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Stepping Up the Pressure

What Next for the Immigrants’ Rights Movement?

by LEE SUSTAR

Amid ramped-up federal raids on undocumented workers and a raft of new anti-immigrant legislation at the state level, the immigrant rights movement is building grassroots emergency response networks–while debating what to demand from expected immigration legislation in Congress.

What is emerging is a strategy encapsulated in the phrase "legalization for all"–a rejection of any legislative proposal that would limit eligibility for guest-worker programs to undocumented workers who have been in the U.S. for a specified time period, while excluding the rest.

The approach is intended to keep in one camp both organizations that have accepted guest-worker proposals and more militant immigrant groups that oppose such measures as second-class citizenship, according to Nativo López, president of the Mexican American Political Association. "Legalization for all, as well as demilitarization of the border, have became the minimum basis for the alliance," López said in an interview.

Based on his experiences at recent conferences in Los Angeles on January 19-20 and in Phoenix on February 3, which brought together a wide range of immigrant rights groups and labor unions, López said he believes that most activists "don’t accept the notion that we have to give up existing rights–due process and judicial review–for a temporary visa."

As an alternative to guest-worker proposals, López advocates opening the way for all immigrants to pursue employment under the existing Labor Department certification program.

* * *

The guest-worker issue has been contentious since the immigrant rights movement reached a new level in the mass mobilizations of last spring.

Those protests reflected the unity of the immigrant rights movement in opposition to HR 4437–a bill sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) that would have criminalized the estimated 12 million undocumented workers and all who assisted them.

But the movement split over business-backed legislation proposed in the Senate that would have both ratcheted up enforcement and created a new three-tier guest-worker program tying workers’ immigration status to their employers.

The final bill–known as Hagel-Martinez for its two Senate sponsors–was seen as so bad that even some of its initial supporters in the immigrant rights movement concluded it would be better if no legislation was passed before the November elections.

Now, Corporate America is driving for a new immigration law from the Democratic Congress–and once again, its push is being supported by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and UNITE HERE, the textile and hotel union. Calling itself the Alliance for Immigration Reform 2007, this coalition held a telephone press conference January 18 to call for reviving legislation based on the core principles of Hagel-Martinez.

Packaged into the S 2611 bill that passed the Senate but failed to become law, Hagel-Martinez would have divided immigrant workers into three categories–with at least 2 million forced to leave the U.S. immediately.

This three-tiered categorization of immigrants will likely be the model for new legislation, according to Tamar Jacoby of the neoconservative Manhattan Institute. "There is a view that with Democrats [in control of Congress], the three tiers will be scrapped," she said at the press conference. "I don’t think any of us expects that to happen. This has to be a right-left bill."

SEIU Vice President Eliseo Medina, who was also on the press conference call, didn’t disagree with Jacoby, even though the union has finally gone on record opposing the three-tiered system in Hagel-Martinez–long after the bill expired with the close of the last Congress.

Hagel-Martinez would have created a difficult "path to citizenship" for those in the country five years or more; forced those more than two years but less than five years in the U.S. to leave the country and re-enter to apply for temporary status; and excluded the rest.

The National Council of La Raza has again endorsed such a guest-worker program as part of what the organization’s officials say is a necessary compromise.

The SEIU, however, has shifted its tone. Although the union supported Hagel-Martinez, SEIU President Andrew Stern and Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger recently wrote to Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) that since the bill "fortunately died," the new Congress should take a different approach.

"Congress should not be satisfied with a program that would legalize an estimated 6 to 8 million, when an estimated 11 to 12 million individuals are undocumented and living within our borders," they wrote. "We must face reality that long-term undocumented, but otherwise law-abiding workers will not leave the country voluntarily."

However, the SEIU’s call for a "new worker" program–the union has dropped the word "guest"–hasn’t changed the fact that it is still collaborating with employers to create a vast new category of workers with substandard rights, said Renee Saucedo of La Raza Central, a community law center in San Francisco that works with day laborers.

"They are trying to sugarcoat it," said Saucedo, herself an SEIU member. "They are saying that it is not the old guest-worker program where you’re tied to one employer. But that doesn’t make it any more innocuous, unfortunately. Inherently, guest-worker programs are tying employment status to immigration status, which creates an exploitative situation for immigrant workers."

"I can’t see why a union would be behind that when there are other options," such as a simple residency requirement, she said.

Ana Avendaño, associate general counsel for the AFL-CIO, agreed that repackaging Hagel-Martinez wouldn’t challenge the emerging legal framework for creating second-class citizenship for undocumented workers. She rejected the argument made by some advocates of Hagel-Martinez, such as Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), that a guest-worker program at least provides a humane alternative to the often deadly desert border crossing.

"It’s tragic that there are deaths in the desert, but one Mexican worker dies on the job in the U.S. every day, and that’s equally tragic," she said. "We can’t just focus on the deaths in the desert and ignore the deaths in our workplaces. And by establishing a new guest-worker program, that’s exactly what you’re doing."

Even if the tiered system proposed by Hagel-Martinez is scrapped, the fact is that guest-workers will lack full rights. Since the strategy of "legalization for all" could be interpreted as including a guest-worker plan, unity around that slogan could shift to the right some immigrant groups that in the past have called for amnesty.

So as Congress debates immigration legislation that will create a guest-worker system, the immigrant rights movement will once again be engaged in its own internal debates over whether compromise is acceptable.

