David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Braceros Or Amnesty?
by David Bacon

LOS ANGELES, CA (7/22/01) -- Last week a vision of new rights and legal status seemed tantalizingly close to the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. But the limitations which dog that possibility were never clearer than in the mixed signals emanating from the White House. And as usual, the new faultlines in the immigration debate were more visible in Los Angeles than anywhere.

After laying siege to Santa Monica's Loews Hotel, where management has stalled its immigrant workforce in their pursuit of a union contract, hundreds of delegates to the union convention of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE) marched down the beachfront to the Fairmont Miramar. There, in its cavernous ballroom they welcomed Jorge Castaņeda, Mexico's foreign minister, with a standing ovation.

Just the appearance of a high official of the Mexican government is a sign of changing times. For decades, U.S. unions and the Mexican government have looked at each other across the border with deep suspicion and hostility. Unions have condemned Mexico's low-wage economic policies, while its government has accused U.S. unions of protectionism and racism toward Mexican migrants.

Ironically, Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox, is probably the most pro-business head-of-state the country has seen since the Revolution. Yet his ability to engage George W. Bush in open dialogue on immigration, along with a new interest by U.S. unions in defending Mexican immigrants, has created a whole different relationship.

"Finally the U.S. has accepted that both countries have to discuss immigration," Castaņeda told HERE members. "And for the first time, Mexico has agreed that it has joint responsibility with the United States for it. These are enormous changes - we have to take advantage of them."

The day before in Washington, however, the White House' own Mexican Migration Working Group, headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft, leaked its proposed recommendations. As soon as the capitol press corps began reporting there might be a recommendation for a legalization program for undocumented immigrants, the White House immediately made clear it would support no such move. In fact, the administration backed away so quickly it seemed an orchestrated move designed to show the right wing of the Republican Party it could still call the shots for Bush on immigration.

Despite the hopes of the undocumented for legalization, the more immediate possibility in Congress is a vast expansion of guest worker programs. Legalization would allow undocumented immigrants currently in the country (and conceivably those yet to come) to apply for legal permanent residence. A guest worker program, on the other hand, permits the recruitment of workers in other countries for only temporary jobs in the U.S., and grants no right to remain.

While guest workers have rights on paper, employers not only can fire those who protest bad conditions and organize, but in effect can deport them as well. Just last April, twenty guest workers in Canada's program were fired and expelled, after stopping work to protest harassment on an Ontario farm.

Opposition to guest workers from unions and Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander communities stems from the historical record of the old bracero program, under which growers brought contract farm workers from Mexico during the 1940s and 50s. Cesar Chavez could only begin organizing the United Farm Workers when workers became free of the system. Two temporary visa programs still exist in the U.S., supplying workers to high tech industry and farm laborers to contractors in agriculture.

Agribusiness has pushed hard for expansion of its program. At the end of the last Congressional session, liberal Democrat Howard Berman and Oregon Republican Gordon Smith proposed a legalization program for undocumented farm laborers. In exchange, wage and housing requirements would have been relaxed. The compromise was supported by farm worker unions, who argued that the existing glut of farm labor made it unlikely that growers would use more guest workers, and that some expansion of the program was likely to pass in any case. At the last moment Texas Republican Senator Phil Gramm, who opposes any amnesty at all, killed the bill.

California's Employment Development Department says 500,000 people work on the state's farms, and unofficial estimates say half are undocumented.

With Bush in the White House, growers scrapped last year's compromise. Idaho Republican Senator Larry Craig introduced a new guest worker bill, with no automatic amnesty. Instead, undocumented farm workers would have to work 150 days in each of five years to qualify for permanent residence, a difficult feat for seasonal workers. Only work in the fields would count. The new bill requires only the minimum wage, and the government would no longer have to certify a labor shortage to permit importing workers - the grower's word would do.

"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.

HERE convention delegates unanimously rejected the idea of guest workers in their industry. "We need amnesty instead," said Pedro Navarro, an Anaheim delegate who works at Disney's Paradise. "It's the only way we'll be able to work securely, to face the police in our streets, or feel our kids will have real rights in school."

HERE President John Wilhelm called guest workers "a terrible idea." A first-ever committee on immigration and civil rights reported to delegates that "tens of thousands of workers would be [made] hostage, and ultimately destroy wage and working conditions in the hospitality industry." Instead, the convention called for a broad legalization and citizenship program, and for repealing employer sanctions - the law which makes it illegal for undocumented workers to hold a job.

In an effort to solidify union ranks across racial lines, HERE also announced its intention to force hotels to begin hiring Black workers, alleging that in its eagerness to hire immigrants, the industry has erected discriminatory barriers to African-Americans. Wilhelm assailed the failure to hire Blacks in cities like Los Angeles as a "social catastrophe," while one of the union's highest Black officers, Isaac Monroe, criticized the labor movement for "its failure to promote the leadership of African-Americans." But Monroe also warned delegates that "demographic changes are a wakeup call. The movement for immigrant rights is real, it's important, and it's our future."

HERE's support for immigrant rights isn't just convention rhetoric. Two years ago, Los Angeles' Local 11 negotiated language in its master hotel contract allowing workers time off to normalize their immigration status, and requiring management to notify the union if the Immigration and Naturalization Service begins enforcement action against them. In San Francisco, Local 2 successfully won new legal protection for workers who in the past lost jobs when the Social Security Administration told employers their numbers were invalid. And Wilhelm heads the immigration committee of the AFL-CIO, pushing the labor federation to fight in Washington for immigration amnesty.

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.

Castaņeda'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 negotiating with Bush.

In June, 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 that "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. Castaņeda 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, Castaņeda 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. Castaņeda 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. Picketsigns at Loew's, for instance, called for "higher wages for hotel workers," a key demand of immigrant roomcleaners. 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 Castaņeda'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 he wants expanded guest worker programs, not legalization. While some observers sought to read a 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 Villaraigoza, 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."

In Orange County, members of HERE Local 681 working at Disneyland and other union hotels did the same thing. As a result, "B-1" Bob Dornan, who sat on the right of his party with Gramm, Smith and DeLay, went down to defeat by Loretta Sanchez. Further opening doors to legalization and citizenship presents an unpleasant vision of future impacts from changing demographics.

Republicans are stuck on the horns of a dilemma. The industries that provide political contributions need the workers who pick the crops and clean the hotel rooms. But immigration with legalization carries the prospect of political upheaval, much more than a promise of winning elections with Latino votes.

Bush, for all his touted interest in those votes, faces the same predicament. The easy answer is guest workers.

Wilhelm argues that defeating the proposal is possible, especially if employer groups take a long range, enlightened view of their own self-interest. "Some have said privately that guest workers aren't the answer, just a temporary bandaid," he explained in an interview. "Everyone thinks the labor shortage will get worse over the next two decades, and there's no incentive to provide training, or even English classes, to guest workers. So if we can get a significant group of employers to reject the idea, we have a shot. Short of that, I'm very fearful."

Bush is expected to have a proposal ready for Fox's state visit in September, but immediate passage is unlikely even once a bill is introduced. The union, in any case, isn't waiting on Congress. HERE has already announced plans for an "Immigrants Freedom Ride" to Washington DC next May "in search of legalization and immigrant rights." The union's call uses the language of the sixties' civil rights movement, and refers to the time when people from the north rode busses to southern states to end segregation in toilets, water fountains and other public facilities.

"We want full and complete amnesty," Pedro Navarro emphasized. "We want the same rights everyone else has, nothing less."

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