The People Shout No
o! That’s what hundreds of thousands
of people were saying as they came out of their homes into the streets
all over the country—a million in Los Angeles, half a million
in Chicago, tens of thousands in New York crossing the Brooklyn
Bridge, hunger strikers in San Francisco, demonstrations in states
where the immigrant community has been virtually invisible until
now, such as North Carolina and Tennessee, and in towns like Tucson,
Santa Rosa, and Omaha.
Everywhere, immigrants and their supporters are condemning the measures
passed by the House of Representatives in December, especially the
provision that would make undocumented people federal felons. But
the demonstrations have a positive demand as well, one that condemns
the slight-of-hand being practiced in the Senate where second-class
guest worker programs are being called a “path to legalization.”
Those myriad marchers reject the idea that the only way to gain
legal status for their undocumented members is to spend a decade
working as braceros. They propose an alternative: equality.
Many unions support them. Among the most outspoken are the Teamsters
in Orange County, heart of the anti-immigrant offensive where the
mayor of Costa Mesa told his police department to begin picking
up immigrants who lack visas. Teamsters Local 952 says people need
real legal status, not a guest-worker program. The union “opposes
any form of employer sanctions because they have historically resulted
in ‘employee sanctions’ in the form of firings of workers
for union organizing and discrimination practices on the job,”
and “opposes guest worker legislative proposals because such
modern day ‘bracero programs,’ create an indentured servitude
status for workers.”
The AFL-CIO says the same, pointing out that if there are jobs for
400,000 braceros a year (the goal of the Senate reform bill), those
immigrants should be given 400,000 green cards or residence visas
instead, which would guarantee them equal status in the workplace
When Senator John McCain, co-sponsor of the Senate’s main guest
worker plan, tried to defend it to a building trades union audience
in his home state in April, he was booed.
Despite a concerted effort in Washington by some lobbyists to convince
legislators that guestworker status, while unpleasant, is something
immigrants themselves would be prepared to accept, outside the beltway
their proposal has met a rising tide of rejection. In New York City,
Desis Rising Up & Moving and 20 other groups formed Immigrant
Communities In Action and condemned both House and Senate bills
for not halting the wave of detentions and deportations visited
on Muslim communities since 9/11.
Another coalition, which includes the National Mobilization Against
Sweatshops, the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, and
the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said, like
the Teamsters, that instead of setting up guest-worker programs,
Congress should abolish employer sanctions since they’re used
to retaliate against undocumented workers who demand their labor
The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights criticized
the Senate bill, saying it held “no promise of fairness in
immigration policy and would undermine the rights, economic health,
and safety of all immigrants and their children. Congress needs
to go back to the drawing board to come up with genuine, positive
and fair proposals.”
Over 170 million people now live outside of the countries in which
they were born. The work of migrants is indispensable to many industries,
from agriculture to construction. So is the work of people born
here. Everyone needs a job.
Deporting or denying work to migrants does not create a single job
for anyone else. In 1986 the AFL-CIO supported passage of employer
sanctions, arguing 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 disastrous. No jobs were
created for anyone and when the prohibition was heavily enforced,
union organizing was undermined. Employers used the law to push
income down and threaten those who demanded workplace rights. In
1998 the AFL-CIO finally called for repeal of employer sanctions.
some argue that labor protections can be added to bracero programs,
bitter experience with NAFTA’s labor side agreement shows that
this approach just produces a paper process. Without a government
committed to equality and the enforcement of labor rights for everyone,
workers on temporary visas will be more vulnerable than even the
In 1999 the AFL-CIO proposed a freedom agenda that included legalization,
repeal of employer sanctions, increased availability of family reunification
visas, and enforcement of workplace rights. Community coalitions
around the country, including Filipino Civil Rights Advocates and
the American Friends Service Committee, have proposals that advance
immigrant rights without tying them to guestworker or enforcement
schemes. The Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations advocates
recognizing the community rights of immigrants, instead of treating
them as cheap labor, and calls for a general immigration amnesty.
he last such amnesty was
signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1986. It successfully led to
legal status for over four million people, who are now active members
of communities and many have become citizens. A similar proposal,
HR 2092, has been introduced by Congressperson Sheila Jackson Lee
and Congressional Black Caucus members. It would give permanent
residence visas to undocumented people already here and outlaw discrimination
based on migrant status.
Jackson Lee also believes federal policy should not pit migrants
against native-born, as do guestworker 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, increasing access to jobs while
protecting the rights of migrants in the workplace.
Instead of promoting a fight over jobs, Congress should make reducing
unemployment federal policy, as the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment
Act proposed a decade ago. Increasing the number of green cards,
or resident visas, would ease the pressure to illegal crossings
and give migrants a status more equal to everyone else. People could
reunite families without waiting decades. Meanwhile, changing U.S.
trade and economic policies abroad would decrease the pressure for
migration. Treaties like NAFTA promote poverty and low wages as
incentives for corporate investment. The WTO’s proposed international
guestworker program would exploit the workers that free trade displaces.
Instead, to keep small Mexican farmers on the land, the U.S. could
provide rural credit and stop cheap NAFTA-facilitated corn exports.
U.S. policy could stop boosting privatization of manufacturing and
services, which lead to declining wages and huge layoffs. When the
U.S. promotes dumping, privatization, and unemployment, where do
they think those affected will go?
Congress will never consider pro-immigrant, pro-labor proposals
if its current push for guestworkers and increased enforcement isn’t
defeated first. A strong coalition between immigrants rights groups,
unions, civil rights organizations, and working families can build
a movement powerful enough to win legal status and rights for migrants—and
jobs and better wages for everyone. It can not only stop the rightward
push, but win something much better. It’s time to fight for
Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer living in California.