David Bacon Stories & Photographs


By David Bacon
San Francisco Chronicle, 12/17/05

The House of Representatives has just passed HR 4437, by Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner, incredibly with the votes of over 30 Democrats. It is the most repressive immigration bill in decades, and would deprive immigrants of important due process rights, divide families, criminalize undocumented status, and drive those without papers even further underground. Other Congressional proposals are even more extreme. Some, like Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo, would institute mass deportations on a scale dwarfing even those shameful roundups of the 1920s and 30s.

The atmosphere in Congress is so poisonous that President Bush's guest worker plan is being presented as a liberal alternative, despite the fact that it was written by some of the largest corporate interests in the US. His proposal emphasizes the same failed draconian enforcement policies contained in the Sensenbrenner bill, which he supports. The President criticizes HB 4437 only because it has no guest worker provision. The Bush plan would greatly expand this growing form of corporate welfare - huge guestworker programs -- and would make no real change in the status of the 12 million people already in the US who have no immigration documents.

Fear of these extreme proposals has caused some advocates to support a lesser-evil approach - a bill by Senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain - which also calls for increased enforcement and a new guest worker scheme.

It's time to look at the reality of current policies, and design better alternatives..

Reality check 1: People will continue to come to the US so long as gross economic inequality grows between rich and poor countries, even if the frontier between the US and Mexico becomes an armed camp, and new walls are built reminescent of the Cold War. Over 170 million people now live outside of the countries in which they were born. These migrants seek, not to injure their new host countries, but to work and provide for their families.

Reality check 2: The work of migrants is indispensible to many industries, from agriculture to construction. So is the work of people born here. Everyone needs a job.

Reality check 3: Deporting or denying work to migrants does not create a single job for anyone else. In 1986 the AFL-CIO and others supported passage of employer sanctions, which prohibit the undocumented from holding a job. Their rationale was that if workers without papers were expelled from their jobs, they would leave the country, and other workers would fill their places. The results were disasatrous. No jobs were created for anyone, and when the prohibition was heavily enforced in Nebraska's meatpacking plants in 1998, union organizing was undermined and wages went down instead. Workers and unions suffered similar bitter experiences elsewhere. In 1998 the AFL-CIO finally called for the repeal of employer sanctions, arguing that employers used the law to push income down and threaten those who demanded workplace rights.

Reality check 4: Beefed-up border enforcement doesn't deter people from crossing. It does force migrants into the most remote and dangerous areas, however. As a result, hundreds die every year. More enforcement will simply lead to more exploitation and death.

Allowing corporations to contract for hundreds of thousands of temporary guest workers is no answer, however. From 1942 to 1964, hundreds of thousands of Mexican braceros were recruited for US agribusiness. If they struck they were deported, and if resident farm workers tried to unionize, growers used braceros to replace them.

Today's guest worker programs are just as abusive. Guest workers in today's farm labor programs who complain about illegal conditions are blacklisted. Contract workers in the Marianas' garment factories were held as virtual slaves.

But the lure of cheap labor has led the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition (including Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and other corporate giants) to insert guest worker programs into almost every immigration reform proposal. Some argue this will benefit migrants, but a choice between becoming a bracero and dying in the desert is no choice at all. Instead, many immigrant organizations, like the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations in Fresno, call for a general immigration amnesty instead.

The last such amnesty was signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1986. It successfully led to legal status for over 6 million people, who are now active members of our communities, and many citizens. A similar proposal has been introduced by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, which would legalize people already here, and outlaw discrimination based on migrant status.

Jackson Lee also believes Federal policy should not pit migrants against native-born in job competition, as do guest worker programs. Her legislation would fund job training and creation in communities with high unemployment. Unions like San Francisco's UNITE HERE Local 2 also call for taking down the de facto color line against African Americans and other minorities, increasing access to jobs while protecting the rights of migrants in the workplace.

Instead of promoting a bitter fight over jobs, Congress should make reducing unemployment Federal policy, as the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act proposed a decade ago. If Federal resources just financed the rebuilding of New Orleans, instead of the Iraqi war, real job creation would be possible.

People will still cross the border, looking for work. Increasing the number of green cards, or resident visas, would ease the pressure to cross illegally, and give migrants a status more equal to everyone else. People could reunite families without waiting decades.

Meanwhile, changing US trade and economic policies abroad would decrease the pressure for migration. Treaties like NAFTA promote poverty and low wages as incentives for corporate investment. Instead of easing the pressure fueling migration, the WTO negotiations in Hong Kong even proposed a new international guest worker program.

To keep small Mexican farmers on the land, the US could help to provide rural credit, and stop cheap NAFTA-facilitated corn exports, which destroy their market. US policy could stop boosting privatization of manufacturing and services, which lead to declining wages and huge layoffs. When the US promotes dumping, privatization, declining wages and unemployment in Mexico, where do we think those affected will go?

People in Mexico and the US need the same things. Secure jobs at a living wage. Rights in our workplaces and communities. The freedom to travel and seek a future for our families. The border should be a common ground between us, not a line to divide us.


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