January 19, 2007

Commentary:

Temporary Workers Must Be Included

By Cecilia Munoz
New America Media

WASHINGTON, DC — It looks like this might finally be the year of fair and comprehensive immigration reform. The major obstacle to it last year, the highly negative Republican House leadership that produced the Sensenbrenner bill, has been removed and both the Senate and the House appear poised to finally launch the kind of debate on immigration that the country needs and deserves.

For immigrant rights advocates, this is a moment to get serious about passing the best possible bill, a “moment of truth” about the its content.

There’s widespread agreement among advocates on the need for a program that would legalize the maximum possible number of the 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living and working in the U.S. Other elements of the bill, like the elimination of family visa backlogs, aren’t controversial. But there’s real doubt on another central element of comprehensive immigration reform: the creation of a worker visa program for immigrant workers who might come in the future.

There’s reason for the opposition to temporary worker programs. The American experience with it hasn’t been a happy one for workers. Latinos, in particular, remember the notorious bracero program, which has become synonymous with worker abuse. They rightly insist that we not repeat the grave mistakes of the past.

One way to respond to this history is to insist that there be no worker program in an immigration bill, or that it be as small as possible. While the logic of this position, based on the ugly history of worker programs, isn’t unreasonable, its outcome is likely to be quite harmful.

It’s important not to repeat the mistakes of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), which produced a legalization program and a stricter enforcement regime without recognizing that workers would continue to come and be subject to worse conditions under energized and stricter enforcement.

That mistake created the conditions that we’re living with now: a sizeable undocumented community, unprecedented levels of workplace injuries and a political climate so hostile that local governments across the country are willing to harass anyone who looks like an immigrant, in the name of immigration control.

Perhaps the most tragic consequences are the terrible human costs of workplace raids, which terrify communities and separate families, and the horrible death toll at the border, which exceeds one death per day every year.

If we pass a bill that does what IRCA did, combine a legalization program with stricter enforcement while failing to create a new, safe and legal path for new workers who might come in the future, we will have failed.

We will have failed because immigrant workers will continue to come, and too many will die in the Arizona desert. We will have failed because the continued migrant stream will signal to voters that immigration reform didn’t work, and public support for stricter, more outrageous enforcement efforts, including the curtailment of civil and human rights, will grow.

Instead, we must face the challenge of creating a worker visa program that shows that we have learned from the ugly history of the bracero program. We made a good start in last year’s Senate bill, which contained a program that allows workers to enter legally and safely, change jobs, complain against unscrupulous employers and petition for themselves to become U.S. citizens if they choose to remain in the United States.

Just as importantly, the program contained crucial wage protections for U.S. workers in industries where immigrants will be arriving, ensuring that immigrants’ wages do not undercut those of the existing workforce. There’ s more that we can do to strengthen the protections for immigrant workers and their co-workers in the U.S., and we must use every opportunity in this debate to win these indispensable protections.

But we must not allow ourselves to believe that legalization for those who are here is enough. We have a responsibility to those who will continue to come, and to the American workers who worry about the security of their jobs.

We must replace the undocumented migrant stream with a safe, legal, worker-friendly visa program. It’s essential to winning the battle over our broken immigration system, and to winning the larger war that this ugly debate has become.

Cecilia Munoz is vice president for policy of the National Council of La Raza.

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