. At the last moment Texas Republican Senator Phil Gramm, who opposes any amnesty at all, killed the bill.
Californias Employment Development Department says more than 500,000 people work on the states farms, and the federal Labor Department estimates that half are undocumented.
With Bush in the White House, growers scrapped last years compromise. Idaho Republican Senator Larry Craig introduced a new guest-worker bill, with no automatic amnesty. Instead, undocumented a farm workers would have to work 150 days in each of five years to qualify for permanent residence, a difficult feat for seasonal workers. Only work in the fields would count. The new bill requires only the minimum wage, and the government would no longer have to certify a labor shortage to permit importing workers -- the growers word would do.