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Borderline Thinking 

W., Vicente Fox and the amnesty-vs.-guest-worker debate

Wednesday, Jul 25 2001
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Page 2 of 3

”Growers always want to scream ’shortage,‘“ Berman commented bitterly, ”but in reality what they want is an oversupply of labor to keep wages down and discourage unionization.“

Other industries now want guest workers too. In Congress, the push comes from the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, which includes the American Health Care Association, the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The debate in Washington, however, revolves not around what workers want, but over what is possible under a Republican administration, with Republican control of the House of Representatives. Despite recent efforts by Bush to reach out to more-conservative unions in the AFL-CIO, labor has little to no traction with the administration around guest workers and amnesty.

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Castañeda’s appearance at the HERE convention highlights the newest twist in immigration politics. Increasingly, unions interested in legalization hope the Mexican government will represent their position in negotiating with Bush.

In June, HERE president John Wilhelm, UFW president Arturo Rodriguez and other labor leaders went to Mexico City to talk to Fox. ”We said we were inalterably opposed to guest-worker programs,“ Wilhelm said. ”We don‘t want any program in which a worker’s immigration status is attached to their job, and where there is no realistic path to legalization.“ After the talks were over, Rodriguez told the press, ”We‘ve made it clear that without legalization there will be no new guest-worker program or revision of the current guest-worker program.“

In Santa Monica, however, the commitment of the Mexican government seemed less clear. Castañeda described what he called ”the whole enchilada,“ a package of proposals that the Fox administration is presenting to Bush. They are tied together, he emphasized, and Mexico won’t allow the U.S. to negotiate only over the proposals it likes.

The enchilada includes ”regularization“ of the status of undocumented Mexicans, more permanent visas for Mexicans to join relatives in the U.S., greater cooperation to prevent the deaths of migrants crossing the border, and promotion of Mexican economic growth, Castañeda said, ”to create more opportunities for Mexicans to stay and thrive in Mexico.“

The most controversial point of the five, however, was his call for expanding guest-worker programs. Castañeda even used a supposed labor shortage in the service sector as a justification. That drew strong reservations from many delegates holding service jobs in hotels. Picket signs at Loews, for instance, called for ”higher wages for hotel workers,“ a key demand of immigrant room cleaners, who see a tight labor market in the industry as an important bargaining advantage. ”Just think what would happen if Loews could bring in a bunch of guest workers while we were fighting for this contract,“ grumbled one delegate as he left the ballroom. ”We‘d never get them to agree.“

While all five of Castañeda’s demands seem separate on the surface, the key question is what the Mexican government means by ”regularization“ of the status of the undocumented. Does ”regularization“ mean Mexicans living in the U.S. should become braceros to gain some form of legal status? While unpopular among Mexicans already here, it might be more acceptable to people in Mexico considering the dangerous journey north. Fox might claim, for instance, that he was opening the door to jobs and legal migration north by allowing greater recruitment of guest workers in Mexico.

That compromise would have an additional huge attraction for Fox: It‘s the only arrangement the Bush administration would clearly support.

Bush has explicitly stated that he wants expanded guest-worker programs, not legalization. While some observers sought to read new support for amnesty into the leaks from the White House task force, there is little evidence of such a change. State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher explained that ”It’s really a question of an orderly guest-worker program, the safe and orderly migration, and in that context, obviously, looking at the status of people who are currently here.“

Bush is looking over his shoulder, not so much at the potential for Republican Latino votes, but at his fellow Texans Phil Gramm, Lamar Smith and Tom DeLay. ”Anything that smacks of [amnesty] we‘ll oppose,“ warned Larry Neal, spokesperson for Senator Gramm. Lamar Smith, until last year chair of the House Immigration Subcommittee, warned that any amnesty proposal would be very unpopular. ”I’d be surprised if the administration pushed it,“ he said.

What gives these Texans nightmares are the recent elections in Southern California. In the last mayoral contest, many HERE convention delegates walked precincts for Antonio Villaraigosa, despite their lack of citizenship. ”We called people on the phone, we went door to door,“ recalled Douglas Marmol, a delegate from Local 814. ”It doesn‘t matter where you come from. We all have rights, and we need people in office who understand and respect that.“

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