Congress could vote to legalize the estimated 12 million undocumented aliens tomorrow but unless it addresses the economic gap between the US and Mexico it will only start the next chapter in the illegal immigration problem.
Congress won't pass an immigration bill tomorrow, of course, but under a deal a bipartisan group of senators reached with the White House, undocumented workers who were in the US before Jan. 1 would be eligible for a new "Z Visa" that would let them live here indefinitely if they pass a background check and pay a $1,000 fine. Those who want to get on track for citizenship would have to return to their home countries, pay an additional $4,000, show proficiency in English and wait up to eight years for a green card.
The deal-breaker for organized labor is a separate, temporary-worker program that would import 400,000 migrants a year. Each temporary work visa would be good for two years and could be renewed up to three times, as long as the worker leaves the country for a year between renewals.
Those provisions also would come in force only after the federal government implements tough new border controls and a crackdown on employers that hire illegal immigrants.
Employers are not happy that they would have to check a government database to verify that all current and future employees are eligible to work in the US.
The bill increases penalties for hiring an illegal worker to $5,000 a worker for a first offense, from $250, and as much as $75,000 a worker for a third offense. All workers would have to carry identity cards with fingerprints or other biometric data and the Social Security Administration would be expected to start issuing fraud-resistant cards, possibly with a photo or other personal data on the card, raising privacy concerns.
Two powerful service unions -- the Service Employees International Union and UNITE HERE (which represents apparel, retail, hotel and restaurant workers) -- have threatened to pull their support from any bill that would not give temporary workers a way to remain in the country, fearing that a temporary program would drive down wages for low-skill work.
We think the $5,000 fine for immigrants seeking citizenship is excessive. At least it should be waived for workers who paid payroll taxes during their time in the US. We also doubt many aliens will trust the system enough to leave the US in the hopes that they will be allowed back in once they get their papers.
The Senate bill cleared its first hurdle on May 21 with a 69-23 vote to begin debate, but Senate leaders do not expect to finish the bill until June as critics in both parties readied dozens of amendments. The Senate rejected an amendment by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., to eliminate the guest worker program, 64-31. But Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., planned an amendment, which passed the Senate last year, that would cut the guest worker program in half, to 200,000 workers annually.
If the Senate bill is adopted, it will have to be reconciled with the House, which has its own bipartisan immigration bill, HR 1645, the STRIVE Act, sponsored by Luis Gutierrez, D-Chicago. That bill, with 69 cosponsors, would allow guest workers to obtain work papers for $500 if they pass a background check. After six years, payment of another $1,500 and evidence of English proficiency they could apply for permanent residency. They also would have to leave the country at least once during their six years of "conditional non-immigrant" status. It also would create a guest worker program to allow 400,000 workers into the country each year, but those workers could apply for permanent residency after five years.
The STRIVE Act also would turn the Social Security card into a national ID card, require employers to electronically verify workers' employment authorization, establish criminal penalties for employers and workers who operate outside the system and strengtehn enforcement mechanisms. The House bill will be marked up by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a former immigration lawyer and chair of the House Judiciary Subcommitee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims.
During the GOP majority, Ezra Klein of Prospect.org noted, GOP?leaders used the conference committee to turn "compromise" bills into conservative wish lists. Progressives can use the same technique. Bush wants an immigration reform bill, and this may be the best chance in the foreseeable future.
So let the Senate pass its deal; if nothing else, at least it will put some Republicans on the record favoring "amnesty" and it already has the xenophobe right hollering for Bush's impeachment. But the House should hold firm to reducing or eliminating the guest worker program as an enforcer of peonage status.
As for the good faith of Republican dealmakers, Nathan Newman at Tpmcafe.com on May 18 noted that the Bush administration budgeted $177 million to enforce wage and hour laws in 2007, compared with $13 billion requested for border enforcement. "If I ever see an immigration enforcement group calling for real increases in minimum wage and overtime enforcement budgets, I might take their concerns for low-wage US workers seriously," Newman wrote.
Gar Lipow at Maxspeak.org May 21 noted that the main attraction of undocumented immigrants over US citizens and legal immigrants is that the aliens cannot complain about violations of labor law, minimum wage, non-payment of wages, unsafe working conditions and so on. That is why employers want a guest-worker program that makes workers dependent on their employers for their continued presence in this country.
We agree with Lipow that a truly progressive immigration deal would be part of a larger labor law reform that includes higher minimum wages, enforcement of wage laws, safety laws and real enforcement of the right to organize and unionize.
Until labor law is reformed and enforced, and employers find that there is no practical alternative to hiring documented workers, we will continue to see the periodic need to for new immigration "reforms."
Reform of trade laws also is needed to bring immigration under control. As long as corporate bosses can threaten to move factories overseas, where labor costs are a fraction of those in the US and environmental controls are negligible, the right of American workers to organize and negotiate for wages and benefits is merely theoretical. But Democratic Congressional leaders made a fool's bargain with their free trade deal with the White House.
The deal is supposed to call for enforceable labor and environmental standards for our trading partners, but it appears that these "standards" will not be written into the core text of the agreements. Instead they will be part of side agreements or "letters of understanding" that are virtually unenforceable.
As David Sirota has documented at workingassetsblog.com (see Dispatches), Democratic leaders have not been forthcoming with details of the agreement with House members or other interested parties. The Bush administration cannot be trusted to negotiate in good faith, so Congress should reject those pacts and let Fast Track Authority, which limits the ability of Congress to examine or amend trade agreements, expire in July.
America voted in 2006 against Bush's trade policy as 37 new "fair-trade" Democrats defeated "free-trade" Republican incumbents to sweep the Democrats back into the majority.
Democrats should mind those election results and draw a line in the sand: No more trade agreements until Congress takes care of American workers with a minimum wage that lifts families out of poverty and access to universal health care. After that, any trade deals should include binding labor and environmental standards that also protect our laws from attack in foreign tribunals. When US business can sign off on that agenda, then Democrats can talk. -- JMC
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