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Bush plan’s three flaws – EPI Viewpoints

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Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.

[ THIS PIECE FIRST APPEARED IN THE BOSTON GLOBE ON JANUARY 11, 2004.]

Bush plan’s three flaws

By  Janice Fine

Undocumented workers are the dirty little secret of the American economy. It is a great step forward that President Bush is acknowledging their plight with clarity and compassion with his immigration proposal. But his solution fall short of the mark.

In essence, the proposal is a guest worker program: Employers, after alleging that they have tried to fill their available positions with US nationals with no success, would be empowered to hire temporary foreign workers. These workers would be issued three-year work permits that might be renewable for another three years. This temporary worker program is not linked to normal permanent residency and citizenship immigration tracks, and participants would have no greater advantage in applying for a green card.

Historically, guest worker programs have always worked to the advantage of American industry, but they have often undercut low wage workers in these sectors and created lives of incredible hardship for the guest workers themselves.

There are three fundamental problems with the president’s plan.

First, the proposal gives too much power to employers. For the past year, I have been conducting a national study on low-wage immigrants in the workforce. The problems are depressingly similar in every city and town I have visited and every industry I have observed: unpaid wages, forced overtime, sky-high rates of injury on the job, discrimination, sexual harassment, and unjust firings. Workers who speak up are fired and blacklisted. Employers routinely ignore government regulations, and government monitoring in most of these industries is terribly inadequate, at best.

The bottom line is this: Employers in heavily immigrant, low-wage sectors already have too much power, workers are already too afraid to come forward, and government is unable to effectively provide protection. The president’s proposal, because it requires employers to sponsor workers’ temporary work visas and maintain their employment, will make these guest workers even more powerless against employer abuses than they already are. And imagine how much more reluctant undocumented workers will be to take action when they know that their employers now not only hold the power to extend or deny the legal right to work — but also know who among their employees are undocumented.

Second, by requiring workers to access the program through employers, the proposal fails to take current labor market realities into account. About half of current undocumented workers are in the “informal sector.” They are gardeners, day-laborers, domestic workers, nannies, dishwashers, and other service workers. Mostly, they are paid only in cash by employers who report nothing. Since these types of employers are unlikely to participate in the program, large numbers of workers will have no way of accessing it. Others work for subcontractors who ply their wares in the garment trade and other manufacturing industries — going in and out of business frequently. Will these subcontractors even bother to apply for visas for their workers? And what will happen to workers after these businesses close? Does the visa follow the worker or the job? Finally, what about the taxi-drivers, childcare providers, and others who are nominally “self-employed”? What happens to them?

Third, because the proposal provides legal status for a temporary time period and is completely separated from the green card process, it doesn’t provide enough of an incentive for undocumented workers to want to participate. If you are working now, and your desire is to stay permanently, why would you “out yourself” to the authorities and risk deportation after three years?

A real solution for undocumented workers would not place all the power with employers and would not tie eligibility to a specific employment relationship. It would provide access to workers who can demonstrate that they have worked in the United States for a significant period of time. It would offer incentives to workers to come forward by connecting it to permanent residency and citizenship programs. And it would be tied to a strong new set of low-wage labor market policies, protections, and enforcement mechanisms.

As a nation we must grapple with a fundamental question: What does it say about our American values and commitments that more than seven million people, people who clean our homes, hotels, and offices, tend our gardens, sew our clothing, and care for our children and elders, have none of the economic and political rights the rest of us enjoy?

Janice Fine is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

[ POSTED TO VIEWPOINTS ON JANUARY 16, 2004 ]


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