U.S. Corporations Win the Immigration Debate: The growth of “managed migration”


Last
February George Bush finally introduced his long-awaited plan for
immigration reform. For three years, the Administration raised expectations
with compassionate-sounding, pro-immigrant rhetoric. But when the
package finally arrived, it sounded depressingly familiar. 

The
official bracero program, negotiated in 1942 between the U.S. and
Mexican governments, ended in 1964. Ernesto Galarza, a labor organizer,
former diplomat, and early hero of the Chicano movement, was its
greatest opponent in Washington. But Cesar Chavez was also an early
voice calling for abolition. Chavez later said he could never have
organized the United Farm Workers until growers could no longer
hire braceros during strikes. In fact, the great five-year grape
strike in which the UFW was born began the year after the bracero
program ended. According to the UFW’s Mark Grossman, “Chavez
believed agribusiness’ chief farm labor strategy for decades
was maintaining a surplus labor supply to keep wages and benefits
depressed, and fight unionization.” 

Guest
worker programs in the United States never really ended, though.
New laws created new visa categories and among them are four that
permit employers to bring workers in for temporary labor. Some cover
agricultural laborers and some cover skilled workers in healthcare
and high tech. Employers complain about restrictions on all of them—on
numbers and requirements that they show that U.S. resident workers
aren’t available for the jobs they want to fill. 

Until
George Bush was elected, their complaints were largely dismissed
as self-interested efforts to lower wages. But at the end of the
1990s the country’s largest employer associations formed a
low profile, shadowy group to change that. When the votes were counted
(or not) in Florida, their fortunes began to change. As a result,
Bush’s recent immigration reform proposal has brought the old
bracero experience closer to new life than it’s been since
Galarza killed the program in 1964. 

The
Essential Worker Immigration Coalition (EWIC) was organized in 1999
while Bill Clinton was still president. Its genesis is tied to one
of the Clinton administration’s most celebrated immigration
enforcement plans, Operation Vanguard. For an entire year in 1998,
the Immigration and Naturalization Service went through the employment
records of every meatpacking plant in the state of Nebraska. 

Poring
through the documents of 24,310 people employed in 40 factories,
they pulled out 4,762 names. These individuals were sent letters
asking them to come in for a chat with an INS agent down at the
plant. About 1,000 actually did that and of them, 34 people were
found to be in the country illegally and were deported. The rest,
over 3,500 people, left their jobs, whether for immigration reasons
or as part of normal turnover. 

The
INS declared victory, crowing that they’d found a new, effective
means of enforcing employer sanctions—that part of the 1986
Immigration Reform and Control Act, that makes it illegal for an
employer to hire someone without papers and a crime for an undocumented
worker to hold a job. Nebraska’s Governor Mike Johanns and
the American Meatpacking Institute hit the roof. They accused the
INS of creating production bottlenecks and implied they’d been
denied a necessary source of labor.

Oddly
enough, the INS agreed. One of Operation Vanguard’s architects,
Dallas District Director Mark Reed, even boasted that year that
the operation would force employer groups to support guest worker
legislation. “It’s time for a gut check,” he declared.
“We depend on foreign labor…. How can we get unauthorized
[undocumented] workers back into the workforce in a legal way? If
we don’t have illegal immigration anymore, we’ll have
the political support for guest workers.” Operation Vanguard,
he predicted, would “clean up one industry and turn the [jobs]
magnet down a bit and then go on to another industry and another
and another.” 

There’s
no question that many U.S. industries have become dependent on immigrant
labor. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that in 2001 undocumented
workers comprised 58 percent of the work force in agriculture, 23.8
percent in private household services, 16.6 percent in business
services, 9.1 percent in restaurants, and 6.4 percent in construction.
The Migrant Policy Institute reports that in 1990 11.6 million immigrants
made up 9 percent of the U.S. workforce and that by 2002, their
numbers had grown to 20.3 million workers, or 14 percent of the
workforce. 

 In
the operation’s wake, Sherry Edwards of the American Meat Institute
said that while guest workers were a good idea, packers needed more
than the old bracero program. “We need permanent workers, not
seasonal laborers,” she said. 

