PORTLAND, OREGON — President Bush has announced that he’s reforming the nation’s immigration policies — policies that have long been plagued by ineffective enforcement and the exploitation of undocumented workers. Countless Latin American immigrants have died attempting to cross the Southwest’s deserts, looking for a better life north of the border.
"We see many employers turning to the illegal labor market," Bush said in a Jan. 7 speech at the White House. "We see millions of hard-working men and women condemned to fear and insecurity … The system is not working." Though still vague, Bush’s new plan would allow employers to hire undocumented immigrant workers for a three-year period, when they cannot find American workers to fill the position. After that, employers could hire workers for an additional three years, or send them back home.
The plan would undoubtedly benefit employers in industries from agriculture to restaurants, who have long walked a fine line between hiring eager workers and breaking federal labor laws by hiring illegal immigrants. But the benefits for immigrants themselves are less clear-cut: Workers would not gain permanent residency, nor would their families be allowed to move to the United States.
Many undocumented workers and immigrant activists say Bush’s plan offers nothing more than temporary respite for workers dependent on the whims and desires of their employers. At a press conference in Portland, Ore., local and state Latino organizations condemned the plan: "It gives companies carte blanche to exploit (immigrant) workers in this country," said Ramon Ramirez, president of the Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United, a labor union.
Those on the other side of the immigration debate also criticize the plan. Mike McGarry, a spokesman for the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform (CAIR), calls Bush’s allowances for more foreign workers "a piece of arrogant political scheming, a dagger aimed at the hearts of American workers."
Still others are skeptical of Bush’s motives. As the presidential campaign heats up, candidates, including President Bush, are expected to woo Hispanic voters in Western states. "It’s a purely political means of getting some Latino votes," says Richard Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition and an immigrant activist.
Out of the shadows and into the ski towns
It’s questionable whether the president’s plan could work — whether undocumented immigrant workers would come "out of the shadows" and sign up for the temporary work program. "A lot of people come to set up a life here," says Joe Mota, the contract administrator for the United Farmworkers in Coachella Valley, Calif. "They’re not going to come out of hiding."
In place of Bush’s plan, organizers such as Mota and Ramirez support the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act, or AgJobs for short. It would allow employers to hire immigrants already in the United States illegally, but would give the immigrants a built-in path to permanent residency: Undocumented workers who have worked 100 days in a 12-month period would gain temporary residency, after which they could work for several more years and become eligible for permanent residency.
Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, one of AgJobs’ co-sponsors, sees his bill and Bush’s plan as simpatico. Meghan Riding, a Cannon spokeswoman, says Cannon envisions AgJobs as one small piece of the bigger vision proposed by the president. The bill now sits in the House Immigration, Border Security and Claims Subcommittee, and could be voted on this year.
But Bush’s plan does have at least one advantage over AgJobs: It would cover workers in all industries, including the service industries and construction. Colorado ski towns alone employ about 46,000 immigrant workers, who would not benefit from the AgJobs bill. "I don’t agree with (Bush’s plan) either," says Park City, Utah, immigrant advocate Shelley Weiss. "But the most important thing is that he brought it up … We do a big disservice to the undocumented community by tearing it to shreds. They’re the ones dying in the desert."
The author writes from Portland, Oregon.
Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United www.pcun.org, 503-982-0243
Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform www.cairco.org, 888-694-1559