Immigrants, Advocates Take Sides on Senate Guest-Worker Bill


Andrew Stern, president of the 1.7-million-member Service Employees International Union, once likened the leadership of a mass movement to the crew on a sailboat.  What matters is the wind in the sails, he said, not the fight over who steers.

The wind behind the movement for immigrant rights had reached gale force by May Day 2006.  Millions of immigrant workers and students took to the streets and dealt the first direct blow to U.S. capital in recent memory.  But the hand on the tiller — belonging to a coalition of unions, churches, and nonprofit advocacy groups — has steered the boat into the shoals of bipartisan immigration “reform” and collaboration with capitalists in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  Stern’s union of mostly immigrant workers finds itself in the perverse position of supporting a bill to turn back the clock on immigrant rights more than 40 years.  He is joined in this questionable endeavor by the Laborers’ International Union of North America and UNITE-HERE, both unions in industries that employ large numbers of undocumented workers.

The Senate bill known as Hagel-Martinez arose in the terrifying shadow of a House bill that would have sealed the Mexican border and deported 12 million people.  The House measure — the Sensenbrenner Bill — was an election-year appeal by provincial politicians to brewing nativist resentment of immigrants, fear of job loss and wage depression, and the argument that the local tax base in some places cannot support the current rate of undocumented immigration.  Hagel-Martinez has a lot in common with Sensenbrenner, but differs in two very important ways: first, it does not criminalize legal residents who interact with immigrants, such as churches, social workers, union organizers, etc; second, it preserves the supply of undocumented labor to U.S. employers.

A compromise between the Senate and House versions is in the works.  The relationship of class forces overwhelmingly favors the Senate bill, which is a wish list of the construction, manufacturing, agricultural, and service industries.  It has key political support from major unions and immigrant advocacy groups and is unlikely to undergo major alterations from nativist interest.  Witness the editorial in the New York Times one day after passage of the Senate bill, admonishing Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert for “czarist excess” of the past and foretelling certain doom if Republican hardliners upset the delicate bipartisan compromise.  In similar fashion, the Chicago Tribune, organ of the $6-billion-a-year Tribune Company declared: “The Senate bill represents our best chance yet to finally set things right.”

To U.S. workers, the Senate bill represents employers using immigrant labor to bludgeon their living standards, union rights, and civil liberties.  The all-important flow of low-wage workers to U.S. employers would assume the form of a guest-worker program cruelly conceived to tie the legal status of immigrants to exclusive employment with a single company.  Job loss would thus become inextricably bound up with immediate deportation, and whole industries would be positioned to artificially depress the wage rates of immigrant and non-immigrant workers alike.  “It would be little more than an opportunity for employers to turn hundreds of thousands of permanent jobs in the United States into temporary jobs filled by exploitable immigrants who are paid low wages and receive few if any benefits,” wrote AFL-CIO President John Sweeney on The Huffington Post.

And what of basic rights on the job?  As it is, employers routinely flout wage-and-hour laws for undocumented workers.  At least now the workers can pursue the matter in court without fear of deportation.  What recourse will they have under the guest-worker program?  And how will their complaints about safety be received by an employer who functions as their legal caretaker?  The Senate bill proposes that the process for filing complaints be modeled on the National Labor Relations Board — which is another way of saying the employers will be completely unencumbered.  Workers who desert their assigned employer would have to endure a lawless underground labor market as fugitives ineligible for social services and stripped of the personal mobility that enables them to bargain for better wages.

Enforcement language in the Senate bill — adopting the tone and feel of a counter-insurgency program — grants full authority to the Department of Homeland Security.  Border surveillance is particularly Orwellian with its “virtual” border fence, aerial drones, and tethered aerostat radar courtesy of the Defense Department.  Border agents would increase by 11,000.  Triple-layered border fences along 370 miles of border and an additional 500 miles of vehicle barriers will relegate most border-crossers to the most barren and deadly stretches of desert.  Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the enforcement arm of Homeland Security — known by its apt moniker ICE — is training and equipping teams of agents to carry out deportation in the interior.  The roundups of Arab and Muslim-Americans in the wake of 9/11 accelerated the integration of ICE with state and local police, whose advanced stage has been on display in a rash of swift and sudden deportations since the May Day protests.  Halliburton Corporation has already received a contract to double the detention capacity in the border region.  For good measure, a biometric identification card is to be developed for guest-workers, and harsh penalties for document falsification are part of the Senate bill.

Such an ambitiously repressive plan would necessitate inflaming divisions in the working class — which is likely to mean endless incitement of native-born workers’ sense of self-entitlement — and stratify undocumented workers based on length of stay in the U.S.  The  Senate bill creates three categories of undocumented workers: those in the U.S. for less than 2 years, who face immediate deportation; those here less than 5 years, who must leave the country but may apply to reenter through a currently unknown process; and those here more than 5 years, who may apply for permanent residency.