In
1999 the AMI and a group of corporate trade associations, in industries
employing large numbers of immigrant workers, introduced themselves
to Congress for the first time. That November, the Essential Worker
Immigration Coalition began lobbying for a new, greatly expanded
guest worker program. Its rhetoric referred to immigrants as essential
workers and its proposals treated guest workers as the most essential
of all. Industry faced a huge labor shortage, EWIC announced, and
“part of the solution involves allowing companies to hire foreign
workers to fill the essential worker shortages.” Quoting Alan
Greenspan, EWIC even threatened inflation if those needs were denied.
Meanwhile, the coalition denounced restrictions on existing guest
worker programs as “unnecessarily tedious, time-consuming,
expensive, and many times unsuccessful.” 

The
group quickly grew to include 36 of the country’s most powerful
employer associations, headed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The
National Association of Chain Drug Stores also belongs—think
Wal-Mart, which has two members on the NACDS board and was sanctioned
for employing undocumented workers last year. So does the American
Health Care Association, the American Hotel and Lodging Association,
the National Council of Chain Restaurants, the National Restaurant
Association, and the National Retail Federation—all of whose
members depend on a workforce almost entirely without benefits,
working at close to minimum wage. The violently anti-union Associated
Builders and Contractors belongs—in 1992 its members fought
a strike by undocumented immigrant drywall workers throughout Southern
California for an entire year—is a member, along with its more
union-friendly cousin, the Associated General Contractors. The American
Meat Institute was there from the beginning. 

The
Clinton administration initially held out some hope for the EWIC
program. Henry Cisneros, after leaving his job as HUD secretary,
eventually heading the huge Spanish-language Univision media conglomerate,
promoted a package immigration deal including guest workers. In
an April 2000 meeting in Washington, he proposed that unions and
immigrant rights groups, which were seeking an amnesty for the undocumented,
relax their opposition to guest worker programs in return for it.
As those discussions moved forward during the 2000 campaign, farm
worker unions and grower organizations agreed to a deal in which
undocumented agricultural laborers would get a partial amnesty and
growers would get relaxation of some restrictions on the existing
farm guest worker program, H2-A. 

With
George Bush’s election, growers walked out of those negotiations,
convinced they could get a better deal. Bush fed those expectations,
conducting a highly publicized series of meetings with Mexican President
Vicente Fox over a set of immigration law changes described by then-Mexican
Foreign Secretary Jorge Castañeda as “the whole enchilada.”
This deal proposed the same tradeoff—amnesty for a new guest
worker program. 

EWIC
was a key player in these talks. An August 1, 2001 letter to Bush
congratulated him on his “historic initiative” with Fox
and laid out a framework for the deal. “A temporary worker
program that emerges from this debate should be markedly different
from the existing and past models,” it urged. “Some of
the workers who currently come from Mexico and other countries to
work in the U.S. do so with the intention of returning to their
home countries. It is reasonable then to construct a temporary worker
framework that provides a role for such workers whose labor is needed
in the U.S.” 

Whether
Bush could have ever forced the right wing of the Republican Party
to agree to an amnesty, or even wanted to, is a question for historians.
In any event, economic recession and the attacks on the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon changed everything. Immigrants across the
board were scapegoated for terrorism generally. Over 40,000 airport
screeners were fired from their jobs and refused rehire because
they weren’t citizens, as the federal government took over
the baggage lines. Other immigrants were subjected to arbitrary
screening and indefinite detention. In highly publicized raids,
dubbed Operation Tarmac, the INS deported hundreds of fast food
and service workers in airports. In 2003 alone, Social Security
sent thousands of letters to employers listing over three-quarters
of a million workers whose names and social security numbers didn’t
jibe. Most companies interpreted those letters to mean that workers
lacked immigration papers as well and fired massive numbers of them. 

In
this new political climate, EWIC recast its proposals. Guest worker
programs, it said, were actually a means to track the names and
identities of those who otherwise would sneak across the border.
Terrorists thus could be identified and pursued. “September
11 means we have to look at all these issues through the lens of
national security,” said John Gay, EWIC co-chair and vice-president
of the International Franchise Association. “We live in a pool
of migrating people, and we have to control people coming across
the border.” 

EWIC
has always emphasized the economic benefits of guest worker programs.
In 2002, however, it began to mount an ideological defense as well.
EWIC joined forces with the Cato Institute, the conservative/Libertarian
think tank whose ideology frames the Bush administration’s
legislative agenda. Asserting that “America’s border policy
has failed to achieve its principal objective: to stem the flow
of undocumented workers into the U.S. labor market,” a Cato
Institute report authored by Daniel T. Griswold called instead for
an “open, integrated labor market.” The key to meeting
the demand for low-skilled workers, Griswold asserted, was legal
immigration of a special type. “The experience of the bracero
program,” he alleged, “demonstrates that workers prefer
the legal channel.” To open one up, a temporary work visa,
“should be created that would allow Mexican nationals to remain
in the United States to work for a limited period. The visa could
authorize work for a definite period, perhaps three years, and would
be renewable for an additional limited period.” About 300,000
visas should be issued at first, the institute suggested. 

