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Labor Fights for Immigrants | The Nation

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Labor Fights for Immigrants

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Many immigrant rights activists expected a major national campaign for amnesty and against sanctions to follow. Yet no bill was introduced into Congress last year calling for such basic reforms. Instead, last April Henry Cisneros, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, proposed that unions and immigrant communities support expansion of the H1-B program, which supplies contract labor to high-tech industry. In return, he suggested, Congress could be convinced to pass proposals to end discrimination against Central American and Haitian refugees, for fair treatment for late applicants to the last immigration amnesty and for other reforms. Cisneros's prediction was wrong. The Republican Congress was ultimately able to pass H1-B without those amendments. The AFL-CIO lobbied against the program, but there was little union campaigning against it outside Washington. Even immigrant rights groups were divided over it.

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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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"I don't think the H1-B strategy was the right one," says Eliseo Medina, vice president of the Service Employees International Union and a leading immigration strategist. "High-tech was only interested in its own issue and had no desire to link it to any broader program. We also tried to pass a more limited set of reforms, and in the end we got a minor amnesty, which may affect 600,000-800,000 people." The Clinton Administration pledged support for these more limited goals. For presidential candidate Al Gore, the absence in Congress of a broad amnesty bill repealing sanctions was good news. He didn't have to open himself up to a GOP attack by supporting such a proposal or alienate the Latino vote in states like California by opposing it.

With the Bush Administration in office, the political terrain is changing quickly. In January, Texas Senator Phil Gramm, the most rabid anti-immigrant voice in Congress, flew to Mexico City to meet new Mexican President Vicente Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive with close links to major Mexican and US corporations. On his return Gramm announced that he and Fox had discussed a vast expansion of bracero contract labor programs.

"It is delusional," Gramm told reporters, "not to recognize that illegal aliens from Mexico already hold millions of jobs in the United States with the implicit permission of governments at every level, as well as companies and communities." While Gramm called for transforming Mexican migrants into braceros, he also proposed increased enforcement of employer sanctions to force them into his contract labor scheme.

Gramm's visit was followed by that of Bush himself, who has carefully cultivated a pro-Latino, pro-immigrant image, fearing the kind of punishment that California's Latino voters, enraged over Governor Pete Wilson's anti-immigrant policies, imposed on that state's Republican Party. Bush nonetheless opposes amnesty, unwilling to cross the right wing, to whom immigration is still anathema. His solution: contract labor, which he touts to Latinos as a chance to work legally in the United States, while telling his conservative base that it affords no one the opportunity to stay. Bush's position also aligns him with industries that want guestworkers, like agriculture and meatpacking. "I look south and see opportunities and potential," he said before the summit.

For his part, Fox needs to protect the huge role migrant labor plays in the Mexican economy. The remittances of Mexicans working in the United States total $6-$8 billion a year, the third-largest source of foreign income. Fox must also speak to the millions of Mexicans who seek a way to cross the border without the harrowing journey through the desert, which for hundreds every year is a walk to their death. He supports a general amnesty but also contract labor, seeing as Bush does that it can be portrayed as a means of providing work opportunities in the North.

Indeed, behind all the backslapping between the two weekend cowboys on Fox's Guanajuato ranch, expanding guestworker programs was the only area of immigration reform under discussion in which they came close to agreement. Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda revealed at the time that talks were already under way on expanding contract labor in agriculture; he is critical of some such programs but insists others are good. "There is no better way for Mexicans to defend themselves than for them to be legal," he said. Of course, the nature of that legal status--whether it grants people all the rights of citizenship or, like contract labor, makes residency contingent on employment--is the question.

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