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Visas urged to make migrant workers legal

Jerry Kammer Republic
Washington Bureau
April 20, 2001

WASHINGTON - Fifteen years after Congress created a program that granted amnesty for 3 million undocumented workers, immigrant rights advocates say a new program is needed to provide visas for illegal immigrants and allow them to become permanent residents.

Congress is expected to consider such a program in the coming months.

Supporters tout the plan as guaranteeing not only basic fairness to workers but also a stable workforce for U.S. businesses.

"The question is: Can't we expand channels for people to come here legally instead of, in effect, compelling people to come here illegally?" said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.

Opponents say a broad amnesty would encourage new waves of illegal immigration.

Undocumented agricultural workers, mostly Mexican, make up more than half the nation's farm workforce of 1.6 million. In Arizona, there are about 56,000 agricultural workers, according to January 2000 figures. About half are undocumented, the United Farm Workers of Arizona said.

The undocumented agricultural workers would be first in line to benefit from the program whose supporters prefer to say that it offers "legalization" or "earned adjustment," rather than "amnesty."

Employees in other industries might follow with the help of politically powerful interests in the construction, manufacturing, restaurant, hotel and landscaping industries, among others.

"It is important to have business leaders frame the argument because that has a different feel than it would with a bunch of do-gooders like us," said Cecilia Muñoz, a vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group. "This isn't about the altruistic thing to do. It's about what's good for the economy and good for the country."

The congressional effort to bring illegal agricultural workers out of the law's shadow gained momentum last year.

A California Democrat and an Oregon Republican proposed a guest worker program that would offer visas to undocumented farm workers. Their bill won the support not only of agribusiness but also of some immigrant advocates and union leaders.

Guest worker programs have long been controversial. Critics say they subject Mexican field hands to poor working conditions and then require them to return across the border.

Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., and Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., wanted to put guest workers on a track toward permanent residency and possible citizenship if they worked a certain period in the fields.

Their bill, expected to be revived this year, also would remove restrictions included in the existing guest worker program, which brings about 40,000 field hands into the country legally but does not allow them to change employers in search of better pay and conditions.

"We think workers are inherently exploitable if they don't have freedom to move and freedom to quit," said Charles Kamasaki, a senior vice president of the National Council of La Raza.

James Edwards, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, an Indianapolis-based conservative think tank, and author of a book on the politics of immigration, said that whatever the Berman-Smith plan is called "it is tantamount to amnesty." Critics of the plan, mostly Republicans, persist in using that term.

The Berman-Smith bill failed last year primarily because of the opposition of Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican who warned that broad amnesty would encourage new waves of illegal immigration.

After vowing that an amnesty bill would succeed "over my dead body, " Gramm has offered a guest worker program that would send the workers home after a specific time.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said many members of Congress want to change a "hypocritical system" that has given jobs to millions of workers who get past the U.S. Border Patrol. Nevertheless, he said, there is broad opposition to amnesty.

"Amnesty is a poison pill," said Kyl, a member of the Senate immigration subcommittee. "We have had amnesties in the past, and each time there is the assurance that there won't be another one and that those who come illegally will not be rewarded for their conduct."

Republicans also are wary of the political implications of expanding the ranks of low-skilled Mexican immigrants, who tend to vote Democratic once they acquire citizenship.

Even President Bush, who last year campaigned energetically on his ties to Mexico and his respect for Latino culture, received only 35 percent of the Latino vote.

Still, Bush this year agreed to binational immigration talks sought by Mexican President Vicente Fox, who wants the United States to reduce obstacles to his countrymen's movement across the border.

Concern for illegal immigrants' welfare has grown in recent years, as beefed-up border enforcement has pushed migrants into remote areas along the border. Hundreds have died crossing the border, many in southern Arizona's broiling desert.

Fox has staked his reputation on helping the illegal immigrants or indocumentados. He hails them as "heroes" whose labor has contributed to the economic development of both countries. The workers annually send billions of dollars to their families south of the border.

The director of a Washington think tank that wants to curtail immigration says the talks are a bad idea because U.S interests "diverge sharply from those of Mexico."

Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, says large-scale immigration of low-wage workers depresses wages in the United States and overwhelms schools and social services.

"It's in Mexico's interests to have more migration to the United States, but it's not in U.S. interests," said Krikorian, who said that even Gramm's plan would not halt illegal immigration "because it's based on the flawed premise that the workers will go home after their contract is up."

The amnesty program adopted by Congress in 1986 tried to balance concern about fairness to established workers with the conviction that illegal immigration was making a mockery of U.S. law. In addition to offering permanent residence to several million undocumented workers, Congress sought to cut off the illegal cross-border flow by mandating penalties for employers who hired illegal immigrants.

But the enforcement program collapsed as business interests won support in Congress for their demand that the INS back off. And a phony-document industry flourished to provide undocumented workers with counterfeit Social Security cards they presented to employers as proof of their eligibility to work.

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