Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Who Killed the Immigration Bill, and Who Wants it to Come Back?

By David Bacon
Oakland, CA 6/9/07

Within hours of the Senate vote to kill its comprehensive immigration
reform bill, the lobbyist for software giant Oracle Corp. had already
declared that Silicon Valley's proposal for more guest workers was
still alive. "We don't think it's dead," Robert Hoffman told the San
Francisco Chronicle. Microsoft Corp. CEO Steve Ballmer threatened to
move more high tech jobs out of the country if electronics
corporations didn't get more contract migrant labor. Other corporate
spokespeople also announced they were looking for ways to revive the
Senate bill in which they'd invested so much political capital.

Immigrant communities and union activists had been in the streets for
months, trying to stop the same bill. In San Francisco alone, seven
were arrested in the office of Senator Diane Feinstein, during the
recess that preceded the June 7 vote. Dozens more debated the
senator in front of her home the morning after the arrests. Around
the country, similar demonstrations did what they could to kill the
bill. The National Day Labor Organizing Network called it a "cynical
and mean-spirited effort of those Senators that seek to poison the
immigration reform debate yet again," and warned, "we are fearful
that an insufficient Senate bill cannot be adequately repaired in the
House of Representatives or in a conference session."

It was no surprise that many greeted the (perhaps temporary) death of
comprehensive immigration reform as a necessary move to protect
immigrants themselves. These groups saw in the bill a threat of more
contract labor programs, more enforcement and raids, greater
militarization of the border and erosion of basic due process rights.
Filipinos for Affirmative Action, voicing a criticism common in Asian
American and Latino communities, said the bill "moved away from
permanent, family-based immigration toward a temporary employment

As debate in the Senate proceeded, even the bill's promise of
legalization for the nation's 12 million undocumented residents
proved so restrictive that only a small percentage eventually would
have qualified. Migrants without status would have had to place
their families in jeopardy just to apply.

After the vote in the Senate defeating cloture, killing the bill at
least for the moment, John Sweeney, head of the AFL-CIO, declared it
"plagued by anti-family, anti-worker provisions," and called it "
doomed at the onset. The bill abandoned long-standing U.S. policy
favoring the reunification of families and failed to protect workers'
most basic rights."

Despite the fact that the bill was brokered by the Bush
administration, many of its proponents were not Republicans, but
liberal Democrats, most prominently Senator Edward Kennedy.
Supporting it was a network of lobbyists referred to in the press as
"immigration advocates," large employers, and conservative think
tanks. For two years this alliance advocated a strategy of trading
legalization of undocumented immigrants for increased immigration
enforcement and guest worker programs. The National Immigration
Forum and the DC umbrella group it initiated, the Coalition for
Comprehensive Immigration Reform, were key players in this strategy.
Behind them was the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, which
brought together over 40 of the largest corporate trade and
manufacturing associations in the country, under the aegis of the
U.S. Chamber of Commerce. EWIC head John Gay, also head of the
National Restaurant Association, chairs the NIF board.

These Washington groups supported all the compromise bills embodying
the legalization/enforcement/guest worker tradeoff, beginning with
the original Kennedy/McCain bill in 2005. The same argument was used
to justify them all: "It's not possible to get legalization without
including more enforcement and guest worker programs." While the
groups occasionally disagreed with individual provisions of the
proposals that followed, they not only agreed with the basic
structure and architecture of these bills, but became their ardent
advocates in meetings around the country.

As the proposals moved through negotiations with the administration
and Congressional Republicans, legalization schemes became more
restrictive, enforcement provisions more ferocious, and contract
labor schemes more extensive. Yet the recently defeated Senate
compromise was greeted as a "good starting point." Even at the end,
the DC groups called on immigrant communities to urge defeat of "bad"
amendments to it, while continuing to urge Senators to support the
comprehensive immigration reform, or tradeoff, framework.

While Congress considered this series of proposals, the Bush
administration embarked on a series of highly publicized immigration
raids and workplace firings, to put pressure on immigrant communities
and unions to accept its reform program. The bills themselves called
for giving the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, part of
the Department of Homeland Security, more enforcement authority to
conduct these raids. The administration, for instance, proposed that
employers be required to fire any worker whose Social Security number
didn't match the agency's database. Although Bush never actually
issued this regulation, and the bills obviously hadn't passed, ICE
and employers began using it as the basis for enforcement actions.

Workers at the Woodfin Suites in Emeryville, California, were fired
after they tried to enforce the city's living wage ordinance. At the
Smithfield pork plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, hundreds were
fired, and many then deported, during the hardest-fought union
organizing drive in years. Similar raids and firings swept the
country, as the administration set ICE loose on immigrant
communities, implementing the very language in the comprehensive
reform bills. Beltway lobbying groups often expressed alarm over the
raids, but didn't withdraw their support for bills that would have
made such raids more widespread.

After coordinated raids at Swift meatpacking plants in November, in
which over a thousand workers were picked up for deportation,
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters the
enforcement actions would show Congress the need for "stronger border
security, effective interior enforcement and a temporary-worker
program.'' Bush wants, he said, "a program that would allow
businesses that need foreign workers, because they can't otherwise
satisfy their labor needs, to be able to get those workers in a
regulated program." Within weeks of Chertoff's statement, the
Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report, "Close to Slavery,"
which provided exhaustive documentation that current guest worker
programs, like those the administration proposed, systematically
violated workers' rights. Abuse in H-2 programs was so extensive,
and government enforcement of existing labor protections so
completely absent, that SPLC called them "fundamentally flawed."

