“Illegals” of the World Unite?

Status and Rights

ATC: Can you elaborate a little on current debates?

DB: First of all, there’s a debate about status. Should the people who don’t have any legal status get legal status and, if so, under what circumstances? What kind of status should it be?

You have proposals that range all the way from no change at all, just deport everybody – an enforcement-only kind of approach – to proposals like the big Senate bills of the last few years that said “Well, if you wait a long, long time, like 11 years or 18 years and you pay fines and you work all this time, you can get some kind of temporary status that may at some point lead to permanent residence.”

Then you have the proposals by more progressive immigrants’ rights advocates, who say that the way you resolve the status problem is simply to give people permanent residence status, the same thing that happened in 1986.

But the other debate is over this question of should our immigration system be used more and more as simply a labor supply system for large employers. So you had proposals from the American Meat Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and growers’ associations for developing vastly expanded versions of an H-2A and H-2B program, in which they would bring maybe 300- or 400- or 500,000 people a year into the United States as basically contract workers.

In fact, Bush at the end of his term proposed doing away with family reunification altogether and said it was archaic and obsolete and instead what we needed was a point system in which people would be allowed to come to the United States and get visas based on how employable they were here. Your job skills and the desire of an employer to give you a job would enable you to rack up points and get a visa, and whether or not you were a relative of somebody living in the United States would really count for nothing.

So we’re still debating that issue. Again, it’s not a question really of whether or not migrants and immigrants should have the right to work. It’s really a question of status. What are the political and social and labor rights of people going to be? To what extent are people going to be able to be part of the communities that they live in here, instead of being isolated from them and treated simply as beasts of burden? Same questions over and over and over again.

ATC: Essentially many of the proposals are just trying to find other ways of achieving a marginalized labor supply?

DB: Yes. The big bills for the last few years are three-part bills. They all have basically the same architecture. They set up contract labor programs, guest worker programs. They have increased enforcement, especially workplace enforcement, involving things like E-Verify or no-match letters or the use of Social Security numbers as a way of ensuring that only people here as contract laborers have the right to work – basically in order to force people to migrate using only that system.

Then the third part is legalization programs. But the legalization programs are not the same that we had in 1986, where if you could prove that you had been here since 1982 you could apply for a green card and get a card relatively quickly.

In fact, when you look at what the legalization proposals actually are and how they function, it’s clear that in many cases most people would not qualify, and you would have to wait a very, very long time before you got any kind of permanent residence status. But they would also immunize employers from any legal consequences of having an undocumented labor force.

In other words, their real purpose is to sort of grandfather in the existing workforce of large employers like meatpacking plants, so that while they are making the transition to a work force of contract laborers they don’t get punished under employer sanctions for having an undocumented workforce. These are really very employer-oriented proposals.

ATC: Shifting directions a little bit, how did your own background lead you to write this book?

DB: Well, I have been writing about immigration and work and the impact of the global economy on working people for a long time, since I started working as a journalist, which was about 18 years ago. Before that, I was a union organizer.

In a way I took my experiences as a union organizer, almost all among immigrant workers in industries like agriculture or the garment industry, and when I began working as a writer and photographer, I started documenting what I already had been seeing from the perspective of a labor organizer. The book grew out of that history, both the organizing and the writing, so that’s why, for instance, the book concentrates very much on the problems of migrants as workers.

The second reason I wrote it was that I think that it is important for us to be able to see the way in which the global economy operates as a system that on the one hand produces displacement and displaced labor, and on the other hand puts that labor to work in industrial countries. For example, the fact that NAFTA displaced people in Mexico has led to the migration of maybe six million Mexicans to the United States. That is not a side product; it’s not a side effect. It’s part of the way the system functions.

The industrial countries like the United States or Britain or Germany or France or Japan need the labor. They need a surplus of labor, both in the countries to which they have sent production, the maquiladoras in Mexico for instance, but they also need the labor of migrants here. So the kinds of economic changes that are forced on developing countries have the effect of producing favorable conditions for those companies to operate – low wages in Mexico, say – but because they produce low wages, they also produce the conditions that force people to leave by making it harder and harder for people to survive.

Our immigration policy is not somehow distinct from that. It’s part of that system, because the criminalization of those people as they cross the border and come into the United States makes their labor available to employers here in the United States at a very, very low price, and it creates a great deal of vulnerability among people who have very few political and social and labor rights.

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