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September 2001, Volume 8, Number 9

Guest Workers, Legalization

Presidents Bush and Fox are scheduled to meet on September 5, 2001 in Washington. They had hoped to announce major immigration policy reforms during the meetings, but the White House has become increasingly concerned about a backlash against plans for legalization, and emphasized: (1) that illegal workers would initially become guest workers; and (2) any transition in their status would be gradual and require a showing of payment of taxes and meeting other conditions.

Guest workers and legalization were front-page issues for much of August 2001, with much of the debate centered on whether Republicans would gain Hispanic votes by supporting a generous legalization. Hispanics, who are 11 percent of US residents, are expected to cast about six percent of the votes in 2004. President Bush said: "There will be no blanket amnesty for illegals. I've said that point blank. I will say it as many times as I need to say it."

After meeting with his Mexican counterpart in early August 2001, US Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said that some Mexicans living illegally in the US - those who have jobs, pay taxes and rear children who are American-born United States citizens - would be included in an expanded temporary worker program, and that this new guest-worker program would "rest on a carefully worked-out partnership between the sending and receiving countries, one that recognizes also the contributions that undocumented Mexicans are making in the United States and that brings together willing workers and willing employers."

Most Republicans support a new guest-worker program, but they are divided on the merits of legalization. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, (R-CA), echoed the no-amnesty wing of the party, asserting that amnesty would "fundamentally change the nature of our country." Rep. Thomas G. Tancredo (R-CO.), who heads a 16-member congressional caucus on immigration reform says, "No matter how you say it, it [amnesty] is rewarding someone for breaking the law."

George W. Gekas (R-PA), chair of the House Immigration Subcommittee, released a statement in August 2001 that said the INS must be reformed before major new immigration initiatives such as legalization are considered. This Republican opposition was strong enough that, by mid-August, it was reported that President Bush was leaning toward guest workers and away from legalization, because guest workers are "more acceptable politically." Bush began signaling a slow process that would not make sweeping changes in immigration until after the November 2002 elections.

Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), expected to be Bush's immigration point man in Congress, said that the president told him not to overpromise: "I think the most you could hope for during a [September 4, 2001] meeting with the presidents is a statement of principles around which we could craft legislation." Cannon added that he is not sure if the White House will even introduce a bill in 2001.

An August 2001 poll, commissioned by labor and religious organizations, found that 49 percent of voters polled said they opposed and 40 percent said they supported legalization. When asked about legalization for those in the US since 1995, and working and paying taxes, support for legalization rose to 62 percent, and opposition fell to 31 percent. When asked about guest workers, 46 percent opposed and 41 percent favored increasing the number of temporary foreign workers.

The pollster said: "when voters hear about a proposal to legalize a limited number of undocumented immigrants who can prove they've been working in the United States, living in the United States and paying taxes, there is a solid majority of support."

Democratic leaders in early August 2001 offered a set of "immigration principles," including a call for "earned access to legalization" that would require beneficiaries to have US work histories, ties to the community and no criminal record, and be enrolled in U.S. civics and English courses. Asserting that Democrats "have always understood the essential role that immigration has played in our history and the significant contribution immigrants have made to our economy." Democratic leaders implied that six to eight million unauthorized foreigners could be granted legal status in the US.

The Democratic principles include a temporary worker program under which guest workers would have the same labor protections as American workers, including the right to unionize and change jobs, and eventually to become immigrants. There would also be extra visas made available to reduce the backlog of applicants for immigration visas, some 900,000 in summer 2001.

Immigration advocates such as the National Forum summarized the discussion as indicating "broad support for some sort of legalization program among immigrant advocates, labor organizations, business associations, opinion-makers and Congressional leaders." Most of their materials stress that unauthorized foreigners in the US are hard-working and tax-paying workers who are struggling to achieve the American dream, and that they should be allowed to become legal immigrants.

The 4.1 million-member Service Employees International Union is supporting a general amnesty. Eliseo Medina, SEIU vice president, says, "Legalization is good for America because it will help ensure that immigrants' lack of legal status is not used to hold down living standards for all working families." The AFL-CIO executive council said it believes the United States "should embrace immigrants for the diversity and values they bring, rather than fear them as threats to values or jobs."

