Jewish World Review May 2, 2001 / 9 Iyar, 5761
Now several developments are suddenly increasing support for guest-worker legislation, possibly covering nonfarm as well as farmworkers. Two of Congress's smartest legislators are working on the issue, and George W. Bush has agreed with Mexico's pres-ident, Vicente Fox, to negotiate agreements on im- migration. The results will restructure our relationship with Mexico and affect the flow of people back and forth across the border for many years to come.
Why is this happening now? One reason is the United States' increasingly tough patrolling of the border. Illegal immigration has been reduced, but at some cost. Mexican migrants have been dying in the Arizona desert and coyotes' rates for getting migrants across the border has risen to $2,500 a head. Illegal workers dare not return to Mexico for family visits. In the meantime, employers in border states and far inland are having a hard time filling jobs. Fox campaigned for open borders and, while he knows that that is unrealistic, he still believes, as he told California legislators, that "we should conceive of the border more as a joining line than as a dividing line."
Two approaches. Meanwhile, the 2000 census pointed out vividly what attentive politicians already knew: that Hispanic immigrants have spread out over almost all of America, filling jobs others won't take, performing service jobs in affluent suburbs, and reviving moribund factory towns. It's increasingly clear that the U.S. economy cannot operate at full tempo without the workers our immigration laws now define as illegal. And it's clear to more and more politicians that they will have many more Latino constituents in the future.
One approach came from Rep. Howard Berman, a California Democrat who has long opposed guest-worker programs for farmworkers. Early last year, he conferred with union and Latino groups and started negotiating with farm employers. They agreed to increased worker protections and to allowing aliens who worked a set number of days over six years to become eligible for permanent legal-resident status, which leads to citizenship. Providing legal status for guest workers would allow them to cross the border easily and safely; legal status and worker protections would mean reduced exploitation by employers. Berman got his provisions into a catchall appropriations bill late last year. But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott removed the language from the bill at the last minute, at the request of Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm.
Now Gramm is working on his version of guest-worker legislation. He would cover not just farmworkers but workers in all industries. Farmworkers could apply for guest-worker status for six months; nonfarmworkers could apply for an annual guest-worker permit, which could be renewed for two more years. All workers would be covered by U.S. labor laws; employers violating those laws would be fined and barred from the program. Workers would put some of their earnings into IRA-type investment funds, with the proceeds redeem-able in their native countries.
There are similarities be-tween Berman's and Gramm's approaches. Both men have been in touch with top Mexican officials, and have tried to address their concerns. Both would protect workers from exploitation and from the hazards of illegal border crossings. Both would give workers some benefit for the 15 percent in FICA taxes their employers now hand over to the government: Berman would use the money for farmworker housing, Gramm for medical care. But there are differences. Berman says it makes sense to move forward on farmworkers now that representatives of employers and workers have compromised on issues specific to that industry. Gramm argues that it makes sense to move forward on all workers since most illegal aliens don't work on farms. And there is a bigger difference: Berman would put guest workers on the road to becoming U.S. citizens and Gramm would not.
On that issue, President Bush appears to side with Gramm. And
Mexico is not necessarily opposed. Mexico now allows natives to keep
their citizenship even if they become U.S. citizens. Fox seems to want
to hold open the possibility that many Mexicans will, as Mexico's
economy grows, return to their native land; now Mexicans choose to
become U.S. citizens far less often than other immigrants. The United
States and Mexico share a large border. Exactly how we share it, and
on what terms, could be decided by guest-worker