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Who Really Wins With Guest Worker Programs?
The human mind processes political issues just as it does all other phenomena. Up at the top sit the gears of intellect, comparing, contrasting, compartmentalizing and concluding. Hidden below churn the waters of emotion, surging and ebbing, driving the rudders and levers. And both sit firmly on the bedrock of image and imagination that continually reflects upward, affecting the others' temperature, pressure and level of activity.
Images of the immigrant--newcomer or nuisance, delight or danger, noble savage or sophisticated thief--often reflect so brightly that the mere utterance of the word "immigration" can, in many cultures, cause waves of emotion to ricochet throughout a room.
And as immigration increases across the globe, from Europe to Southeast Asia, those image-induced emotions grow even stronger.
In the United States, where recent immigrants have come to comprise around 12 percent of the population and occupy some 14 percent of the civilian labor force, rules concerning immigration are being recalculated, and emotions are running high.
And when images dominate, emotions run high, and objective analyses are difficult to find. We tend to collectively relax ourselves with bromides--calmatives formulated to taste like sweet liqueurs--to calm the tension and lubricate the ongoing discourse.
Some bromides age better than others. The oldest immigration-related bromide still tastes the best; the one that goes, we are all immigrants. This has aged well because as an image it depicts human beings at our most beautiful, in a state of wonderment at coming upon new possibilities. On an emotive level, the phrase taps into our common experience of making way through the unknown. And intellectually, it's indisputably true: even the Native Americans were immigrants, walking or rowing in from somewhere else.
A bit less tasty, these days, is the long-established common variant: We are a nation of immigrants. To imagine a nation we must see its borders, borders suggest crossings, and images of border crossings tend, at the present time, to bring up the term illegal. Not quite as sweet.
The most bitter bromide at this time, however, having come to many to resemble week-old coffee spiced with charming mustard and garnished with spikes of thorn--is the timeworn immigrants do jobs Americans won't do.
GOP presidential candidate John McCain tried that phrase out when addressing the AFL-CIO several weeks ago and was heckled so forcefully he had to stop his speech. Republican Sen. Larry Craig unveiled it in Idaho, and the town hall meeting broke into such rancor that authorities shut it down. Bush's approval ratings have fallen every time he has cited it. And left-leaning commentators are equally happy. Online monitor Republican Elitist Watch complains of "the arrogant, anti-worker subtext of the 'jobs Americans won't do' lie." And there's a common comment from many others about officeholders who speak the phrase: "The only Americans who won't do the work is them."
Now, why the strength of resentment, and why is that resentment important?
It's important because the question of whether U.S. workers refuse to do certain work, and whether the nation therefore needs to import guest workers to do those jobs, is the only remaining significant stumbling block in resolving our nation's recent vociferous immigration debate.
It is, after all, several years into that debate, solidly established that we are not going to deal with recent immigration trends by taking the right-wing path of mass arrest, incarceration and deportation of 12 million to 20 million people who have been for years here working alongside us. A majority of Americans have rejected that approach since conservative Republicans first suggested it, and it's gotten less and less popular since.
Equally established is that American citizens, themselves restricted by more laws each year, aren't simply going to agree that bygones are what they are. A clear majority wants undocumented immigrants charged compensatory fees and employers of undocumented entrants heftily fined. And that sentiment is growing: a Quinnipiac University poll from November 2006 showed 63 percent wanting employer fines; an L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll of April 2007 showed 77 percent.
And finally, it's clear that we're not going to leave the nation's borders open as we did in past decades. While a slight majority of U.S. citizens oppose entirely walling them up, a large majority--between 68 percent (CBS, May 16-17, 2006) and 78 percent (CNN, June 30, 2006)--want the borders fully patrolled, and controlled, at all times.
So while the mechanics remain to be worked out on those three facets of immigration policy, we are, in the long view, down to one large remaining related dispute: are there unfilled jobs and if so, do we want a guest worker program to fill them?
That debate is not going smoothly. Just last week, the U.S. Senate voted by a margin of three to one to slash its comprehensive immigration bill's temporary guest worker program from the White House's suggested 600,000 participants per year to 200,000.
And had Democratic Sens. Byron Dorgan, Barbara Boxer and 29 other senators had their way, the program would have been sliced to nothing. That vote lost, but Boxer did manage, in the debate, to make it clear that she sees temporary guest worker programs as "a way to keep our workers down, keep them weak and, in my view, destroy the middle class."
