January 29, 2004

Working for Nothing

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On Jan. 20th, during his State of the Union address, President George W. Bush asked Congress “to reform our immigration laws, so they reflect our values and benefit our economy.” Bush has proposed a new immigration legalization program meant to encourage illegal migrants to come out of hiding and becoming legal. Yet, many migrant worker rights activists and lobbyists at Cornell and in the greater New York State area are arguing that Bush’s proposal falls far short of actual reform.

Under Bush’s new temporary workers program, migrants will receive a legal pass to work in the United States for three years under the sponsorship of an employer. At the end of three years, the worker is expected to return to his or her native country or apply for a renewal.

Illegal immigrants are expected to come out of hiding and become officially documented because of the benefits to be gained by becoming a legal temporary worker. Migrants will be able to travel back and forth between the U.S. and their homelands without fear of being denied entry back into the country. The U.S. will begin to work with other countries to grant temporary workers credit in their homelands’ retirement systems and create tax-preferred savings accounts that can be collected before returning home. Bush also claims he will increase efforts to enforce labor laws and prevent employers from exploiting migrant workers with unfair pay and unsafe working conditions. Finally, Bush has asked for an increase in the annual limit of legal immigrants which is currently at 140,000 Green Cards.

The push for reform comes from America’s need to fill its ever increasing number of low-paying jobs. Bush’s proposal is meant to match U.S. employers in need of low-wage labor with willing migrant workers. The proposal does include protection of American workers by making employers prove that every reasonable effort was made to fill the job with American workers before they can hire temporary migrant workers.

Activists argue, however, that the new Bush immigration reform will not solve the illegal immigration problem because it does not contain the correct incentives for illegal workers to be willing to become officially documented. The workers, they say, will realize that after three years they will be forced to deport back to their home country.

“From my reading of the proposal, it appears to offer the business community full access to the immigrant workers it needs while providing very little to the workers themselves,” said Michael Casaus, co-chair of the Latina/o Graduate Student Coalition.

According to Herb Engman, director of the Cornell Migrant Program, “There should be more of an incentive, citizenship or greencard, for [illegal migrant workers] to come out of the shadows.”

Currently, the United Farm Workers (UFW) have come out against the Bush immigration reform because they say “it offers no new path for hard-working immigrants to earn a green card and the right to permanently be in this country legally.” The UFW has set up an online petition supporting the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act of 2003 (AgJobs), which is currently before Congress and has bipartisan support.

The AgJobs bill is a compromise between the nation’s major growers and the UFW. It is a revision of the current H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program that allows for migrant workers to legally work in the U.S. The AgJobs bill also includes a system for workers to gain permanent resident immigration status by working a total of 360 days in six years and fulfilling various other requirements.

According to Bob Lynch, director of the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) Geneseo Migrant Center, “We were very excited about that bill because it seems a good compromise between the agricultural employer, providing them with the work force that they need and ultimately allowing the farm workers to have legal status and eventually move into permanent residence and citizenship if they desire”

Another concern about Bush’s proposal is that the migrant worker will be left more vulnerable.

“Their whole visa is dependent on getting along with the employer,” said Patricia Kakalec, attorney at Farmworkers Legal Services.

Basic workers’ rights, such as the right to quit and the right to strike, may be at risk for such employees.

“Under the Bush proposal [the migrant workers] don’t have any options. If they don’t work for the same employer, they can be deported,” Engman said.

The proposal also comes at a very advantageous time for Bush — right before the 2004 Presidential Elections. Even if Bush’s proposal turns into a bill before Congress, it is very doubtful the bill can make it through Congressional procedures within the legislative year.

“After more than two years of silence on the issue of immigration, why is this being proposed during an election year? It is clearly intended to appeal to the Latino vote, now that it is clear to both major political parties that Latino’s will play a major role in the election,” Casaus said.

Kakalec pointed out, however, that the proposal “has put the issue of immigration on the table” and she hopes that as a result the immigration issue will experience real reform.

According to a report by BOCES Geneseo Migrant Center, there are approximately 47,000 migrant farmworkers and their family members coming to New York State each year. Across the country, 81% of all farmworkers are foreign-born. Therefore, the issue of migrant worker reform is particularly relevant to the upstate New York agricultural community and economy, which is so dependent on the low-wage labor of migrants.

Archived article by Casey Holmes