David Bacon Stories & Photographs


By David Bacon
The Black Scholar, Summer 2005

If you listen to President George Bush, the only way Mexicans can avoid the deadly and illegal trip across the US border is to come as guest workers - temporary contract laborers for US industry and agriculture. The 12-14 million immigrants already living in the US without visas, he says, must become guest workers themselves if they want to get legal documents.

While the president's proposal is the most extreme of those before Congress (and hasn't yet been formally introduced), all the other bills that would reform US immigration law also have some temporary contract worker proposal attached to them. All except one.

This spring Houston Congress member Sheila Jackson Lee introduced the most comprehensive immigration reform proposal so far, HR 2092 "Save America Comprehensive Immigration Act of 2005." It not only has no provision for temporary workers - she scorns the whole idea, particularly the Bush approach, as a "flat earth program." Jackson Lee instead proposes to legalize undocumented people who have lived 5 years in the US, have some understanding of English and US culture, and have no criminal record. "These are hardworking, taxpaying individuals," she says. "My system would give them permanent legal residency."

Bush proposes that immigrants come for three or six years, and then leave. "But people are human," Jackson Lee explains. "They might have married, invested, or tried to buy a house. They might have children and roots here. It's very difficult to imagine that a person with a three-year pass would voluntarily leave, particularly if they faced an oppressive situation where they came from."

The Jackson Lee bill is unique for another reason. Most of its cosponsors are members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including California's Barbara Lee and Michigan's John Conyers. For many years the Caucus has been outspoken on other areas of social policy -- every session it outlines an alternative Federal budget prioritizing social goals like eliminating poverty, reducing military spending, and protecting social services and benefits. This is the first time, however, Caucus members have taken a pro-active approach to immigration.

Jackson Lee's bill is not the only effort to find common ground between African Americans and immigrants. Another is a unique union proposal in the current contract negotiations in San Francisco hotels. UNITE HERE Local 2 added new language to its existing contract proposals on immigrant rights, and the hotels agreed. But the Multi Employer Group didn't accept a new related proposal, asking the hotels to set up a diversity committee and hire an ombudsman to begin increasing the percentage of African American workers.

The proposal stems from an effort by the union to address the changing demographics of the hotel workforce. In the city's hotels, the percentage of African American workers is falling, as employment continues to grow. African Americans now make up less than 6% of the San Francisco hotel workforce, a number that has declined in each of the past five years but one.

In San Francisco, this issue has a lot of history. The Sheraton Palace Hotel was the scene of the city's most famous civil rights demonstration. In 1963, civil rights activists sat in, and were arrested, in the hotel lobby, as they demanded that management hire Blacks into jobs in the visible front-of-the-house locations, where the color line had kept them out. Richard Lee Mason, an African American banquet waiter at the St. Francis, remembers, "African Americans had been kept in the back of the house for far too long. People wanted to be in the front of the house, and rightly so."

Employment prospects improved for Black workers for some years, but the situation changed by the 1980s. Hotels hired increasing percentages of immigrants, in a move they hoped would create a less demanding and expensive workforce.

"I suspect that because the industry had had a great struggle with African Americans, they thought we were too aggressive," Mason speculates. "A lot of us had come out of the civil rights movement, and we were willing to fight for higher wages and to make sure we were treated fairly." Steven Pitts, an economist at the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California in Berkeley, says Mason's experience was not uncommon. "This perception by employers of African American workers is true nationwide," he says. "Blacks aren't perceived as compliant, and therefore when many employers make hiring decisions, they simply don't hire them."

If the hotel industry hoped their new immigrant workforce would be more compliant, however, those hopes were not realized. Immigrants proved to be as militant as the workers who came before - all the city's big hotels were struck in 1980, and smaller strikes took place in the following two decades. But Black employment fell nonetheless.