So let's return to the question of why this particular subtopic raises so much ruckus, looking at all three levels.
On the level of image, the bromide that "immigrants do jobs Americans won't do" contradicts our collective self-images, both secular and sacred. Several centuries of barn-raising, cabin-building, road-digging and earth-scratching, often for minimal return, don't reconcile with an image of refusal to work. And while some Christian denominations might stress faith over works, that perspective has never actually taken root here, a country forged from the steel of Puritan work ethic.
On an emotional level, the bromide does even worse. As the International Labor Organization notes, U.S. workers keep at it for longer hours, in most years measured, than those of any other industrialized nation. We also have longer commutes, and put in more hours of community volunteer work, than people in all but a handful of the world's nations. The suggestion that Americans avoid difficult work does not tend to sit well with those who do such work daily.
The idea that the nation needs large numbers of immigrants to do jobs Americans won't do, however, fares worst of all on the intellectual level--primarily because there is not one proton of proof that it's true.
Consider agricultural work, alone: according to the U.S. Department of Labor's last available statistics, for 2001-02, 47 percent of agricultural workers were categorized as domestic. Look at migrating labor: each year the Alaskan fish industry, according to Alaska Fish Jobs, hires over 33,000 temporary workers, mostly students, to cut fish at low wages from which room and board are subtracted. The industry does not, as a rule, hire international workers, yet has no problem filling its ranks with domestic American workers every year. Nor does FEMA, whose emergency workers, according to one FEMA flood damage inspector, travel up to 320 days a year.
Don't especially unpleasant jobs, however, go unfilled if unoccupied by immigrants? Recent events would suggest not. After ICE conducted its infamous raids of Smith Beef and Smith Pork meat processing plants last December, detaining some 1,300 undocumented workers, those tough and nasty jobs filled up--this time exclusively with domestic workers--within 12 weeks.
Aren't we, though, near or at structural full employment, which produces labor shortages? Not even close. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that for April 2007, the last statistics available, the entirely unemployed worker rate is 4.5 percent, but the unemployed and underemployed workers constitute 8.2 percent of the American workforce.
That means that one out of every 12 people we see walking down the street can't find enough work--if any at all. That's hardly a "shortage."
So where does this bromide of "jobs Americans won't do" come from?
Say hello to the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition (EWIC), an offspring of the National Chamber of Commerce, which has been working since 1998 to convince the White House, Congress and the public how awful it all is for employers.
The EWIC, a lobbying outfit made up of around four dozen U.S. trade groups and megacorporations, such as Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and Marriott, is headed by John Gay, who also happens to head the National Restaurant Association.
You might remember the restaurant association--it is the group most responsible for keeping the federal minimum wage stuck at $5.15 an hour for the last decade. And for fighting the Family Leave Act. And for battling against paid vacation time. And for trying to sabotage California's ergonomic workplace regulations designed to cut into the 63 percent of state workplace "illnesses" attributed to repetitive stress injuries. In short, the National Restaurant Association rides supreme in making sure that American workers remain ridden hard.
And what better way to make sure employees agree to be ridden than to hold the threat of instantly replacing them over their heads? That's what furniture manufacturers Mohawk Industries of Georgia did just last year--replace its uppity, $15 an hour, 30 years of experience workers with $7 an hour undocumented laborers.
Similar incidents, repeated tens of thousands of times a year, led Cesar Chavez to lobby unendingly against the importation of temporary undocumented workers, complaining to Congress in 1979 that whenever the United Farm Workers struck for better wages or working conditions, "employers go to Mexico and have unlimited, unrestricted use of illegal alien strikebreakers to break the strike." Chavez actually marched alongside the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, at the U.S. Mexican border, to stop it from happening any longer.
This pattern of exploitation does not cease when formerly undocumented workers become credentialized temporary guest workers, either, because temporary means removable, and removable means easily controlled. Workers participating in the America's 1942-1964 Bracero program found their genitals examined for "diseases" on the way into the United States, found themselves deported for attempting to organize while here, and often left unpaid on the way out. Some have still not been paid for their work 40 and 50 years later.
Suffice it to say that outside of a few high-tech exceptions, this triple-headed claim of "jobs Americans won't do," importation of "essential workers" and the alleged remedy--an exploitative temporary guest worker program--is not a solution to our inexcusably poor treatment of workers, either domestic or international, but a continuation thereof.
Cesar Chavez saw right through it. The question is, will we?
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