Why would labor unions and advocates support such a barbaric policy toward immigrant workers?  Considering that union attempts to organize guest-workers in the 1940s and 50s were unqualified failures, union support is particularly difficult to understand.  Hagel-Martinez does protect the wage rate in union shops by requiring employers to pay guest-workers according to the scale outlined in the collective bargaining agreement.  In the long-term, however, the guest-worker program is likely to undermine the wage and benefit standards of whole industries.

The answer to the puzzle of union support for the guest-worker program may lie in the standard practice of SEIU and UNITE-HERE to enlist politicians as brokers of “conduct agreements” with employers in which they pledge to remain neutral during union organizing drives in their workforce.  Given the widespread use of this practice, it is not unreasonable to assume that unions expect to be vouchsafed the “right” to sign up guest-workers.  Of course, whether this could actually happen — and if so, for how long — would depend on the goodwill of politicians and employers.

Nonprofit advocates are more straightforward in their reasons for supporting Hagel-Martinez.  The Senate, under the pressure of a mass upsurge, has granted them the top of their legislative wish list, which includes the “pathway to citizenship” and the DREAM Act to extend in-state college tuition to the children of the undocumented.  The National Council of La Raza — the largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the U.S. — expressed misgivings about certain aspects of the bill but nevertheless pronounced it “a major step forward in a debate that is vital to our community and to the nation.”

The pathway to citizenship, it must be noted, is more of a gauntlet that requires undocumented workers to have lived in the U.S. for five years, pay thousands of dollars in fines and back taxes, demonstrate that they’re studying English and “U.S. history,” and prove they have never used false papers to find work.  Of course, immigrants can choose to step off the “pathway” and proceed directly to citizenship should they serve at least two years in active-duty military service, according to Hagel-Martinez.

Many of the grassroots activist groups that called the historic protests of April and May are regrouping to oppose both Sensenbrenner and Hagel-Martinez.  The May 1st Coalition in Los Angeles, the March 25 Coalition in Chicago, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York, the San Francisco Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition, and many others have been very critical of the Senate bill.  Many of these forces are promoting the National Grassroots Immigrant Strategy Conference on July 28-30 in Washington, DC, which was called by members of the Los Angeles movement.

“Immigration Reform” and the Basic Contradiction of U.S. Immigration Policy

For the past 20 years, the U.S. has sought in earnest to remove its southern border as a barrier to foreign trade and investment, while continuously reinforcing it as a barrier to the free movement of workers.  Over the years, the Mexican peasantry has been uprooted, the rate of emigration has greatly increased, and the clandestine underclass of undocumented workers has swelled and finally burst into the open.  Every step in U.S. policy has been predetermined to draw larger numbers of low-skilled undocumented labor into the workforce.

Advanced capitalist economies demand workers who will toil under unpleasant conditions, at low wages, in jobs with great instability and little chance for advancement.  And who is better suited than Mexican immigrants?  Wages in Mexico are one-fifth those of the U.S., jobs are scarce in Mexico, and Mexico, as its dictator Porfirio Diaz was fond of saying, “was so far from God, yet so close to the United States.”  The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that as many as 12 million undocumented workers currently live in the U.S. — and 56% of them are Mexican.  They arrive at a rate of 500,000 per year, and fewer are returning home due to the heightened risk and cost of re-entry associated with increased border security.

Immigrant workers have become integral to the competitiveness and profitability of multiple U.S. industries.  And the narcotic-like dependency of U.S. capitalism on low-wage undocumented labor has had the unintended consequence of consolidating the position of immigrant workers in the U.S. working class.  They are the mainstay of the U.S construction, manufacturing, agriculture, and the service industries.  A day without immigrants in any of these industries is a day without profit.

The U.S. ruling-class appears to hold all the cards; its politicians, journalists, labor statesmen, and nonprofit nurslings are lined up neatly in a row.  A renewed Bracero Program is within its reach.  But it may be dismayed to find that its 21st-century guest-workers are nothing like the braceros, who at their peak were never more than several hundred thousand farm laborers and track-layers on the railroad.  Braceros were landless peasant farmers recruited from the Mexican hinterlands.  The 21st-century guest-workers are a class-conscious urban proletariat of 12 million.  They did not wait for a Senate bill to “bring them out of the shadows” but stepped out themselves en masse on a scale never before seen in U.S. history.  Within their ranks is an unknown reserve of leadership capable of opening the next heroic chapter in the U.S. workers movement.  It is there that the immigration debate ultimately turns.

James Frickey writes for Socialist Action newspaper.