When immigrant janitors in Boston went on strike this fall, they attracted some unlikely allies. While students and religious and community leaders were quick to lend their authority to the cause, urging higher wages and better benefits for the 10,700 janitors who clean the city’s gleaming office towers and stately campuses, the real surprise came in the form of corporate support for the janitors’ demands. After weeks of public pressure, such business luminaries as FleetBoston Financial, State Street Corporation and John Hancock Financial Services weighed in for the cleaners, roughly half of whom are undocumented immigrants.

But even as throngs of purple-shirted workers staged nightly marches through downtown Boston, a crackdown on undocumented workers elsewhere in Massachusetts continued apace. On the same days that the janitors held major rallies, the INS launched raids in East Boston and on Cape Cod, rounding up dozens of Brazilian immigrants for deportation.

These seemingly contradictory developments are merely symptoms of the fundamental inconsistency of US policy on immigrant labor: On the one hand, the politics of antiterrorism dictates a get-tough, round-’em-up approach; on the other, we are a nation that depends more and more on immigrants to do our dirtiest jobs. The Republican Party itself is deeply split on this question. If the party’s ideological purists were to win out, sealing borders in order to stem the tide of immigrant labor, whole sectors of the economy would collapse, making the business-minded segment of the party unhappy indeed.

One of the most dramatic illustrations of this muddle comes in the form of the “no match” letters the Social Security Administration (SSA) sent to more than 800,000 businesses this year, requesting that they resolve cases in which information provided to the administration doesn’t match government records. The letters are prompted by anything from a misspelled name, a transposed digit in a Social Security number or even forged documents. But according to the National Immigration Law Center the workers on the receiving end of the letters are overwhelmingly immigrants, and many employers, rather than trying to correct inaccurate information, simply fire the workers. NILC estimates that as many as 100,000 workers have been let go since the letters began arriving.

NILC is now working with the SSA and the Chamber of Commerce to rewrite the documents, making it explicit that the SSA has nothing to do with immigration. But in the present climate, this distinction is unlikely to make much of a difference.

A compromise satisfying the needs of business interests as well as xenophobes–but not immigrant workers–may come in the form of a modern-day “bracero” program, proposed by George W. Bush and crafted with the aid of industry lobby groups and Mexican President Vicente Fox. An immigration reform effort launched by former House minority leader Richard Gephardt would be a step toward such a program, making it far easier for employers to obtain temporary or seasonal visas for essential workers. Backed by such lobbying powerhouses as the National Restaurant Association, the expanded temporary-worker program is likely to be part of any legalization measure. Why the industry pressure for more guest visas? Call them temps, braceros, guest workers or seasonal employees, these workers have few legal protections and no rights under US labor law.

The human consequences of this country’s ambivalence about immigrant labor were on stark display this fall in the Northeast. Boston’s immigrant janitors, backed by a strong union and legions of community supporters, won a public relations war, making the case for better wages and benefits. But in Maine, fourteen migrant workers en route to a remote logging site died when their van plunged into the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. The workers, all seasonal laborers from Central America, were in the country as part of a forestry guest-worker program that afforded them neither safety, legal nor wage protections–highlighting the dangers of the immigration proposals now pending in Washington. Meanwhile, progressives can take inspiration from the Boston janitors’ fight: Passionate public support for immigrant workers is still possible after 9/11.