INS Declares War on Labor | The Nation


INS Declares War on Labor

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Despite some public quarreling over lost production due to Operation Vanguard, the INS and the industry are remarkably in sync in their objectives. Both agree that meatpacking needs a stable force of low-wage labor. And both advocate a guestworker program as the means to achieve it.

Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation

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David Bacon
David Bacon is author of Illegal People—How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, and the...

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By law, a company can’t hire H-2A guest workers if it is in a labor dispute with its US workforce. But that is exactly what this Washington State berry grower is trying to do.

Reformers are targeting Mexican teachers, wielding tests as a weapon. Sound familiar?

For two decades until 1964, the United States had such an arrangement, the bracero program, which brought seasonal farmworkers from Mexico to California. While on paper "guestworkers" are guaranteed labor rights, they depend on a job's continuation to remain in the country. Employers therefore have the power not only to fire those who agitate and organize but in effect to deport them as well. Unions and Latino and Asian/Pacific communities oppose such programs because an oversupply of labor means falling wages, and also because of these programs' history.

Sherry Edwards of the American Meat Institute, an industry lobby, says that a new guestworker program would have to go beyond bracero, though. "We need permanent workers, not seasonal laborers," she says. Angelo Fili of Greater Omaha Packing says, "I think a guestworker program would be good for the industry and good for the country." So does the INS--and, presumably, high-level officials throughout the Clinton Administration. Reed admits that one purpose of Operation Vanguard is to force a political dialogue in which Congress would reassure industries dependent on immigrants that their supply of low-wage labor will not run dry.

"It's time for a gut check," Reed declares. "We depend on foreign labor, and we have to face the question: Are we prepared to bring in workers lawfully? How can we get unauthorized workers back into the work force in a legal way? If we don't have illegal immigration anymore, we'll have the political support for guestworker. People have talked about it for years, but we never had to really deal with it until Operation Vanguard."

And, Reed continues, "this has been coordinated with headquarters all the way. I met with [INS director] Meissner.... She's encouraging more internal enforcement operations. She said, 'I want endgames.' That's what this is."

A guestworker program almost made it on the floor of Congress last session, and it's expected that Senators Gordon Smith of Oregon and Bob Graham of Florida will again try to attach it to a spending bill. Nebraska's Republican delegation is already setting up invitation-only meetings between INS and industry representatives to discuss labor shortages caused by Operation Vanguard. "The disruption from Operation Vanguard is certainly fuel for the political fire supporting guestworker," Anna Avendaño of the UFCW says. "We know the employers really want this. It's a very serious and immediate threat."

Father Damien goes even further: "I wonder if the meatpackers aren't really behind it [Operation Vanguard] after all. If packers got a guestworker program, it would really destroy the present work force." Whether or not it's a coordinated effort, government and industry get to the same place in the end.

"It's all become an issue of the price of labor," Lourdes Gouveia says, "how it will be regulated, and how much it will cost employers."

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