July 08, 2001

The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) traditionally supports immigration policies that are generous, fair, and humane. In the area of immigration control, NCLR takes the position that, as a sovereign nation, the United States can and should control its borders. However, NCLR also believes that the enforcement of immigration laws, like other laws, must be nondiscriminatory and consistent with American laws and values.

Current immigration policy is not consistent with these principles. A combination of factors demonstrate that U.S. immigration policies have failed to achieve their objectives, and are in fundamental conflict with national needs and values:

The population of undocumented immigrants living and working in the U.S. has grown steadily since the 1986 immigration reforms. Despite the imposition of penalties against employers who hire undocumented persons and heightened border controls, a substantial and growing number of undocumented workers have found a place in the U.S. labor force. Credible estimates from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the Urban Institute estimate that the size of this population is between six and nine million. In addition to the population that crosses the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, as many as 40% of undocumented migrants enter on valid visas and overstay them, according to INS.

Enforcement of immigration laws at the border and the interior is conducted in a way that undermines civil rights. There is widespread evidence of the use of racial profiling in immigration enforcement, and of collaborations between immigration and local law enforcement officials which have the effect of undermining the civil rights of citizens and legal residents who are mistaken for illegal immigrants based solely on ethnic appearance. In addition, independent studies by government and private agencies have shown that the employer sanctions policy, through which employers check the status documents of new hires, has caused a widespread pattern of employment discrimination against persons lawfully in the U.S. and U.S. citizens.

An alarming and unacceptable number of deaths take place each year at the U.S.-Mexico border. Since the initiation of Operation Gatekeeper, a major border control initiative, in the mid-1990s at least 1700 migrants have lost their lives crossing rivers, deserts, and mountains to find work in the U.S.
Moreover, there is increasing evidence that a significant legalization program is needed to maintain U.S. economic growth:

Key growth sectors of the economy increasingly rely on this labor force. Representatives of industries in the service sector, like hotels, restaurants, and nursing homes have formed an Essential Worker Immigration Coalition (EWIC) which argues in favor of more generous immigration policies, including the legalization of those already in the U.S. workforce. These employers note that widespread labor shortages are a significant constraint on economic growth.

The labor movement argues that legalization of the undocumented workforce is vitally important for protecting the overall U.S. workforce. The AFL-CIO, in a unanimous decision by its executive council in 1999, took the position that the best way to protect all U.S. workers is to legalize those who are in the workforce without immigration papers. Unions argue that, for those workers who lack immigration status, employers can ignore labor laws and undermine organizing campaigns because workers who complain run the risk of deportation. This dramatic shift in labor movement policy underscores the scale and importance of the undocumented workforce.

Moreover, economic experts have recently confirmed the overall benefits of immigration. For example, in 1997, the prestigious National Academy of Sciences found that immigrants contribute about $10 billion to the nation's economy per year, and pay more in taxes than they use in services. In addition, in Congressional testimony presented in July of 2001, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan said, "I've always argued that this country has benefited immensely from the fact that we draw people from all over the world. And the average immigrant comes from a less benign environment, and indeed that's the reason they've come here. And I think they appreciate the benefits of this country more than those of us who were born here. And it shows in their entrepreneurship, their enterprise, and their willingness to do the types of work that makes this economy function."

NCLR believes that negotiations between the United States and Mexico provide historic opportunity to reshape immigration policy in a way that is responsive both to labor market needs in the U.S. and the needs of immigrants themselves. In particular, these discussions could create a coherent and more effective alternative to the current immigration control regime, which is ineffective, discriminatory, and inconsistent with both our national values and economic interests. However, this process also creates substantial risks. In order to maximize positive policy opportunities and minimize dangers, NCLR believes:

Legalization must be a major element of any policy change. A substantial number of undocumented immigrant workers are: long-term U.S. residents; work hard; pay taxes; and otherwise abide by our laws. Their futures are inextricably linked with ours. The interests of the U.S. are best served by allowing these long-term residents to come out of the shadows. Those who can demonstrate that they've made those commitments and have linked their future to America's future should be afforded the opportunity to legalize. While this discussion is taking place in the context of negotiations between the U.S. and Mexico, it makes little sense from the U.S. perspective to provide legalization opportunities only for Mexicans; all those similarly situated should have the same opportunity.

Temporary worker programs by themselves are not a viable long-term policy option. The nation's history with guestworker programs, which have mostly applied to agriculture, has been a highly negative one. NCLR has opposed all proposed expansions to these programs because they undercut workers rights by offering few labor protections, tie workers to individual employers, and provide no opportunities for adjustment of status. Indeed, temporary worker programs have become notorious in the Latino community because of their history - and reality - of abuse. There is a real danger that the current debate will simply follow the structure that has been in place since the days of the bracero program; indeed, one such proposal is being talked about in the U.S. Senate. If such a proposal were to emerge from the negotiations between the U.S. and Mexico, or in the legislative process, NCLR would have no choice but to oppose it vigorously.

Any temporary worker program that might emerge from this debate must be markedly different from the status quo. We acknowledge the reality that some undocumented workers come to the U.S. with the intention of returning to their home countries. They do not seek to be immigrants, and often end up "trapped" in the United States because our border control policies make it to difficult to depart and re-enter, swelling the ranks of the undocumented. It is reasonable, then, to construct a temporary worker framework, particularly to "regularize" future worker flows. However, this must be markedly different from the existing temporary worker construct. In particular, it is essential for any workers who participate to be fully covered by U.S. labor laws, including the right to change employers, strong protections for wages, and working conditions, and the right to unionize. Similarly, it is essential that such laws be vigorously enforced, b! y strengthening the Wage and Hour division at the U.S. Department of Labor as well as by ensuring that these workers have access to legal services. Finally, any temporary worker program must also include a path to adjustment of status for its workers; that is, if their labor is needed here year after year, they should be able to choose to remain in the United States as immigrants, having demonstrated that their labor is of value here.

Immigration enforcement must be conducted strategically. Even a successful temporary worker structure would not eliminate the need to conduct immigration enforcement at U.S. borders and the interior. But this enforcement must be conducted strategically, aimed at large scale smugglers and employer networks that deliberately import workers from other countries in order to skirt U.S. wage and other laws that aim to protect workers. Enforcement at the border and the interior must also be conducted according to a strict set of standards to protect the civil and human rights of those who come into contact with enforcement personnel. In addition, the ineffective and discriminatory employer sanctions regime should be replaced by a new system that emphasizes labor law enforcement, to eliminate the economic incentive of unscrupulous employers to hire unauthorized workers.

NCLR believes that this policy debate provides an important opportunity to rethink an immigration policy regime that fails to respond to reality. For too long our laws have, in the name of imposing order, allowed a chaotic and unregulated process to continue. By legalizing immigrants who live, work, and contribute to life in the U.S., this debate could deal fairly with hard-working people who have responded to an economic reality that has been ignored by our laws. At the same time, a temporary worker program that responds to U.S. labor needs in a regulated, orderly fashion - while breaking precedent by providing for full labor rights - is better equipped to break the cycle created by the last several immigration reforms, which have pretended to tighten enforcement but failed to alter the flow of migrants seeking jobs that are re

Leave a reply

Image CAPTCHA
Enter the characters shown in the image.