Green Card Blues
Pres. Bush’s immigration reform proposal receives mixed reviews from growers and workers’ advocates.
Thursday, January 22, 2004
The guest worker program President Bush announced two weeks ago and touted during his State of the Union address Tuesday, has been called a step forward in immigration policy. But it could also be two steps backwards, according to some local politicians and labor representatives.
The president’s proposal would issue a three-year work permit to the estimated eight million illegal immigrants already working in the United States —roughly 10,000-15,000 in Monterey County. Prospective workers abroad could also take advantage of the program and fill jobs, as long as American citizens don’t want them.
The workers would be able to travel freely in and out of the country, bring their immediate families, and receive standard worker protection and benefits. The only catch is that once the workers have completed their three years and exhausted the not-yet-specified number of renewals, they are given the boot.
“Putting a three-year limit on it jeopardizes the intent of the program,” Rep. Sam Farr says. “I am glad the president has put it on the agenda, but it has a lot of flaws.”
First off, Farr is doubtful whether undocumented workers will come forward under the president’s proposal. “Why would you come out of hiding just to give your name to the government so they can locate you and ship you out?”
Bob Perkins, director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, says workers would welcome a program that releases their anonymity in exchange for rights and benefits.
“Imagine what it’s like to be living and working in this country and having this secret and fearing that you might be found out,” Perkins says. “It’s a pragmatic approach to a problem that we are all aware of.”
Perkins says undocumented workers living in the United States will not be the only ones to take advantage of the opportunity, pointing out that there are a lot of people who don’t necessarily want permanent residency but just want to come to the US and work. “Unfortunately we’ve created a set of circumstances where it’s not possible for people to do that,” he says. “People who want to work are faced with having to come up with illegal documents, and the guest worker program could be a solution to that.”
Paul Johnston, director of the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council, has worked closely with the issue of immigration during his tenure with the Salinas-based Citizenship Project, a non-profit group that assists foreign residents in becoming naturalized citizens.
“Anything that legalizes people’s status will be a step forward,” Johnston says, but he remains skeptical of Bush’s reform because he is familiar with how guest worker programs have beguiled migrants in the past. He points to the Bracero Program, a 1942 agreement between the United States and Mexico that allowed millions of Mexican laborers to cross the border and work, only to be exploited and forced back home.
“The danger is that we have a new Bracero Program,” Johnston says.
The main concern Johnston has with Bush’s proposal is that it doesn’t go far enough in worker’s rights and that it could instigate “employer control and worker fear.”
He calls the current power differential between farmers and migrant workers an “apartheid worker system.” And he says, “The danger is that we are moving toward legalizing it.
“It’s extremely important that employees be protected and if not, we’ll be reinforcing exploitation and domination in our workplace.”
Putting critiques aside, Blanca Zarazua, honorary consul to Mexico for Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, says it is exciting that the issue is being debated.
“Before the proposal came out there was nothing. Now there is something on the table,” she says. “The fact that there is enough to critique tells that there has been a commitment to the issue in a profound way. It means that what happens to immigrants matters.”
Since most foreign workers in the US come from Mexico, Bush’s proposal has opened up communication between the two countries. Zarazua says that this is very positive because now the United States will have to follow through with legislation on immigration.
“I like that hope has been created with this proposal, and there is a responsibility that comes with it.”
Farr is also thankful that President Bush has given immigration reform national attention, but he says there is pending legislation that “goes farther than the president’s proposal.” He is referring to an immigration bill known as the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act of 2003 (AG JOBS) that also issues temporary work visas although only for jobs in the agricultural sector.
The differences between them—big differences—are that AG JOBS requires employers to pay above minimum wage and provide housing, and after laboring three years, the workers would be eligible for permanent residency.
Farr expects that Congress will pass an immigration bill this year. “And hopefully it will come back with a more comprehensive reform than the president’s.”