July 16 2004

Collision Coming Over Farm Worker Legalization

By David Bacon
Pacific News Service


SOLEDAD, CA — Farm worker unions and the Bush administration are heading rapidly towards confrontation over immigration. After three years of arm-twisting, unions like the United Farm Workers, Oregon’s Union de Pineros and the Ohio-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee finally have a bill in Congress that would legalize half a million agricultural workers living without visas in the United States. But the administration, despite a proclaimed interest in Latino votes, killed its own bill restricting class action lawsuits when the farm worker legalization proposal was attached to it.

In the compromise bill negotiated between growers and unions, called the AgJOBS bill, unions even agreed to expansion of already-existing guest worker programs, widely condemned for the extensive violations of the rights of immigrants imported as temporary workers, in order to get a legalization program. But they faced the administration’s only-only proposal, and Bush’s declaration that he will not sign any bill granting legal status to any of the country’s 12 million undocumented residents.

Two hundred farm workers on the second day of their march (June 30) up the Salinas Valley, protesting a wave of immigration raids and calling for legalization of undocumented immigrants and passage of the AgJOBS Act. Photo by David Bacon

The AgJOBS bill has 63 Senate cosponsors, a veto-proof majority. On July 9th, Republican Sen. Larry Craig tried to attach AgJOBS as an amendment to the administration’s own cherished bill to limit class action lawsuits. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist then withdrew the entire proposal. Immigrant rights activists speculated that had it gone forward, Bush would have been forced to veto it because of the legalization provision. While that might have been a popular move among the Republican right, it would have provided ammunition to the Democratic presidential campaign.

UFW President Arturo Rodriguez accused Bush of hypocrisy. Last week by video hookup the President told the convention of the League of Latin American Citizens in San Antonio, Texas, that “el sueño Americano es para todos” [the American dream is for everyone]. But at the same time, Rodriguez said, “his ally, Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist, was working to prevent undocumented farm workers from earning a path to citizenship.” But Rodriguez noted that the move cost Bush a lot: “We stopped big business from being handed a victory at the expense of farm workers. And we will be back, with or without the support of this President.”

According to other immigrant rights activists, however, killing AgJOBS is not the only way Bush is promoting his guest worker-only agenda. They accuse the administration of playing to its rightwing Republican base by launching a national wave of immigration raids, intended to send a dual message - placating anti-immigrant voters while threatening mass deportations if immigrant communities resist the expansion of guest worker programs.

Since the wave of raids began in June, the number of deportations has mushroomed, and beginning in California, immigration sweeps have spread east across the country. They started in Ontario, California on June 5, when 79 immigrants were arrested and deported. The following day in nearby Corona, another 77 people were picked up. The next raid, netting 15 in Escondido, near San Diego, escalated into the deportation of 268 more by mid-June. Reports of raids then surfaced in urban areas in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, traditionally avoided by the Border Patrol because of their long history of organized resistance.

In upstate New York, agents seized eight workers in a big General Electric research facility in Niskayuna, where they were removing asbestos without adequate protection. Although the fibers cause a virulent form of cancer, mesothelioma, and the contractor employing them, LVI Environmental Services, is under federal investigation for using illegal removal procedures, the workers were arrested instead.

The Border Patrol announced that the deportations were part of an ongoing investigation into the asbestos abatement industry in upstate and central New York. The Laborers Unions has been organizing immigrant asbestos workers throughout New York and New Jersey, in one of the labor movement’s most successful unionizing drives. The raids will slow that movement by increasing the fear of deportation among workers already risking their jobs by protesting dangerous conditions.

That fear is spreading in California’s farm worker towns as well. “It’s no secret that a very high percentage of farm workers are undocumented,” says Efren Barajas, a UFW leader.

“When people are afraid of being deported, they don’t fight about bad working conditions and miserable wages.”

In the week before July 4th, the UFW organized six simultaneous marches through California valley towns, including a five-day peregrination up the Salinas Valley. They combined protest over the raids with a call for passage of the AgJOBS legalization bill. Unions have become some of the strongest supporters of legalization because fear of deportation undermines the organizing efforts of immigrant workers.

Two decades ago, most unions saw undocumented workers as job competition and even strikebreakers. But in the 1990s that attitude changed as immigrants became a large part of the workforce in many industries, and unions began organizing them. The UFW was a leading voice at the AFL-CIO’s Los Angeles convention in 1998, which adopted a new pro-immigrant position, including a call for amnesty.

“We’re not just trying to help our own members, but everyone in the same situation,” Barajas explains. “The way we see it, they come to this country to make life better for their families. They’re hard-working people, who pay taxes like anyone else. They’re not going away, and making people legal is the right thing to do.”

But legalization for farm workers has a price. In three years of hard negotiations with growers, farm worker unions got agreement to a broad amnesty, but had to agree to relax restrictions on growers’ ability to import temporary contract workers. Agricultural employers would not have to provide housing for them; it would be easier to claim they couldn’t find domestic workers to fill available jobs and the minimum wage for temporary contract labor would be frozen.

East coast growers have been accused of massive abuse of guest workers under the existing H2-A program. Legal Aid of North Carolina is suing the North Carolina Growers Association for maintaining a blacklist of workers who protest bad conditions.

Farm worker advocates say they’ve negotiated labor protections into the compromise, giving guest workers the right to go to court, but doubt remains that this will enable them to challenge their employers. And unions hope the program won’t expand out of the southeast, where most guest workers are currently employed.

“Our interest is legalizing people,” Barajas says. “We had to swallow some things in the bill to get that. We don’t want H2 programs, but it’s a product of negotiation, so growers push their issues too. If we legalize millions of farm workers, it will be much better than what we have now, and we don’t see any other way to get that.”

And there lies the confrontation with Bush. The administration proposes vast new guest worker programs, and says it will not agree to any amnesty. Unions have already lined up a veto-proof majority in the Senate. And Congress’ Republican leadership will undoubtedly continue protecting the President in an election year, and preventing a vote which might force his veto, as they did last week.

But because it is an election year, Latino votes count for legislators, even if they’ve lost their importance to Bush. “If Bush doesn’t see that,” Barajas laughs, “perhaps we should have a new president.”

David Bacon (dbacon@igc.org) is a freelance writer and photographer who writes regularly on labor and immigration issues.

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