Today, this economic history shapes the political terrain of cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. Black workers make up only 6.4% of the present LA hotel workforce, for instance. Clyde Smith, a houseman at the Wilshire Grand, remembers that when he was hired 35 years ago African-Americans worked in virtually all areas. "There are significantly less today," he says, "often only one or two in each department, and sometimes none at all."

The union has asked companies to commit to a hiring ombudsman and a Diversity in the Workplace Taskforce, to reach out to African American communities that need jobs, and eliminate any hiring barriers. "Some people would try to pit one race against another, especially Blacks against Latinos," Smith says. "I think we shouldn't blame any race or culture."

While demanding progress towards ending this de facto color line, the union has proposed new protections for the job rights of the immigrants who make up a majority of the hotel industry workforce. The union proposal strengthens an important ruling won four years ago by HERE in San Francisco, when an arbitrator held that immigrant workers couldn't be fired just because their Social Security numbers were in question, a problem faced by many immigrants. Then in 2003 the union organized the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, a national demonstration for immigration reform joining immigrants with Black veterans of the original 1960s freedom rides.

Both UNITE HERE and Jackson Lee envision a new civil rights movement, geared to a changed world of globalization. The key is prohibiting discrimination - against immigrants because of their status and vulnerability, and against displaced workers, by enforcing job creation and affirmative action as national policy. Both proposals also share the same assumption that unions and high wages are the best protection against job competition.

Jackson Lee is careful to note that she doesn't want her bill viewed as just an African-American proposal, but her voice nevertheless carries a note of pride in referring to her cosponsors as "the conscience of America, the conscience of the Congress." Bill Fletcher, president of TransAfrica Forum and former education director of the AFL-CIO, rejects the idea that the changing demographics of the US population are not a concern for African Americans. He recalls a time when even liberal politicians reacted to criticism by Black political leaders who condemned the Vietnam War or widespread poverty in the US, saying they should confine their concerns to civil rights in the South. "We don't want to just react to demographic changes," he asserts. "As African Americans, we're saying that we have something to contribute to this debate too."

Today a growing number of labor, immigrant rights and Black political activists recognize the similarity between the denial of civil rights to African Americans and the second-class status of immigrants in the US. Jackson Lee looks at the situation of immigrants, and sees the historic discrimination against people of color, especially Black people, and women.

"I had the benefit of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the executive order signed by Richard Nixon on affirmative action. Without them, I would never have seen the inside of the United States Congress," she declares, while cautioning, "the rights of minorities in this country are still a work in progress. Nevertheless, someone recognized that the laws of America were broken as they related to African Americans - that we had to fix them. Now we have to fix other laws to end discrimination against immigrants."

The Jackson Lee bill therefore prohibits discrimination based on immigration status, and makes it an unfair labor practice for an employer to threaten workers with deportation if they invoke their labor rights or worker protection laws. It would also require the Secretary of Labor to conduct a national workplace survey, to determine the extent of the exploitation of undocumented workers.

Jackson Lee opposes temporary worker programs because she believes they inevitably result in second-class status, in which workers can't enforce labor rights or use social benefits, if indeed they're entitled to them at all. Fletcher agrees, and to those who assert that legislation expanding temporary worker programs can also protect workers' rights, he answers: "maybe I'm from Missouri - show me. If it's possible to protect their rights in real life, I haven't seen it yet."

According to Jackson Lee, temporary status not only encourages abuse of workers, but also has a high social cost. "Who pays for their housing and healthcare?" she asks. "Do they pay into Social Security, or are they denied benefits? What rights do they really have?"

The social cost of guest worker programs can also include the impact on the jobs and wages of other workers. Here Jackson Lee and Fletcher are stepping off into a political mine field, because of a widely held perception that Blacks and immigrants, especially Latinos, compete for jobs. "Certainly you're made to believe that," she says, "that one group hinders the other. That's absolutely wrong, and I believe in fighting against it."

The heart of her bill makes a direct connection between immigration and jobs. It would grant permanent legal status to undocumented immigrants who've lived 5 years in the US, and have a basic understanding of English and US culture. The money paid in application fees would fund a job creation and training program for unemployed workers.

