Worked Over

Yesterday the president proposed a massive new temporary program for undocumented workers living and working in the United States. The proposal would allow these people (and future foreign workers) to live and work in the country for a three-year period -- with another three-year extension if specific jobs are available to them at that time.

Is this good news for undocumented workers? Hardly. I'll explain why in a moment. But first, let's take a look at George W. Bush's track record on immigration.

It's been two years since the president last spoke about immigration policy. He has been noticeably silent about two bills currently pending before this Congress regarding the illegal workforce in this country: AgJobs, which would provide a path to legalization for farmworkers (in an industry where 60 percent to 70 percent of the workforce is illegal) and streamline the guest-worker program to make it easier for employers to bring in future workers, and the Dream Act, which would help undocumented students go to college. Both have strong broad bipartisan support, and if the White House were to get on board, they could become law. But Bush hasn't said a word about either of those bills.

Instead, he's speaking out on a brand new initiative, and his announcement comes just five days before he is scheduled to meet with Mexican President Vicente Fox at the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of leaders to be held in Monterey, Mexico. My sources tell me White House officials have arranged for a private meeting with Fox at the summit. Perhaps not coincidentally, this meeting would present a great photo op for Bush, standing or sitting close to Fox . The photo could then be used later in the year -- a handy item, no doubt, for the incumbent to have as election day approaches.

The president's proposal is, at best, an empty promise and, at worst, a cynical political ploy to attract Hispanic votes. The proposal would essentially have undocumented persons in this country sign up for second-class status, only to be removed once their temporary tags expire.

There's nothing new about Bush's approach. In many ways, his proposal recalls the much-criticized bracero program of the 1940s and '50s. "Bracero," which is a takeoff on the Spanish word for "arms," brought more than 4 million Mexicans here to work in the fields and on farms. The program was designed to address a labor shortage in this country, but despite the significant contribution these workers made to U.S. agriculture and the legal protections for these workers, it remains an example of exploitation of people desperate to work and escape poverty. From the failure of employers to pay the wages promised to the workers to horrible working conditions, workers were unable to rely on either the U.S. or the Mexican government to protect them.

Today, Bush proposes that the new temporary foreign workers will receive financial incentives to return to their home countries. After they go back, he says, they will receive the Social Security benefits they paid during the time they were working here.

This may sound familiar to those who know the bracero program. It also proposed financial incentives to encourage foreign workers to return home in the same manner -- by having workers contribute to Social Security here and then, at least theoretically, to receive a portion of those funds after returning home.

Too bad it didn't work: There are still lawsuits pending for the millions of dollars that were owed to the workers long ago.

In addition to the poorly thought out financial aspects, Bush's new proposal does nothing for long-term undocumented residents of this country. He has neither proposed a new program for them to obtain residency nor has he sought an increase in the number of visas under the existing employer- and family-sponsored programs. In practical terms, that means you may have U.S.-born children, or have lived in this country for five or 10 years, or have even run your own businesses. Under the president's plan, though, you would have no opportunity to obtain permanent residency. To put it bluntly, Bush is saying, "We want you as workers, but we don't want you as full members of our society."

And so much for workers' rights. The program would require that workers be sponsored by an employer before they obtain a visa. If your only chance to get a green card is to stick with your employer, clearly you're never going to complain about your wages or the conditions in which you work.

Yet Bush has put a different spin on his program. By saying that the new temporary-worker program would provide "legal status," his administration is trying to appear compassionate while at the same time arguing that some type of legal status is better than nothing.

So who really benefits? Corporate America.

Bush-administration officials are shamefully using the fear and desperation of millions of undocumented people to curry favor with big business and employers dependent on low-skilled, low-wage workers.

The Wal-Marts of this country would be able to hire cheap labor for their cleaning crews. The big hotels and restaurant chains would no longer have to worry about violating labor laws when they hire undocumented workers. And the proposal would help the thousands of employers and corporations who currently employ undocumented persons and subject immigrants to eventual deportation.

When I first found out about the program, I found it breathtaking to see how a president could turn America's values upside down. If you buy his line, the program will help ensure national security and illegal immigrants will no longer have to hide in the shadows but be able to work freely and without fear. In reality, it would essentially mark all the immigrants with a little star so that we can get rid of them as soon as they finish their work. It does nothing to place hardworking, taxpaying undocumented immigrants on a path to permanent residency. Instead, it would create a permanent breed of service workers with second-class status.

If this proposal is enacted, America would be turning its back on a long tradition of welcoming immigrants as true participants in the society. It would also be following the unworkable models of countries like Saudi Arabia and Germany, which have long had guest-worker programs and the attendant problems of failing to integrate those participating into their respective societies.

We must have real immigration reform. Here's what we can (and should) do:

  • Offer earned legalization for undocumented immigrants in the United States who work hard, pay taxes and otherwise obey the rules, so that they can become full participants in society, including becoming citizens.
  • Design a temporary foreign-worker program that responds to U.S. labor demands while ensuring that U.S. workers are not displaced, and that offers family unification, the right to organize and a clear path to citizenship.
  • Develop strong, enforceable long-term labor standards in our trade agreements and target development assistance to areas of high migration. This would help create strong middle classes abroad such that people would not need to migrate to the United States in search of work.

Maria Echaveste, an American Prospect board member, is the former deputy chief of staff for President Bill Clinton. She is also the co-founder of a Washington consulting group, Nueva Vista, and represents, among others, the United Farm Workers.