A CALL FOR IMMIGRATION REFORM
Today, April 10th, 2013, over 100 immigrants rights organizations have coordinated the “Time is Now” Day of Action in Washington, D.C., to counter the inadequate reform proposals set forth by the Obama Administration. Tens of thousands of immigrants, allies, faith leaders, and farm and food chain workers are rallying together on the lawn of the U.S. Capital Building, where they are calling on Congress to fix the broken immigration system in 2013.
The food and labor movements are together calling for an alternative reform that is a Just Reform, one that defends workers’ rights and resists the expansion of more free trade agreements. We stand strongly against the transformation of the immigration system into a system that funnels labor into the corporate industries of the United States at the expense of workers’ human rights and family unity.
Food First, along with the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, stands in support and solidarity with all of the food and farm chain workers who are marching to defend workers’ rights and just immigration. As a member of the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, Food First fully echoes their Official Statement of Solidarity for today’s Day of Action in Washington, D.C. Please see the full statement here.
As second term president, Barack Obama has stated his intention to create “comprehensive immigration reform” that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.
But instead of introducing his own legislation, the President enlisted a group of eight senators (four Democrats and four Republicans) known as “The Gang of Eight,” to craft it, presumably in an effort to encourage bipartisan agreement.
The group hit a roadblock when the staunchly opposed AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce butted heads on how to define a new guest worker program for “low-skilled” workers. The AFL-CIO, representing labor unions, has traditionally opposed guest worker programs because they put downward pressure on American wages and push American workers out of their jobs. The Chamber of Commerce on the other hand, representing business interests, pushed to expand the guest worker program and advocated for lower wages. They argue that few Americans are willing to work in low-skill, low-wage jobs, and see guest workers as a tool to fill those positions and therefore help to grow American industry.
Neither party wants to admit that “drudgery” and “unskilled” are not synonymous. As Frank Bardacke points out in his epic work on the United Farm Workers, Trampling Out the Vintage,
“The cunning of the hand, what farmworkers call maña, [is the basis of] farmwork as surely as it is the basis of a major league pitcher’s job, or a skilled craftsman. Many farmworker jobs are not only hard to do but hard to learn, often requiring years to master, and skills are typically passed on from one generation to the next.”
This unspoken fact—that farm work is extremely hard, highly skilled and very poorly paid —sits at the heart of immigration reform. Only laborers made desperate through precarious immigration and onerous guest worker programs can be coerced into accepting poverty wages for skilled yet backbreaking work. “Americans” (read: anyone with a Green Card or U.S. citizenship) refuse to work under these conditions. This is the real reason why a blanket amnesty is avoided. The minute anyone gets their papers, they leave agriculture.
The extreme labor conditions of restaurant and hospitality work have are similarly exploitative and are similarly mischaracterized as “unskilled” for the same reason. Workers in the food industry are the lowest paid and have the highest levels of food insecurity. So it came as no surprise when the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce revealed last Friday that they had come to a landmark compromise to push the bill forward: They proposed yet another class of “W” visas for low-skilled workers in non-agriculture jobs, in sectors such as construction, retail, hospitality, and janitorial. They will be paid “at the prevailing wage,” and their numbers will fluctuate between 20,000 and 200,000 visas per year, based on labor market analysis from the newly-formed “Bureau of Immigration and Labor Research.” Their proposal also laid out a 13-year path to citizenship, raised the number of visas for highly-skilled workers and entrepreneurs, eliminated many categories of family visas, and called for increased border control.
Why would an organization like the AFL-CIO that stands up for the rights of American workers agree on legislation that directly undermines American labor? According to David Bacon, expert on labor and immigration, this agreement comes out of a political calculation by the Democratic Party that treats the guest worker program as a bartering chip in the game to win more voters. Democrats are pushing hard to establish “an improved path to citizenship,” wagering that once these people become naturalized citizens, they will then vote Democrat. The problem, Bacon argues, is that to achieve their goal, they are willing to negotiate everything else: “In order to bring employers on board, they have to give employers guest worker programs.”
The combination of reduced family visas and increased low-wage worker visas signals the push to turn immigration reform into a way to maintain inexpensive labor in the United States. Big business is the big winner from the Gang of Eight’s reform proposals.
An expanded guest worker program offsets the Obama Administration’s proposals to crack down on employers who hire undocumented immigrants. The legalized structure of the guest worker program frees employers from scrutiny about the nature of their employees’ documentation status, while still providing them with an outlet to continue to benefit from cheap foreign labor—labor that is actually highly skilled and in no position to organize for higher wages.
As such, for the political forces that are pushing business interests into legislation, the guest worker program is attractive because it is legal in name, but functions in practice just like the undocumented labor market: it keeps wages low and prevents workers from organizing.
The current guest worker program is inconsistent in its coordination and enforcement, allowing for instances of employer mistreatment to go unreported. Not only is there a confusing alphabet soup of visa categories that are each subject to their own separate rules, but also there is no meaningful regulation by the Department of Labor. The scandalous number of modern-day slavery cases that have surfaced with H-2 guest workers in Florida is a reflection of inadequate government’s surveillance.
WHY THE REFORM IS MEANINGLESS
Business interests would have us believe that guest workers are necessary to fill jobs and boost the American economy, but there are millions of unemployed people in the United States who are desperately seeking work. Many of them have the skills needed for the available jobs in the food, construction and hospitality industries. The problem is not a lack of available workers; the problem is a lack of a livable wage. The proposal to pay workers at the “prevailing wage” is a baseless assessment, since it the prevailing wage is precisely the problem. Adding more foreign workers will not help fix the wealth disparity in this country, it will only put more downward pressure on wages.
The proposed reform bill is certainly not “comprehensive,” as it does not acknowledge the root causes of immigration into the United States—namely the destruction of rural livelihoods in Latin America due to U.S. grain “dumping” and free trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA.
If the impacts of thirty years of failed neoliberal adjustment policies are not addressed in this reform bill, we will continue to destroy livelihoods and empty the countryside of farmers and rural workers, and further widen the gap between the rich and the poor in the Americas. This will increase, not decrease immigration, no matter how many guest workers and overly-congested “paths” to citizenship the U.S. Congress offers up.