June 10, 2005

Commentary:

Schwarzenegger’s hyperbole not the answer to California’s Immigration issue

AgJOBS Bill is crucial to California’s Long Term Future

By Fabian Núñez, Speaker
California State Assembly 

Let’s get this straight: curbing illegal immigration is a worthy cause; fanning the flames of resentment is not.

Gov. Schwarzenegger should understand the difference. So it’s hard to explain why the governor would praise a posse of armed vigilantes who have declared it their duty to stop Mexicans from crossing the border.

The last time a California governor whipped up anti-immigrant sentiment it was to bolster his own sagging political fortunes. I cannot imagine that Gov. Schwarzenegger, an immigrant like me, would do something so cynical.

Especially when there are viable options for reducing unlawful migration, while protecting vital California industries that depend on immigrant workers.

Let’s give the governor the benefit of the doubt and assume he is unaware of proposals that address illegal immigration that don’t involve vigilantes.

The most promising is the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act of 2005, otherwise known as AgJOBS, sponsored by Senators Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and supported the United Farm Workers and the California Farm Bureau.

In the short term, the AgJOBS bill would allow those with a work history in U.S. agriculture before Dec. 31, 2004 to stay in the country and earn permanent residency, over a six-years, by continued work in agriculture and strictly obeying the law.

In the long term, provisions would make hiring seasonal workers easier, after employers first seek qualified U.S. workers, and only if they provide workers’ compensation insurance and comply with existing collective bargaining agreements. Other provisions address housing, transportation costs, prevailing wages and maximum length of stays.

Another important measure is Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s Immigration Services and Infrastructure Improvement Act, which would reduce the backlog in the naturalization process and reorganize the INS into an immigration services section and an enforcement section, both overseen by the Attorney General.

On these fronts, Gov. Schwarzenegger could provide an important measure of support that would do more than just appeal to those who see immigrants as the source of California’s troubles.

Why bother to work for reform of the immigration system?

First, because it’s a matter of justice for immigrants themselves.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, although Latinos accounted for more than 1 million of the 2.5 million new jobs in the U.S. in 2004, they were the only major group to suffer a two-year decline in wages; earning 5 percent less than two years ago.

“Recently arrived Hispanic immigrants were a leading source of new workers to the economy but also among the principal recipients of wage cuts in 2004,” the Pew Center reported. “The vast majority of new jobs for Hispanic workers were in relatively low-skill occupations calling for little other than a high school education. In contrast, non-Hispanic workers secured large increases in employment in higher-skill occupations requiring at least some college education.”

So immigrants aren’t stealing jobs from Californians who want work: in fact, they’re driving down the wages paid to unskilled workers.

Halting illegal immigration and stabilizing the immigrant workforce, then, is a benefit to California Latinos.

Moreover, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than half of the nation’s 1.6 million agricultural workers are not authorized to work in the U.S.

The prospect of deporting that huge work-force is horrifying to the agricultural industry. What the industry needs is a stable, legal workforce — not a crippling xenophobic, knee-jerk reaction to immigrants.

That’s why AgJOBS is crucial to California’s agricultural industry and economy.

Instead of fueling incendiary anti-immigrant sentiment, Gov. Schwarzenegger ought to do something constructive — like supporting AJR 20 — a bipartisan resolution in the Legislature supporting the AgJOBS bill.

It’s the least our immigrant governor could do.

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