Whatever legislation does emerge from Congress, it’s certain to contain more harsh enforcement provisions–in order to entice the votes of congressional Republicans and give Democrats political cover on the right. Thus, at the Alliance for Immigration Reform press conference, the Manhattan Institute’s Jacoby declared, "Tough enforcement and the rule of law has to be restored."

* * *

Tough enforcement, of course, is already in full swing–from worksite raids carried out by the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to local police forces that have begun enforcing federal immigration law under pressure from anti-immigrant politicians.

State legislatures proposed 550 anti-immigrant laws in 2006, and 75 became law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Lawmakers in Georgia, Arizona, Virginia, Colorado, Texas, South Carolina and elsewhere have fashioned their own Sensenbrenner-style bills that seek to bar the undocumented from public aid, schools, access to drivers licenses and much more. An Arizona legislator wants to put before voters a referendum that would make undocumented status into a criminal act under state law.

And even without legislation from Congress, the Feds set the tone for these attacks with high-profile crackdowns–most notably, the ICE raids on Swift & Co. meatpacking plants in six states last December, resulting in 1,282 arrests. Some 247 workers were charged with identity theft, and 300 had been deported as of mid-February, with the rest to follow, according to ICE.

Martín Unzueta, who heads the Chicago Workers Collaborative, an immigrant rights group, argued that the identity theft charges are a pretext. "The workers who buy a false number have no idea who it belongs to–and most incorrect numbers don’t exist," said Unzueta, who is helping to organize an emergency response network for those affected by the raids in the Chicago area.

Moreover, in the Swift raids, Latino workers were racially profiled–separated from Black and white workers by heavily armed ICE agents–the AFL-CIO’s Avendaño pointed out. The workplace crackdown hasn’t involved more than token punishment of employers of immigrant labor, however.

On the contrary, Homeland Security officials have been urging employers to become virtual enforcers of immigration laws themselves. This involves expanding the Basic Pilot program to verify Social Security numbers in an online database–which is often inaccurate–to a much more extensive program, known as the ICE Mutual Agreement Between Government and Employers program, or IMAGE.

Under IMAGE, employers allow ICE to audit immigration status documents, known as I-9 forms, as well as Social Security numbers. "The upside for those who…participate is that they’re better equipped to know whether their workforce is legal, and ICE is less likely to be on their doorstep unexpectedly, interfering with their business," ICE official Matthew Allen told the Washington Post. "It’s an investment in making sure that their workforce is secure."

Smithfield Foods got a return on its investment in IMAGE in January when ICE agents arrested 21 workers at its huge pork processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C., where the company has been fiercely resisting a union drive for years.

"One can say that [ICE officials] are trying to make employers more compliant with the employers database verification program and the president’s option for a massive temporary worker program," López said.

Justin Akers Chacón, co-author of the book No One Is Illegal, agreed. "While individual employers may be ‘punished’ for their actions, they are not the real targets," he said. "Identifying and arresting undocumented workers–or demonstrating the potential to do so–is a strategy to corral union compliance with a guest-worker program, and passivity among the workers themselves."

Avendaño expects this pattern to continue. While employers can’t do without immigrant labor, they can avoid penalties by collaborating with Homeland Security and targeting selected workers to keep workers intimidated, wages low and unions out–maintaining "a never-ending pool of workers that they can exploit," she said.

"Workers rights and civil rights are ignored during these enforcement actions," she added. "And now we see more memoranda of understanding so that local police can act as ICE agents."

In the future, a steady stream of "no match" letters from the government noting discrepancies between workers’ Social Security numbers and those on file with the government will further raise the pressure.

* * *

So while the U.S. isn’t about to deport 12 million undocumented workers, it has created an enforcement apparatus that could deport any one of them at any time–which gives employers enormous leverage.

Congress isn’t interested in hearing about the civil rights violations involved. "There isn’t a single ear" in Congress for taking action on such issues, Avendaño said, pointing out that Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) recently got a 94-0 vote in favor of amending a minimum wage bill to ban companies that hire undocumented workers for seven years–unless they participate in the Basic Pilot program, which would make them immune from such penalties.

Beyond the workplace, ICE agents have moved aggressively into immigrant communities with Operations Wrangler, targeting alleged drug dealers and smugglers–and Return to Sender, aimed at those who have failed to comply with orders of deportation.

In fact, it was none other than Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff who let slip that the raids were part of a good cop-bad cop approach to immigration by the Bush administration.

"Every time a Border Patrol officer is transporting a load of future housekeepers and landscapers to someplace to be returned, he’s not looking for drug dealers or drug loads," Chertoff told reporters in Mexico City February 16. "So to me, total immigration reform that addresses economic migrants is actually an enforcement enabler because it lets us focus more on the people that we don’t want in the country under any circumstances–namely, the criminals and the dangerous folks."

With the hard line from ICE and state governments on one side and political maneuvers in Congress on the other, the immigrant rights movement is mapping out plans for protests, lobbying and defense campaigns in the weeks and months ahead, said José Artemio Arreola, a member of the executive board of SEIU Local 73 in Chicago and a key figure in the city’s March 10 Movement, which organized the first of last year’s mass marches.

While few of the immigrant rights groups that led last year’s marches have taken up the call to repeat last year’s May Day boycott, the day will likely to become a focus for renewed activism for immigrant rights.

"I am against anyone being excluded" from immigration legislation, Arreola said. "We need to step up the pressure."

LEE SUSTAR is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at: lsustar@ameritech.net