Sunday, January 21, 2007

Why a temporary worker program should be avoided

Recently, Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy of the National Council of La Raza, wrote an essay outlining the the need to include a temporary worker program in any future immigration reform legislation. In "Temporary Workers Must Be Included", Ms. Munoz lays out a compelling case in support of her argument.

She warns that without a mechanism to allow for future immigration, any legislative effort would result in the same failed policies as the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).

Acknowledging the dismal history of past guest worker programs like the notorious bracero program, Munoz still believes that a properly administered program is the only way to ensure that we don't repeat the mistakes of 1986. She warns that we should not craft a similar policy to IRCA that "produced a legalization program and a stricter enforcement regime without recognizing that workers would continue to come" and resulted in "a sizable undocumented community, unprecedented levels of workplace injuries and a (hostile) political climate."

Munoz advises those in the immigration rights movement to accept the guest worker proposal put forward in last years Senate bill and use every opportunity to work to improve it by "strengthen(ing) the protections for immigrant workers and their co-workers in the U.S."

While making a coherent case, Munoz fails to answer the underlying question of any debate about guest workers. Why must any work visa program be "temporary" in nature in the first place?

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Munoz sums up her argument by saying:

If we pass a bill that does what IRCA did, combine a legalization program with stricter enforcement while failing to create a new, safe and legal path for new workers who might come in the future, we will have failed.

We will have failed because immigrant workers will continue to come, and too many will die in the Arizona desert. We will have failed because the continued migrant stream will signal to voters that immigration reform didn’t work, and public support for stricter, more outrageous enforcement efforts, including the curtailment of civil and human rights, will grow.

Instead, we must face the challenge of creating a worker visa program that shows that we have learned from the ugly history of the bracero program. We made a good start in last year’s Senate bill, which contained a program that allows workers to enter legally and safely, change jobs, complain against unscrupulous employers and petition for themselves to become U.S. citizens if they choose to remain in the United States.

Just as importantly, the program contained crucial wage protections for U.S. workers in industries where immigrants will be arriving, ensuring that immigrants’ wages do not undercut those of the existing workforce. There’ s more that we can do to strengthen the protections for immigrant workers and their co-workers in the U.S., and we must use every opportunity in this debate to win these indispensable protections.

But we must not allow ourselves to believe that legalization for those who are here is enough. We have a responsibility to those who will continue to come, and to the American workers who worry about the security of their jobs.

We must replace the undocumented migrant stream with a safe, legal, worker-friendly visa program. It’s essential to winning the battle over our broken immigration system, and to winning the larger war that this ugly debate has become.

Munoz is of course correct when she says that the stream of migrants will continue, (unless conditions in sender nations were to improve, but that’s a different discussion.)

She is also right when she states that we need to craft a safe, worker-friendly program to accommodate it.

But what necessitates that the program be a "temporary" worker program?

Most studies, be they demographic or economic, point to an ever increasing need for more young immigrant workers to join the county's labor pool in order for the nation to remain economically competitive in the coming century.

There are numerous ways to address the problem.

The simplest solution would be to just increase the number of workers allowed to enter legally in any given year to better reflect the nations true labor needs. This could be done by reworking the quota system to allow for more immigrants to receive Legal Permanent Resident status (greencards). If, as the current legislation states, 200,000 unskilled workers are required in the US labor pool and would qualify for H-2c temporary-worker status, then simply increase the cap on employment based greencards by that number. This would eliminate the need for costly new monitoring systems, cut down on processing delays, and simplify the system rather than further complicating it. All the same employer requirements, worker protections, and rights and restrictions in the Senate bill would still apply, except that the new workers would be greencard holders rather than "temporary workers."

The current system already has numerous "temporary" programs for different situations and circumstances. To create another class, on the grand scale proposed in the Senate legislation, seems to serve no purpose but to appease special interests and an extremely vocal and powerful minority of nativists.

The plan's main selling point seems to be that it would assure big business that they can continue to have a never ending supply of rotating temporary workers, while reassuring those concerned about the effects of increased immigration on what they see as "traditional American society" that these workers would not stay long enough to have any lasting "negative cultural effects."

Pragmatically, one must be cognizant of the power of the program as a political bargaining chip. Support for any form of comprehensive reform would wane without some concessions to business interests. This has led many immigration activists to look at the temporary guest worker program as a concession they are willing to make since at least it provides an eventual path to LPR status and green cards to large numbers of immigrants. Yet, upon careful consideration one must ask why is the program needed at all? It only leaves open a door to abuse and misuse of the system.

A quick look at the provisions of the temporary worker program passed in the Senates bill (S.2611) reveals one possible loophole that would allow businesses to exploit the program.

According to the legislation, an H-2c guest worker visa would be valid for a period of three years with the ability to extend it for an additional three. After accumulated four years of temporary status a worker would be allowed to petition for permanent status. What would prevent unscrupulous employers from terminating employees after the three-year period, before they were eligible to self-petition? Given the fact that a worker would have only 60 days to find new employment before their H-2c status was revoked it is quite possible that these workers would be forced to leave the program, and the country. Additionally, new employers might be hesitant to hire workers whose visa extensions were pending and prefer workers who had not already completed half of their visa term.

This is only one possible scenario of many that demonstrate the problems of any worker program that is temporary in nature.

What about the US citizen children born of H-2 visa holders? What is their status? Must they be returned to their parent's country of origin at the end of the six-year visa period?

Ms. Munoz rightfully points out that specific details can be worked on and hopefully changed through lobbying efforts. Yet what cannot be changed is the whole concept behind the program.

Outside of some specific instances, such as seasonal agricultural work, why would the government need to place arbitrary restrictions on the time immigrant workers were allowed to stay in the country. If the job market dictates that certain positions need to be filled with immigrant labor, are we to believe that those positions will no longer be available at the end of three or six years? That would have to be the case in order for any temporary program implemented to be logical. If the positions were to still exist, there would be no reason to send workers home.

Obviously, certain special interest favor a guest worker program because it has the potential to prevent workers from accumulating enough time on the job to get substantial pay increases, qualify for certain benefits, or organize effectively in unions. But we should not be so quick to capitulate to them in the name of political expediency.

Before signing on to support any temporary program, we should be looking at how best to allow those who wish to come here permanently do so. How we are to determine the levels of immigration going forward and how many workers are needed are questions that need to be addressed, but they should be looked at with an eye towards permanency.

Those who wish to come for short periods should of course be allowed to. Studies show that recent enforcement efforts have in fact prevented large numbers of people who in the past would have returned home after a brief period of work, from doing so. Accommodations for such individuals must be made in any reform legislation. But for the vast majority, the key to any comprehensive plan should be to allow needed workers to enter the country legally and permanently.

1 comment:

tim said...

See Richard Vogel in Monthly Review recently who writes:
Not the least of the political considerations is the fact that the initiative to adopt a national guest worker program is the latest battle in the campaign against organized labor that was launched in the 1980s. While the offshoring of manufacturing jobs and the flood of anti-union legislation have devastated traditional unions, the prospect of having millions of workers trapped in transient servitude in the United States threatens to nullify current labor movements throughout the Americas.

Despite the clamor in Congress from both conservatives and liberals for a national guest worker program, it is a reactionary policy with dire economic, social, and political ramifications. The working people of the United States must respond to the pending program of transient servitude with the same answer we have given to all forms of human servitude in the past—a resounding NO!

We are facing the fight of our lives.