Guest
workers with temporary visas would be able to get into line for
eventual permanent visas after a few years of work. It’s a
long line—an applicant today at the Mexico City embassy, with
the lowest preference, has to wait 12-15 years to get a permanent
residence visa. Undocumented people already in the United States
would also be allowed to apply to become temporary workers, and
eventually get into the back of the line. This substitute for amnesty
would “dry out the wetbacks,” much as the growers were
doing with those who perished in Los Gatos Canyon. 

The
Cato Institute report was issued on October 15, 2002, a year and
a half before Bush made his proposal. When he did, the two proposals
were identical. The Cato Institute is bankrolled historically by
the Sarah Scaife, Lambe, and Koch Foundations, among other key funders
of the neo-conservative movement. Cato provided an important bridge
to part of the corporate world that had less direct interest in
immigration. In the last decade, the institute has waged campaigns
against tobacco, utility, and pharmaceutical regulation, for privatization
of government services, and has supported media consolidation. Rupert
Murdoch, owner of Fox News, the New York Post, Harper Collins
publishers, and Twentieth Century Fox, has been a board member since
1997. 

Cato’s
ties to the media helped guest worker proposals achieve greater
political legitimacy. The institute’s assertion that industries
like meatpacking and tourism face a tremendous labor shortage, rather
than a corporate unwillingness to pay higher wages to attract workers,
is treated as fact by much of the media. Likewise, its assertion
that the bracero program was a humane institution created an easily
accepted, invented history. 

Following
the issuance of the Cato report, EWIC went to the hill to renew
its push for guest workers, this time emphasizing the threat posed
by the undocumented to national security. Saying that “authorities
know very little” about the seven million people without papers
in the U.S., it warned that while most just came to work, “those
few who wish to do us harm find it easier to hide among their great
numbers.” 

No
undocumented worker from Mexico or Central America has ever been
connected with terrorism and those who flew the planes into the
World Trade Center and the Pentagon all came to the U.S. with visas.
Nevertheless, an EWIC letter to senators asked, “How can the
immigration status quo be tolerated?” 

When
President Bush finally issued his reform proposal in January, it
contained no broad-based amnesty for the millions of undocumented
currently in the U.S., unlike the compromise signed by Reagan in
1986 or the amnesty deal proposed under Clinton. As the Cato report
recommended, it focused entirely on establishing a new temporary
worker program. The proposal was positively greeted by EWIC and
its member industry associations. The National Restaurant Association
warned that restaurants faced “a worker shortage of 1.5 million
jobs” by 2014, and praised the plan, which it said “would
give employers greater opportunities to fill these jobs, grow their
business and help grow the economy.” R. Bruce Josten, executive
vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was ecstatic as
well, finding that Bush “makes an effort to streamline the
process by which employers who cannot find U.S. workers may hire
foreign nationals through temporary worker programs while ensuring
that the workers would have appropriate labor protections.”
He too warned of dire labor shortages and concluded that “expanded,
practical temporary worker programs will help meet this need.” 

EWIC
and Cato were successful in getting support from the conservative
wing of the Republican Party as well. Tom Delay announced, “It
is vitally important this country have some sort of guest worker
program. It is only fair to those here in the United States who
need the workers and it is doubly fair to the families, Mexicans
that need the work.” 

Bush’s
proposal, however, was not warmly embraced by immigrants, even those
who supposedly would benefit the most. In a poll conducted by Bendixen
and Associates for New California Media and the James Irvine Foundation,
50 percent of the undocumented workers surveyed opposed it once
its provisions were explained, while only 42 percent supported it.
Renee Saucedo, director of San Francisco’s Day Labor Program,
said that the city’s street corner laborers discussed the proposal
extensively and rejected it almost unanimously. “They feel
that a temporary visa status would make them as vulnerable to exploitation
as the undocumented status most of them now share,” she explained. 

