Immigration Update: News on the Future Flow of Immigrant Workers

On Saturday, the Washington Post printed a Letter to the Editor by Bruce Goldstein, President of Farmworker Justice, responding to former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff’s OpEd on immigration reform. Chertoff argued that immigration reform legislation should not allow undocumented workers to get ahead of others waiting in line for greencards, which would place workers in limbo status for many years. Goldstein points out that the contention is based on a double standard: many agricultural employers have not followed the law to request guestworkers and have suffered no consequences for hiring undocumented workers.

The International Labor Recruitment Working Group (ILRWG), comprised of the AFL-CIO, American Federation of Teachers, Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM),Farmworker Justice, Global Workers Justice Alliance, National Guestworker Alliance, Southern Poverty Law Center, and a diverse group of other international and national organizations, has released a report, which identifies the shortcomings and gaps in the current regulatory and enforcement framework governing the hiring foreign workers in the United States. The report titled, The American Dream Up for Sale: A Blueprint for Ending International Labor Recruitment Abuse, documents the pervasive abuses experienced by immigrant workers in a range of low to high-skilled fields and provides important recommendations for reform. The report is available here.

Farmworker Justice applauds last Thursday’s New York Times editorial, which referenced the recruitment report and called for “stronger protections for immigrant workers against exploitation and abuse” in any comprehensive immigration reform legislation. The editorial added that the labor protections would “help rid the system of bottom-feeding employers who hire and underpay and otherwise exploit cheap immigrant labor, dragging down wages and workplace standards for everyone.”

Also on Thursday, the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce, released a joint press statement containing shared principles for the future flow of immigration reform. This is good news for immigration reform, as the manner of bringing in future workers remains a sticking point between worker advocates and business. We support their statement, and recognize that “our challenge is to create a mechanism that responds to the needs of business in a market-driven way, while also fully protecting the wages and working conditions of U.S. and immigrant workers. Among other things, this requires a new kind of worker visa program that does not keep all workers in a permanent temporary status, provides labor mobility in a way that still gives American workers a first shot at available jobs, and that automatically adjusts as the American economy expands and contracts.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte told NPR that he does not support giving the 11 million undocumented immigrants a roadmap to citizenship. If undocumented workers are given legal status, he would support a new guestworker program.

"You're going to have to have a program that assures those farms and those processing plants that there will be workers," he says. "Because if you give them legal status, they can work anywhere in the United States — they're not going to necessarily work at the hardest, toughest, dirtiest jobs."

Or, agribusiness could raise stagnant agricultural wages and improve working conditions to attract and retain workers like every other industry does. Farm work is not the only tough and dangerous work in the US. To the extent that Farmworkers do leave agriculture, they often move to construction, which offers higher wages. Like any other industry, growers should have to rely on market forces to attract workers by paying competitive wages and providing desirable working conditions.

The rhetoric that all farmworkers left agriculture after the 1986 legalization is simply not true. Many farmworkers remain and still remain today working on our Nation’s farms. These workers along with the other hundreds of thousands of US farmworkers should not be replaced by an influx of guestworkers. Legalizing the current undocumented workforce should provide an opportunity for farmworkers to organize and bargain better wages and a better workplace.

To the extent farmworkers are needed in the future, Congress should be careful not to create a new underclass of farmworkers with fewer rights than other workers. Any future visa should provide workers with true portability so they can freely bargain for better jobs, a meaningful opportunity to become immigrants and citizens and strong and equal labor protections. Anything less would be contrary to our values of democracy, freedom and fairness.

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