Guest Worker Programs Are a Tough Sell
By JIM ABRAMS, Associated Press Writer
Proponents of a guest worker program to address the chaos of illegal immigration have a hard sell in front of them. Similar programs in the past have been plagued by abuses and have done little to stem the influx of undocumented workers.
"These programs are seductive, and that is what is so troubling to us right now," said Ana Avendano, associate general counsel of the AFL-CIO. The labor federation has been critical of guest worker programs in proposed immigration reform legislation that the Senate will debate next week.
President Bush urged Congress two years ago to write new immigration law with a guest worker program that could provide legal status, but not a road to citizenship, for some of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.
The hottest debate in the Senate will be whether to pass some version of a guest worker program proposed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. The bill by McCain, a contender for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, and Kennedy would provide up to 400,000 visas in the first year and allow participants, after six years, to seek permanent residency.
Their proposal, strongly backed by the business community, would supplement existing temporary worker programs, such as the H-2A program that brings about 45,000 agriculture workers into the country every year, and H-1B visas issued to up to 65,000 high-tech and other skilled foreign workers.
It also would build on a near-century old tradition of turning to foreign unskilled laborers, mainly from Mexico, in response to labor shortages, often during times of war.
"Its historic role has been as a national emergency program," Cornell University economist Vernon Briggs wrote in a 2004 paper. "They are extraordinary policies to be used as a last resort - and then only as temporary measures."
In 1917, during World War I, an agreement was reached with Mexico to let in unskilled workers. During the program's five-year life span, 77,000 Mexicans were admitted but fewer than half returned to Mexico.
"The program spawned illegal immigration," Briggs said.
A much larger exchange, the Bracero program, began in 1942, during World War II, and continued in varying forms through 1964. Some 4.6 million Mexicans came to the United States, with a peak of 439,000 in 1959.
The program stipulated that guest workers were to get free housing, medical treatment, transportation and prevailing wages. The reality was often different.
Avendano of the AFL-CIO said workers were underpaid or cheated out of wages, exposed to unsafe conditions, faced racial discrimination and were saddled with debt from recruiters and employers. Workers were unable to exercise their rights because the employer could have them deported. Under such conditions, she said, "Workers would rather be undocumented because they have full mobility."
Others argue that guest worker programs create an underclass of foreign workers and stigmatize some jobs associated with foreign labor.
Kennedy, in a statement, agreed that the existing system hasn't worked because it allows "so much exploitation and abuse of temporary workers and undermines the jobs, wages and working conditions of U.S. workers."
But he said the McCain-Kennedy bill and others like it "will avoid those problems by streamlining the application process for employers and strengthening key protections for the workers."
Major immigration reform enacted in 1986 included language providing eventual permanent resident status to those who could prove they had worked in agriculture the previous year. Nearly 1 million applications were accepted. Critics argued that many used fraudulent documents and that this amnesty rewarded those who entered the country illegally.
In 1995, the U.S. Commission on Immigration, headed by the late Rep.
Barbara Jordan, D-Texas, reported to Congress its unanimous conclusion that an agriculture guest worker program "is not in the national interest and ... would be a grievous mistake."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (news, bio, voting record), D-Calif., at recent Senate hearings on the immigration bill, said the recent tide of illegal immigrants raises "the question of whether guest worker programs become magnets for more undocumented populations."
Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, said his father was a "bracero" so he's "very aware of how these programs can be abused."
Medina said he supports the McCain-Kennedy approach because it gives temporary workers job portability, so they don't have to stay with an employer who mistreats them.
"When you were dependent on that one employer, people couldn't complain," Medina said. "That was my father's experience."
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