The
organization of veterans of the bracero program, with chapters in
both the U.S. and Mexico, was even more critical. “We’re
totally opposed to the institution of new guest worker programs,”
explained Ventura Gutierrez, head of the Union Sin Fronteras. “People
who lived through the old program know the abuse they will cause.”
One former bracero, Manuel Herrera, told the AP’s Juliana Barbassa,
“They rented us, got our work, then sent us back when they
had no more use for us.” Thousands of former braceros are still
trying to collect money deducted from their pay during the 1940s
and 1950s, money that was supposedly held in trust to ensure they
completed their work contracts, but never turned over to them. Bush’s
proposal contains a similar provision. 

U.S.
labor opposition focused on the lack of a real amnesty. Eliseo Medina,
executive vice-president of the Service Employees International
Union, and one of the AFL-CIO’s key policy makers on immigration,
said, “Bush tells immigrants you have no right to earn citizenship,
but tells corporations you have the right to exploit workers, both
American and immigrant…. This proposal allows hard-working, tax-paying
immigrants to become a legitimate part of our economy, but it keeps
them from fully participating in our democracy—making immigrants
a permanent sub-class of our society.”

While
expanded guest worker programs have been a key element in Republican
immigration reform proposals that predate Bush’s, one mark
of the success of EWIC in influencing the national debate has been
their incorporation into Democratic proposals as well. The accepted
wisdom on Capitol Hill now holds that no reform is possible if industry
doesn’t get what it wants. Even immigrant advocacy organizations
within the beltway now include EWIC and its guest worker proposals
in their legislative agenda. 

In
1986 Reagan approved a broad-based amnesty for over six million
undocumented immigrants who were required to show that they’d
been living in the country since 1982. EWIC’s contribution
has been to reframe the residency requirement contained in the 1986
legislation, transforming it into the concept of “earned legalization.”
In other words, it’s no longer sufficient to have lived in
the U.S. for years—only participation as a “willing employee”
in a new temporary worker program, contracted out to a “willing
employer” (in the terminology of Bush and the Cato Institute)
qualifies someone for eventual legalization. 

In
a January press conference just prior to Bush’s announcement,
representatives of the National Immigration Forum, the American
Immigration Lawyers Association, and the National Council of La
Raza outlined a joint proposal for immigration reform, which included
“earned legalization,” border enforcement policies which
don’t jeopardize the lives of those crossing, and more guest
workers. Jean Butterfield, from the AILA, announced that “the
essential worker sector, the service sector, needs these people
[temporary workers] in fields and factories.” NIF director
Frank Sharry described their proposals as “more market-sensitive
immigration,” and declared that “this is what immigrants
want.” 

Those
proposals were eventually incorporated into a bipartisan bill sponsored
by Senators Tom Daschle and Chuck Hegel and finally into a Democratic
immigration reform proposal introduced by Congressperson Luis Gutierrez
and Senator Edward Kennedy. EWIC must have savored its moment of
legislative triumph. 

The
coalition doubtless deserves credit for its lobbying and legislative
skill. It may seem self-evident that migration should be harnessed
to provide labor to corporate employers—if it does, it is a
mark of the success of employer groups like EWIC. But EWIC is also
riding a new political wave and its proposals reflect a growing
effort by governments in all the wealthy countries of the global
north to re-tailor their immigration policies to meet industry needs. 

On
a worldwide scale, according to the Geneva-based Migrant Rights
International, more than 130 million people today live outside the
countries in which they were born. Overwhelmingly, this unprecedented
level of human migration is caused by the factors of expulsion—millions
of people can no longer survive in their communities of origin because
of war, poverty, or economic dislocation. This migratory flow is
generally from the developing countries of the global south to the
wealthy nations of the north. It is also generally a self-initiated
migration. 

Increasingly,
this migratory stream has become a potential source of low-wage
labor in the eyes of those able to employ it to their advantage.
While there have been attempts in the past to channel this flow
for its labor power, like the bracero program and its successors
in the U.S., or the guest worker program which brought Turkish farmers
into German factories in the 1960s, the idea of managing the migratory
flow is new. In Britain, where the government seeks to end the spontaneous
migration of asylum seekers and then recruit temporary workers for
industry, the approach is called “managed migration.” 

The
British public was electrified a year ago by a hunger strike undertaken
by Abbas Ameni, an Iranian exile given asylum by British courts.
Ameni sewed his lips closed after the Blair government ordered him
deported, despite the court decision, as a showpiece of its announced
plan to end the influx of asylum-seekers. Ameni eventually forced
the government to back down, but the most startling aspect of the
whole affair was that while taking extreme measures to stop spontaneous
migration into Britain, the government was quietly implementing
a plan to bring in other immigrants, but as temporary contract workers.

