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An Interview with Nativo López

Immigration Bills: "Enforcement Heavy and Legalization Light"

by SHAUN HARKIN

Nativo López is president of the California-based Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) and a longtime advocate for immigrant rights. He spoke to SHAUN HARKIN of Chicago’s March 10 Coalition immigrant rights group about what’s at stake for the movement as this year’s May Day protests approach.

Harkin: One year after the mega-marches for immigrant rights of last spring, there are two new proposals in Washington–the Bush White House’s draft immigration proposal and the Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy (STRIVE) Act, recently introduced by Reps. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.). Can you explain why you oppose both laws?

López:: The Mexican American Political Association and the Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana–two of the oldest national Latino organizations in the U.S., and which are not subsidized by U.S. corporations or private foundations–oppose both immigration proposals.

This is due to their onerous enforcement measures, which preface any type of legalization program, and which will lead to deteriorating civil liberties and civil rights for immigrants in particular, and working people in general.

The STRIVE Act is enforcement-heavy and legalization-light. The Bush proposals are 10 steps to the right of Gutiérrez-Flake, but they operate out of the same framework–i.e., that enforcement must come first and must demonstrate success in stemming the flow of undocumented migration before any legalization provisions are triggered.

Harkin: Supporters of the STRIVE Act say it contains a way for the undocumented to become legal and we can amend the proposal to make it better. Gutiérrez has said that raids and deportations will intensify if his proposal isn’t passed. Is this true?

López:: This is a false premise from the start, because this legislation specifically states that the enforcement provisions come first–the government must certify that such measures are successful in preventing undocumented migration before any legalization is triggered.

Congressman Gutiérrez made strategic concessions related to enforcement, penalties against employers, invasive government intervention in the workplace, codified cooperation between local police and immigration authorities and others to obtain in exchange a very tortuous, expensive and difficult-to-qualify-for legalization program.

In other words, it is a bad framework to start legislative negotiations. The Republicans will fight any attempt to make them give back the political terrain that Gutiérrez ceded legislatively. A terribly bad chess move on his part.

Lastly, the raids will continue whether his legislation is approved or not. In fact, they will be worse, due to the fact that his legislation codifies enforcement measures to circumscribe certain civil liberties and rights, criminalize those who enter without inspection, like Sensenbrenner–and therefore make it more difficult to defend our class brothers and sisters.

This is Gutiérrez’s way of intimidating the immigrant communities into accepting his retrograde proposals as the supposed lesser of two evils. They are both evil.

Harkin: Why do you think Gutiérrez made these concessions?

López:: Congressman gutiérrez has worked on immigration legislation for a good number of years without any apparent success. Two things happened that preceded the STRIVE ACT.

One, when the Democrats took back the Congress, Gutiérrez was not favored by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to head the House Subcommittee on Immigration, and therefore, his influence on immigration matters would continue, but not be paramount.

Second, he has already announced that he will retire his seat at the end of this term. Third, he has curried favor with the Washington, D.C.-based groups that seek to impose their corporate-sponsored options of immigration reform–the National Council of La Raza, National Immigration Forum and others.

These are the only groups nationally, predominantly subsidized by Corporate America, that advocate in favor of a massive guest-worker program and have conceded that enforcement measures are inevitable in exchange for their vague "path to citizenship."

The framework for his legislation has a precedent with the proposal by Sens. Chuck Hagel and Mel Martinez of last year–he supported that "compromise."

Harkin: There has been widespread condemnation of George Bush’s proposal for a new guest-worker program. However, the STRIVE ACT proposes a "new worker" program, which Gutiérrez says is not a new bracero program.

López:: Again, the Bush proposal operates out of the same framework as the Gutiérrez legislation, but 10 steps to the right. I am convinced that this was floated to make the Gutiérrez-Flake Bill look reasonable and centrist, when in fact, it is a retrograde proposal when viewed from the standpoint of civil liberties, civil rights and worker rights.