Creating jobs for the country's 9.4 million unemployed would require more resources than this. But the bill recognizes that the issues of jobs and immigration don't have to pit immigrants and native-born against each other. Instead they can unite in a common pursuit of jobs, legal status and workplace rights. And it recognizes that until immigrant workers have legal status and the security to fight for better conditions and wages, all low-wage workers will be harmed.

Last year a study from the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University demonstrated just how stark the current situation is - and why native-born workers feel threatened. Between 2000 and 2004, jobs held by immigrants rose by 2 million; the number of employed native-born workers fell by 958,000, and of longtime resident immigrants by 352,000. According to the report's authors, "the net growth in the nation's employed population between 2000 and 2004 takes place among new immigrants, while the number of native-born and established immigrant workers combined declines by more than 1.3 million."

Black unemployment nationally has grown at a catastrophic rate - from 10.8% to 11.8% in May alone. Nearly half (172,000) of the 360,000 people who lost their jobs in June were African American, although they're just 11% of the workforce. In New York City, only 51.8% of Black men from 16 to 65 had jobs in 2003, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For Latinos it was 65.7%, and for whites 75.7%. June's overall unemployment rate in 2003 was 6.4%.

Very little of the rise in African American unemployment is a result of direct displacement by immigrants. It's caused overwhelmingly by the decline in manufacturing and cuts in public employment. In the 2001 recession alone, 300,000 of 2,000,000 Black factory workers lost their jobs to relocation and layoffs. Changing demographics in the workplace became a fact during a period of massive plant closings, which eliminated the jobs of hundreds of thousands of African American and Chicano workers in unionized industries. Through the postwar decades, those workers had broken the color line, spent their lives in steel mills and assembly plants, and wrested a standard of living able to support stable families and communities. In the growing service and high tech industries of the 80s, those displaced workers were anathema. Employers often identified their race with pro-union militancy, according to sociologist Patricia Fernandez Kelly.

Today, corporations in those same industries argue they need workers to fill labor shortages to come, and promote temporary workers as the answer. Fletcher argues "if there are people in communities destroyed because the industry which employed them is gone, and a few miles away there are labor shortages in other industries, then displaced people should fill the void. Instead, now we're hearing proposals for guest workers. If African Americans were moving from lower to higher level jobs, there would be no reason for fear, but that's not the case."

Giving employers the ability to bring in thousands of contract laborers, by expanding existing temporary programs or establishing new ones, allows them to sharpen job competition in areas and industries where workers are organizing unions, trying to raise wages, or challenging past patterns of discrimination.

Jackson Lee's bill tries to balance these interests. For US citizens and residents, she proposes retraining and jobs programs, while for immigrants she proposes legalization and a ban on discrimination. Employers, she says, should press for legalization instead of guest workers. "That would give industry a pool of legal permanent residents or those seeking that status," she declares. "Most work is not cyclical - restaurants don't close in the fall. They stay open. They need people in permanent jobs, not temporary workers."

Fletcher also prizes unity across racial lines, and accuses President Bush of playing racial and national groups off against each other to undermine it. Bush takes his cue from large employer associations, who have been pushing guest worker programs for years. These include the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Retail Association (think Wal-Mart), the American Meat Institute and the National Restaurant Association. Guest worker programs have a long record of illegally low wages, hiring blacklists, and dangerous working conditions. Employers particularly want to eliminate the requirement that they hire unemployed workers before bringing in contract labor.

Immigration is not a conspiracy by employers to drive wages down. Migration is a global phenomenon. According to Migrant Rights International, over 130 million people today live outside the countries in which they were born. The movement of people from developing countries to rich industrial ones is not only happening everywhere, it is unstoppable. Poverty and war force people to leave their homes. The deaths every year of hundreds of people trying to cross the US/Mexico border is bitter testimony to the price paid by families migrating north, desperate to survive.