The SPLC and other exposes gave guest worker programs such a bad
reputation that DC-based groups took pains to disassociate themselves
from the term. The bills they supported would "break the mold," they
claimed, by creating contract labor programs that wouldn't exploit
workers. They invented new terms: "essential worker" or "new
worker" plans. Behind the semantic fog, however, the bills preserved
the two crucial characteristics of all employment-based guest worker
schemes: new migrants could only come if recruited by an employer or
labor contractor, and people had to remain employed to stay.
Migrants losing a job and unable to find another within a short time
would be deported.

To justify contract labor programs, the DC coalition asserted
constantly that U.S. corporations face dire labor shortages. The
Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, estimates the May, 2007
unemployment rate at 4.5%, and says over 7 million workers were
unemployed in 2006. Most unions believe these are serious
undercounts. Unemployment in African American and Chicano
communities is much higher, over double digits even during economic

Yet instead of raising wage and benefits to attract workers, or
paying more taxes to improve education and training in working class
communities, employers held that only huge guest worker programs
could meet their labor needs. In an joint oped piece for
Politico.com, Thomas Donahue, CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,
and Andy Stern, President of the Service Employees International
Union (one of two unions that supported the tradeoff bills) stated
that "we need legislation that will create a carefully monitored
essential worker program," and called it "a system that provides U.S.
businesses with the workers it needs."

Meanwhile, legalization proposals in the same tradeoff bills were
presented as the payoff for immigrant communities. Yet many of the
legalization schemes threatened to disqualify immigrants guilty of
document fraud. ICE now says this includes anyone who's given a
false SS number to get a job, something almost all undocumented
workers have done. Other proposals would have imposed employment
requirements, imposed high fines difficult for most working families
to pay, and required people to take an undetermined amount of time
off work to return to their home countries to apply for readmittance,
with no guarantee they could pass a host of bureaucratic checks.
Most proposals would have had people wait at least a decade before
they could get a green card for permanent legal residence (not
citizenship). Legalization programs wouldn't even take effect until
the U.S. gained "operational control" of the border, leaving the door
open for years of increased enforcement with no change at all in the
status of the undocumented.

Many organizations outside DC did not support this approach to
immigration reform. Instead they called for a positive agenda
focusing on human and workplace rights, legal status and equality.
They proposed reforms that didn't criminalize migration, work or the
border itself, and that instead protected families and communities.
The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights urged that "we
work for a different "starting point" for immigration reform that
protects the rights of all immigrant families, workers and

The beltway lobbying strategy started by asking what employers and a
Republican administration would be willing to accept. Groups like
NDLON, however, proposed building a popular movement to change the
political terrain in Washington, like the civil rights movement of
the 1960s. Responding to lobbyists who called the Senate bill the
only chance to reform immigration law for years, NDLON said "We know
the struggle for justice and immigration reform requires a long view
of history, and we will not be pressured into accepting an
insufficient compromise simply for sake of political expediency. We
owe it to this and future generations to pass a bill that we can all
be proud of."

"The best way to guarantee the rights and wages of all workers in
this country," added the AFL-CIO's John Sweeney, "is to give every
immigrant the opportunity to become a citizen, with all the rights
and duties that entails. At the same time, Congress must revise our
immigration system so that in the face of labor shortages, future
foreign workers may enter this country not as dispensable units of
production but as permanent residents with the same rights and
protections as all other U.S. workers."

Basic differences have divided the immigrant rights and labor
movements, not just over tactics and strategy, but also over goals.
Should immigrant rights groups and unions support increased
enforcement? Should they allow employers to recruit hundreds of
thousands of workers a year, on visas which condition their right to
stay in the US on continued employment? Should temporary or contract
labor programs be the condition under which the undocumented are
allowed to stay?

This division, between Washington-based organizations, and grassroots
coalitions outside the beltway, has existed for over a decade. In
1996 many community-based coalitions around the country withdrew from
the National Immigration Forum when it insisted it was not possible
to save the rights of undocumented immigrants in the Clinton-backed
immigration bill. The DC-based strategy tacitly called for saving
the rights of legal immigrants by telling Congress that while the
country needed to do something about illegal immigration, legal
residents shouldn't be punished in the same bill. The strategy
failed, and according to Filipinos for Affirmative Action, "the
Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act
undermined the basic rights of all immigrants, denied their right to
due process, and expanded the reasons for detention and deportation."
The starting point for immigration reform should be instead an
agreement that "all immigrants have a right to be treated equally,
with full legal, employment, human and civil rights."

Today's disagreements are similar. They are in part over strategy
and tactics, but also raise a deeper issue: Should U.S. immigration
policy become a labor supply system for corporations, or should it
support families and communities? In the mainstream press, this
question gets little coverage because the framework proposed in
Congress so heavily sets the media agenda. Anger over exclusion from
the debate provoked the Mexican American Political Association to
declare that "We are totally opposed to the off-handed declarations
made by compromising individual Latino television commentators or
organizations that advocate - NOTHING IS WORSE [than failure to pass
an immigration bill]. In fact, NOTHING WILL BE WORSE [than the
proposed Senate legislation] in terms of the millions of individuals
and families who will be criminalized in perpetuity."

Moving from an effort to defeat anti-immigrant legislation to an
agenda that can win more progressive reforms requires an open debate
over those disagreements. As Silicon Valley and other employer
groups move to bring the Senate bill back, that discussion is more
urgent than ever.

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