An Immigration Food Fight

This is by DMI's new immigration project coordinator Suman Raghunathan- she'll be posting here shortly. Given Jonathan's post today offering good criticism of the Senate bill here are some additional thoughts on the policy end.

As Senators relax in their home district over the Memorial Day weekend recess, I've got a few reminders for them as they mull over the recent immigration proposal   (The Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act) and head out into a supposed firestorm of public opinion.  

Newsflash: Americans support a smart and compassionate legalization program that acknowledges immigrant contributions to our nation.

A New York Times/CBS News poll released Friday underlined just how ready Americans are for a fair legalization program to address the nation's over 12 million undocumented immigrants.  Nearly two-thirds of respondents supported legalization for those who have been in the US for at least two years.  Nearly two-thirds of those polled also felt recent immigrants contribute to the US.  

So it seems like we have a consensus, right?  

Wrong.  

Senators have started an amendment food fight over the past week, frantically slinging in provisions that take cheap shots at immigrant communities.  

Cases in point:  Senator David Vitter (R-LA) introduced an amendment last week to eliminate the bill's legalization provisions. Luckily Senators retained a measure of sanity when they defeated it by a resounding two-thirds majority, 66 to 29.  The whole point of an immigration legislation package is to legalize undocumented immigrants and give them a reason and pathway to come out of the shadows where they are exploited in the workplace, risk undermining the quality of jobs in this country and are prevented from fully engaging in American civil society.  Without a smart and enforceable legalization provision, this bill would do little to acknowledge the immigrants who have built lives in the US and give a green light to exploit workers while denying them a path to citizenship. Yes, I'm referring here to the temporary worker program.

This program - which creates a permanent underclass of workers who will never be allowed to build roots in the US or apply for citizenship - remains enshrined in the current bill.  This is despite the efforts of Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), who introduced an amendment to reduce the number of temporary workers allowed in the country from 400,000 to 200,000.  The amendment passed -- preserving one of the worst pieces of a flawed and complicated bill (at last count, it's about 600 pages long).  Allowing workers into the country on this Y visa to contribute to our economy without allowing them to ever apply for permanent residency would effectively bar them from developing strong and sustained economic ties to the US. It maintains immigrant workers' marginal and exploitable status which threatens to depress wages and working conditions for all workers and keeps the immigrants themselves from advancing economically over the long run to join the middle class.  

It appears the American public doesn't fully understand the implications of a temporary worker program.  Two-thirds of respondents in the New York Times/CBS News poll supported a guest worker program while nearly the same percentage favored legalizing undocumented immigrants who have been in the country for at least two years.  Right now, the Senate's proposed temporary worker program does not offer guest workers any path to apply for citizenship. It is also important to note that any kind of temporary worker program that requires workers to shuttle back and forth between the US and their home country and then kicks them out of the program if they are unemployed for sixty days in a row -- encourages the exploitation of employees, because it forces immigrants to keep their job, no matter how exploitative it is in order to remain in-status. This can end up reducing the quality of jobs in this country, effectively shutting American workers out of whole industries where the prevalence of vulnerable immigrants makes labor standards functionally below the legal minimum.

Next, Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN) introduced an amendment that would, among other bad ideas, force state and local law enforcement officials to enforce federal immigration laws. This is something police chiefs of cities and towns large and small across the US have agreed for years is a bad idea. Law enforcement officials should aim to develop and inspire trust in the communities they patrol.  Forcing them to double as immigration agents would do just the opposite, and would likely result in more fires, rapes, and other crimes going unreported by terrified immigrant communities.

In addition, this amendment would almost encourage undocumented workers to NOT report workplace violations (wage and hour infractions, complaints on work hazards) to local law enforcement, for fear of being deported. By systematically violating these labor laws, employers of undocumented workers would save money, making it hard for the employers of legal workers to compete. The result: wages and working conditons are driven down for everyone.

What's even more worrisome is the Coleman amendment's margin of defeat: one vote, 49 to 48.  Yes, one vote.  48 Senators voted to make law enforcement professionals' work even harder by forcing them to round up undocumented individuals who are working, paying taxes, and raising children in communities nationwide.  

Senators and members of Congress should remember Americans support a humane legalization program that acknowledges and embraces the hardworking immigrants who are already here, and gives them the workplace and wage protections all workers in this country need to have for a functional labor market.  Americans want to allow undocumented and documented immigrants who have built roots in the US to stay here, pay up, get in line, and eventually become citizens.  

Now is not the time to backpedal on comprehensive immigration reform. Preserve the path to citizenship provision, and extend it to all undocumented workers.  Scrap the temporary worker program and its assault on immigrants' roots in this country and American workers.  

It's particularly important for members of the House to remember this, as it was the House that defeated the last legalization proposal, introduced by Senators Kennedy (D-MA) and McCain (R-AZ) last year.   House members should remind themselves of what Americans want and what the middle class would benefit from as they prepare to enter the amendment food fight.

Tags: Business, drum major institute, Economy, Immigrants, immigration, Labor, polls, Worker Rights (all tags)

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