Immigration law can't and doesn't stop people from coming, but it can and does make people unequal here. Undocumented immigrants can't drive a car, or collect unemployment or Social Security. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 made the act of working itself illegal. When working becomes a crime, workers must risk a lot to protest low wages and bad treatment, join unions, and assert their rights.

With or without temporary programs, migration to the US and other industrial countries is a fact of global life. The question is really whether or not the purpose of US immigration policy should be supplying labor to industry at a price it wants to pay.

Jackson Lee also recognizes that US foreign and trade policy often exert great pressures on people to migrate, by spreading poverty and war. The country should welcome the immigrants who continue to arrive, while attacking the poverty and oppression that uproot people, she concludes: "We would do better to build the economies of countries like Mexico, so people can live their own dream in their own nation. If we don't help build the economy of the nations who surround us, we will continue to have people fleeing for both economic reasons and because they're being persecuted."

Unions have changed a great deal in the way they see immigration, he grants, and are now part of a large national pro-legalization coalition. Fletcher especially credits the Service Employees and the Hotel and Restaurant Employees with changing the priority US labor gives to immigrant rights. But today the political strategists of those unions in Washington DC are supporting the Kennedy/McCain bill, which would allow employers to recruit over 400,000 guest workers each year, and would strengthen employer sanctions, the provision of immigration law which makes it a federal crime for an undocumented worker to hold a job. Sanctions have led to the firings of thousands of immigrants in recent years, and been a powerful tool by employers fighting unions. These operatives argue that guest worker provisions and increased sanctions, while violating the AFL-CIO's pro-immigrant program adopted in 1999, are necessary to win employer support for immigration reform in a Republican-controlled Congress.

There's a disconnect, Fletcher asserts, between advocacy for immigrants and looking at the role US policy plays in creating the poverty which makes migration necessary. "There's very little understanding in the labor movement about why people migrate. We don't look at the role of US foreign policy in particular as an essential cause - the way the war in Central America forced the migration of Salvadorans, or the Vietnam War the migration of people from Southeast Asia. When we don't speak out on foreign policy, we don't anticipate the human cost."

While the Jackson Lee bill doesn't address foreign or trade policy directly, it does seek to correct some of the inequities created by an immigration policy that often is used as an instrument of political reward or punishment. The Congresswoman points to the huge backlog of applicants waiting for visas in Third World countries, while many European countries can't even fill their quotas. For Europeans, whose standard of living is often higher than that in the US, there's very little pressure to use up their visa allotment. But from Latin America to Africa, the poverty created by war and neoliberal economic policies produces far more applicants than there are visas available. Jackson Lee's approach is a diversity proposal that would take those differences into account.

She further seeks to help refugees from two countries, Liberia and Haiti, whose refugee status is imperiled or denied, and whose cause the Black Caucus has championed in the past. Liberians were allowed to come as refugees a decade ago as their country was engulfed in civil war, and her bill seeks to give them permanent rather than temporary refuge. Haitians are victim of a double standard that allows Cubans to become legal residents as soon as they step onto US soil, while the Coast Guard picks up desperate refugees from Haiti, fleeing repression in tiny boats, before they get to the Florida beach. If they somehow reach it, they're held behind barbed wire as illegal refugees. "There is an inequity between those fleeing from one island and those fleeing another," the Congresswoman comments dryly.

Jackson Lee is the granddaughter of Jamaican immigrants, and sees in their effort to build a home in the US the same daily struggle carried on by the many immigrants in her own Houston district. But unlike her grandparents, today's immigrants face a system she condemns as broken, and often pay a painful price. She cites especially post-9/11 discrimination against immigrants from the Middle East.

"Families are torn apart," Jackson Lee laments bitterly, "and we're not adding to our security, but only to the misery of human beings who want to give their best to this country. We have a system that's not helping anyone. It's not helping to build the economy - it's helping to tear it down. For immigrants here we need an orderly system that allows them to do their jobs and build the American economy, and US workers to have jobs and do likewise."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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