According
to Don Flynn, policy director for the Joint Council for the Welfare
of Immigrants in London, “The public policy debate has been
completely transformed over the space of the last five or six years.
The government has made it known that immigration policies in the
UK are going to be based on the recruitment of immigrant workers.
They’re talking about identifying particular labor shortage
industries, and then licensing employers to recruit unskilled or
informally skilled workers. On the completion of their 12 months
[workers] will be rounded up and got out the country.” 

Flynn
says that the industries dependent on immigrant labor make up 14
percent of the gross domestic product and describes “wages
below minimum levels, with substandard working conditions, no holidays,
and expectations that people will work on a flexible basis at short
notice.” Meanwhile, spontaneous migrants, like asylum seekers,
are prohibited from working and the Blair government has proposed
U.S.-style employer sanctions to ensure they don’t. 

The
same idea of managed migration—stopping spontaneous migration
and channeling migrants into temporary worker programs—is a
growing part of policies of countries throughout the European Union
towards those who come from outside its borders. They all reflect
an increasing effort to include migration within the world economic
order managed by industrial nations. 

While
this is a convenient arrangement for wealthy nations, it has severe
disadvantages for poorer ones. The cost of maintaining and reproducing
this international migrant labor force falls on countries least
able to afford it. Increasingly, the remittances of migrant workers
have become the main source of income for the communities from which
they come. Remittances from abroad are now the first or second largest
source of national income for counties like Mexico, Guatemala, the
Philippines, and others. The system of managed migration institutionalizes
this arrangement. Large corporations and industries of wealthy countries
get the benefit of this labor force, and workers themselves pay
the cost of maintaining it. 

Developing
countries do, however, have an alternative framework for protecting
the rights and status of this migrant population. The UN’s
International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All
Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families proposes an alternative
framework for dealing with migration. It supports the right of family
reunification, establishes equality of treatment with citizens of
the host country, and prohibits collective deportation. Both sending
and receiving countries are responsible for protecting migrants
and retain the right to determine who is admitted to their territories
and who has the right to work. The Convention recognizes the global
scale and permanence of migration, and starts by protecting the
rights of migrants. 

Predictably,
the countries that have ratified it are the sending countries. Those
countries most interested in guest worker schemes, like the U.S.
and Britain, have not. 

In
proposing alternatives to the guest worker approach to immigration
reform, U.S. immigrant groups insist that solutions considered should
include those proposed by immigrants. “Why don’t they
consult immigrants?” asks Mireya Olvera, of El Oaxaqueño,
published in Los Angeles by immigrants from the Mexican state of
Oaxaca. 

At
the heart of immigrant-based proposals is the relaxation of restrictions
on granting normal, green card visas, which allow migrants to live
and participate in community life in the U.S., but which also allow
them to move back and forth freely, to and from their countries
of origin. 

The
Coalition of Guatemalan Immigrants in the United States, reacting
to Bush’s proposal in January, said that reforms must include
“a process through which immigrants can obtain permanent residence,
and eventual citizenship.” The Salvadoran American National
Network called for “reduction of the long waiting lists that
currently exist in the processing of permanent residency petitions…over
a 12-month period,” and suggested that future applications
for permanent residence be processed within six months, instead
of the current 12-15 years. SANN also pointed out that any long-term
solution would have to include “development and implementation
of new economic and social policies in our home countries…thereby
reducing migration flows to the United States.” 

Immigrant
rights groups make the same point. The National Network for Immigrant
and Refugee Rights says reforms “must include opportunities
for permanent residency and family reunification, labor protection,
access to due process, safety and community security.” Ed Leahy,
of the Immigrant Rights Network of Iowa-Nebraska, accepts the possibility
of “worker visas” to allow for future migration, once
undocumented workers already present in the U.S. have had a chance
to normalize their status, but warns they “must not resemble
current or historic temporary worker programs,” and should
include the families of the workers involved, protections for labor
rights, and a path to permanent residence and citizenship. 

Leahy’s
argument, like those of immigrants themselves, is one of inclusion.
“Immigrants are more than workers,” he declares. “They
are neighbors, fellow members of our society, and an essential part
of America’s future.”
 


David Bacon is
a freelance writer and photographer.