The Price of Immigration Reform is Steep

Hunger Strike Against Workplace Immigration EnforcementBy David Bacon, Rosalinda Guillen and Mark Day.

As the Senate passes S. 744, its comprehensive immigration reform bill, it’s important to remember that workers and immigrants have never
made significant progress in gaining civil and human rights in the U.S. without a fight. The same is true today.

No political party or Gang of Eight can bestow upon undocumented immigrants rights that can only be won through an organized social movement.  President Barack Obama would not have issued an executive order to defer the deportations of undocumented students had not these courageous youths fought those deportations, staged protests, and proposed their own immigration reform – the Dream Act.

The Senate’s proposed bill, however, does not reflect the reality in which most immigrants live, starting with the reasons why people come to the U.S. to begin with.

This bill will not stop the flow of undocumented immigrants, its stated purpose, because it does not address the root causes of migration. The North American Free Trade Agreement alone displaced millions of Mexican workers and farmers, forcing them to leave their country.  When it went into effect, 4.6 million Mexicans lived in the U.S.  Today 13 million people do – 11% of Mexico’s population.

Instead, the Senate bill seeks to channel that flow in a way that benefits those industries dependent on cheap labor, much more than it benefits immigrant communities themselves.  The bill features guest worker programs and increased enforcement.  These measures will not stop the flow of people across the border, nor are they designed to protect immigrant rights.  But they do further transform our immigration policy into a corporate labor supply system.

This transformation has been going on since the immigration reform of 1986.  In just the past few years, the U.S. has deported 400,000 people annually.  At the same time corporations have recruited annually 250,000 guest workers in formal labor programs, and many thousands more using other visa categories.

This reverses an important achievement of our civil rights movement.  In 1965 the bracero program, an earlier huge guest worker program, was abolished.  In its place, a family preference system became part of our immigration policy, allowing families to reunite here in the U.S..  The new Senate bill, however, restricts family based immigration. It makes the labor needs of employers more important than family relationships.

There are no assurances that the blatant abuses of guest workers in today’s programs will cease under the new law. Just recently, at a seafood processing plant in Beau Bridge, LA, an employer blocked the plant’s doors so women guest workers could not take bathroom breaks. When they protested the owner threatened violence against  their families in Mexico. Fortunately community protests came to the women’s aid.

For guest workers, unemployment means deportation.   That’s why labor and immigrant rights group favor giving migrants permanent resident visas instead of forcing them to come as guest workers. Residence visas guarantee rights and don’t punish immigrants for losing jobs.

The Senate bill criminalizes immigrants and migration. It expands the border enforcement budget by $47 billion, while sequester cutbacks are closing child care centers and laying off teachers at schools.  It further militarizes the border by deploying drones, and spurs the construction of more privately-run immigration prisons.

Hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers have already been fired because U.S. law makes it a crime for them to work.  But instead of decriminalizing work the new bill makes it mandatory for all employers to check their workers’ status through the E-Verify database and requires photometric ID to get a job.  This will lead to an even larger wave of firings.

A large percentage of the 11 million who need legal status will not qualify because of the bill’s restrictions, especially its income requirements that penalize the poor.  This E-Verify database will make them even more vulnerable to pressure, since they will have to work “off the books.”  Families and communities will suffer, and the number of immigrants forced to live in the shadows will grow.

Millions of people hope to gain legal status and eventual citizenship, and  create an environment for progressive political change. But the current bill is not a sure path.  In recent years immigrant communities and unions have proposed far more progressive alternatives.

Organizations among indigenous Mexican migrants seek to get rid of trade agreements that displace their home communities in Mexico.  Fired workers from Silicon Valley to San Diego want to end E-Verify, firings and the criminalization of their work. Organizers from Washington and Mississippi want an end to guest worker programs, and activists in Mexico agree, saying that the recruitment system corrupts politicians and plunges people into debt.

They all seek a progressive alternative that would end the treatment of immigrants as commodities valued only as cheap labor, and not as human beings worthy of dignity and respect.

David Bacon is the author of Illegal People–How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, and the forthcoming The Right to Stay Home. Rosalinda Guillen is director of Community2Community, women-led grassroots organization in Washington State farm worker communities. Mark Day is the executive director of the San Diego Day Laborers and Household Workers Association. They are contributors to the CIP Americas Program

Photo: David Bacon



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