The Gutiérrez initiative calls for a six-year temporary visa for those undocumented already in the country, after which they could presumably qualify for permanent legal status upon returning to their country of origin (and waiving legal rights in the process by submitting to such a voluntary departure), and waiting at the back of the visa line.

Doesn’t this six-year period look something like the Bush plan? These workers would be just as vulnerable as before, maybe even more so. I characterize this clause of his legislation as the first stage guest-worker program. The second stage guest-worker program is his 400,000-plus "new worker visa" for future entrants.

Both programs are an absolute assault on the prevailing wage and codify a second-class worker status for immigrants.

A better approach would be closer to the 1986 amnesty program, which allowed the undocumented to adjust their status to permanent legal resident within 18 months, and remain in the U.S. when doing so. The most reasonable, fair and humane approach to addressing future flows of migrants would be to raise the cap of available visas for permanent residence, based on a family relative or employment, corresponding to the current and changing demand.

If both Bush and Gutiérrez recognize that there exists an ever-growing demand for labor in the U.S., why create a second-tier worker category with such temporary visas, instead of a permanent visa, which would more easily provide the legal basis to protect the worker’s rights and the domestic prevailing wage.

Harkin: Is a "compromise" between the Bush proposal and the STRIVE Act possible?

López:: I don’t think that such a compromise would be good for workers or for immigrants. Both represent an internal NAFTA-type option to guarantee an available supply of vulnerable laborers to and for Corporate America.

Our role as class-conscious workers and organizers is to fight for the class interest of both particular sectors of the class and the total class, and within the context of the immigrants’ rights movement, we are called upon to strengthen the weakest link in the chain.

We are called upon to make the immigrant whole in America, legally and socially. Making the immigrant whole means unconditional legalization and an enjoyment of all the constitutional rights and their derivative protections and privileges–parity with all other workers.

This is the surest way to secure the rights and standards enjoyed by all workers (domestic) and strengthen the legal foundation to extend such rights and share in the profits they produce.

Let me be very emphatic about one thing. We are not called upon to support compromises, but to fight to extend the rights of immigrants to the fullest within the context and limitations of the current system.

Harkin: You’re organizing a protest at the state convention of the California Democratic Party on April 28. What do you hope to achieve there?

López:: First and foremost, we intend to denounce the Gutiérrez-Flake plan as a betrayal to all immigrants and demand, one, that the Democratic Party not even consider it as a serious starting point in their legislative negotiations, and two, that the leadership of the party craft legislation that accords with the real and immediate interests of the immigrants and all workers.

This means immediate legalization for all, no border wall, no militarization of the border, no employer sanctions, no police-Immigration and Customs Enforcement cooperation, an end to the raids and deportations, protection of civil liberties, civil rights and worker rights–and absolutely no bracero-type programs disguised in benign-sounding names such as guest, temporary and new worker.

We will accept nothing less, and we demand it from this party, because it is now the party in power. The immigrant workers and families that we represent should accept and expect nothing less from us. This is both a moral and political imperative.

Harkin: What impact will marching for immigrant rights on May 1 have?

López:: Political action by immigrant workers, families and their allies is the way that social change occurs and history is made.

This is the lesson that we impress upon our members–and that only when they lose their fear to engage in such activities will they begin to realize their true power and change the social equation in their favor. They become the masters of their own destiny. They shed their object status and become subjects of history.

Too many times, we look at one action and ask if it will affect the change we seek, and too many times, we aspire that such change be immediate.

Marching on May Day has both tactical and strategic value if viewed from the perspective of building workers’ power by edifying worker organization and worker leadership. If we don’t have this perspective, the May Day marches can have tactical effect and considerations, but limited strategic projection. My preference is to score goals on both fronts.

SHAUN HARKIN works with Chicago’s March 10 Coalition immigrant rights group and writes for the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at: shaunharkin@gmail.com