Bring Immigrants Out of the Shadows

The following appeared in the Star-Ledger on January 28, 2004.

By Amy Gottlieb and Parastou Hassouri

President Bush’s recent announcement outlining his proposals for immigration reform has fostered powerful debate and strong reactions. Most immigrant advocacy groups have opposed the proposal, as it does not offer permanent residence to the estimated 8 to 12 million undocumented residents in the U.S. and because of the enormous potential for workplace exploitation. Many anti-immigrant groups oppose the proposal because they interpret it as a form of amnesty. Few groups support the proposal as Bush described it, but most welcome the opportunity to bring change to a currently unworkable immigration system.

The positive consequence of Bush’s announcement is that it has sparked a much-needed national debate on immigration issues. There’s no question that the status quo is unacceptable. In making the case for reform, Bush described a system where “workers who seek only to earn a living end up in the shadows of American life – fearful, often abused and exploited. When they are victimized by crime, they are afraid to call the police, or seek recourse in the legal system.” He added that this situation is “wrong,” and “not the American way.” We agree. However, his rhetoric is inconsistent with the probable outcome of his proposal.

The un-American exploitation of immigrants and immigrants living in fear is all too real and plays itself out in countless communities across the United States. Most recently, here in New Jersey, day laborers in Freehold were expelled from their hiring site, and threatened with arrest and deportation should they gather there to seek work. New Motor Vehicle Commission regulations have restricted immigrants’ access to driver’s licenses. And, despite tireless efforts by local advocates, New Jersey has not yet adopted an “in-state tuition” bill to allow hardworking undocumented immigrant students to pay the same in-state tuition rates as their friends and classmates.

Reform is needed, but it is doubtful that the guest worker program Bush has proposed will address the hardships suffered by undocumented immigrants in New Jersey and across the country.

In outlining his proposal, Bush emphasized the need for “laws that serve the economic needs of our nation.” While he has not disclosed the details of his proposal, it seems clear that it focuses on immigrants first and foremost as workers, not as people who deserve the opportunity to establish secure lives and engage in American society.

Bush’s oft-repeated mantra of matching “willing foreign workers with willing American employers” ignores the fact that many American employers are willing precisely because the workers lack legal status. This way, they have a steady supply of laborers who are “willing” to put up with long hours, low wages, unsafe and unhealthy conditions and zero benefits, and whose day-to-day fear of deportation keeps them from asserting their workplace rights and leaves them vulnerable to unimaginable abuse and exploitation.

The proposed program, based on employer sponsorship, makes the workers’ legal status dependent on their employers, leaving their fate at the employer’s whim: if a worker quits or gets fired, deportation is around the corner, thanks to a registered database of workers overseen by the Department of Homeland Security. The program, which in its current form, does not address the issue of workplace rights, including fair wage laws, working conditions and the right to organize, leaves workers vulnerable to exploitation. No wonder that immigrant rights advocates are already drawing comparisons between it and the infamous Bracero Program of 1942-1962 described by Lee G. Williams, the U.S. Department of Labor officer in charge, as a system of “legalized slavery.”

Ultimately, the biggest flaw in this proposal is that it lacks a real path to permanent legal status in the United States. How likely are immigrants to participate in a program that could leave them in a worse position at the end of their temporary residence period?

According to the latest census figures, New Jersey has the fifth largest immigrant population in the nation. Our state hosts immigrants not only in large urban centers, but also in rural farming communities in the southern and northwest regions of the state, in beach resorts, in large urban centers, and in suburban towns. Immigrant communities have brought energy, diversity, economic development, labor, and strength to the state. In Bush’s words, we are “a stronger and better nation because of” immigrants.

New Jersey and its communities must maintain a commitment to welcoming immigrants of all statuses by creating safe spaces for immigrants. Rather than criminalize migration and create a permanent underclass of undocumented workers driven underground and in constant fear of deportation, we must ask the President to offer a fair and comprehensive legalization program that will bring immigrants out of the shadows and onto the path of permanent legal status.

Amy Gottlieb is Director of the American Friends Service Committee Immigrant Rights Program based in Newark. Parastou Hassouri serves as Immigrant Rights Specialist with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

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