However, labor economist Vernon Briggs, sees it differently. In a new book, Immigration and American Unionism, he concludes that "Organized labor is at a crossroads. It can seek an expedient course and embrace mass immigration for political advantage, which it seems to be doing. But if it actually does so, it will have abandoned its traditional moral role as the advocate for the economic well-being of American workers. It cannot have it both ways."

The Essential Worker Immigration Coalition argues in favor of easy access to unskilled nonfarm workers, emphasizing that restaurants project two million net new jobs by 2010, and hotels 700,000 more. They want a guest-worker program that is "easy, quick for employers to obtain [guest workers] and not require a lot of bureaucratic hoops."

John Gay, labor lobbyist for the American Hotel and Lodging Association and director of the EWIC, says that the employers he represents support an earned legalization program that would require four to six years of US work to earn a green card. However, the EWIC also wants a revamped H-2B program that allows unskilled foreign workers to be employed in year-round jobs, with new H-1D visas going to workers employed throughout the US economy.

Mexican Reactions. Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda said that any Mexico-US migration agreement must include more than an expanded temporary worker program. In an August 12, 2001 interview, Castaneda said: "there will be an expanded, temporary guest-worker program." However, he continued, there must also be at least some "earned path" to legalization also established. Juan Hernandez, the head of Mexico's Office on Mexicans Living Abroad, said: "What we want are as many rights for as many people as soon as possible."

Castaneda's half brother, Andres Rozental, credited the February 2000 call by the AFL-CIO for legalization, and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's agreement that immigration was good for the economy, with awakening Mexico to the possibility of a large-scale legalization.

The Los Angeles Times on August 29, 2001 reported on the efforts of the Zacatecas state government to recruit local workers for US guest worker programs, H-2A farm workers and H-2B unskilled nonfarm workers. There are reportedly 56,000 Mexicans a year admitted as legal guest workers under these programs, and 600 were matched with US employers by the Zacatecas state government.

Armando Esparza, the coordinator of the program, says that Mexicans see a video detailing wages and conditions in the US, that most are paid the federal minimum wage of $5.75 an hour or more, and that US employers cover all visa and transportation costs. So far, all of those sent by the Zacatecas program have returned to Mexico.

Some reports suggest that more Mexicans are attempting to enter the US in anticipation of legalization. The INS noted that illegal immigration increased before and after passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986- from 1.1 million in FY85 to 1.6 million in FY86.

Mexicans say that those in the US are advising relatives to come into the US now in anticipation of legalization. One said: "Whether he (relative) qualifies or not, he has to at least try by being here. Because if he doesn't get it now, there will be something else in a few years. These opportunities come every now and then. You never know."

Mexican leaders say they are stressing that migrants who arrive in Summer 2001 will be too late for any legalization- those who may gain at least a temporary legal status must show they paid US taxes.

A mother and six children barely survived a desert crossing west of Tucson in July 2001, after the father, unlawfully in the US, provided them funds to hire a smuggler. The father said that, if and when he is legalized, it would be better to have his family in the US than in Guanajuato.

Central Americans. In Guatemala City in mid-August 2001, representatives from dozens of labor unions representing more than 500,000 workers in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador presented a petition demanding that Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo press the U.S. government to extend some form of legal status to Central American migrants illegally in the US. They said "The Guatemalan government and all the governments of Central America should be negotiating an agreement with leaders in the United States alongside Mexico. What Mexico agrees to will affect the whole region."

James Smith, "Mexican State Plays Matchmaker for Migrants, Jobs," Los Angeles Times, August 29, 2001. Emily Ramshaw, "Poll finds employment plays role in attitudes on legalizing immigrants," Dallas Morning News, August 22, 2001. Dana Milbank, "Bush goes slow on immigrant amnesty," Washington Post, August 20, 2001. Jonathan Peterson, "Immigration emphasis on guest visas," Los Angeles Times, August 18, 2001. Julia Malone, "Hispanics warn Republicans not to backpedal on amnesty," Palm Beach Post, August 17, 2001. Jonathan Peterson, "Amnesty's the Road Bump in Debate on Immigration," Los Angeles Times, August 9, 2001. Jonathan Peterson, "Democrats Up Ante to Reform Immigration," Los Angeles Times, August 3, 2001.