Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Immigration "reform" suggestions - Bring back indentured servitude?

I recommend watching this VIDEO. But first, some background.

=> From the Denver Post (4/7/2008):
Calling America a country perfectly "capable of multitasking," [Colorado] Republican Senate candidate Bob Schaffer said the U.S. ought to be pursuing a guest- worker program at the same time it fortifies its borders. [....]

"It's a practical impossibility to contemplate rounding up 15 or 20 million illegal visitors and deporting them," said Schaffer, who as a congressman was a member of Tom Tancredo's Immigration Reform Caucus and co-sponsored a bill severely reducing allowable numbers of family-related legal immigrants.

In his first extended remarks on the issue as a candidate, Schaffer called for tamper-proof IDs for immigrant workers and tougher workplace enforcement, and even suggested giving federal grants to sheriffs and local police for immigration enforcement.

But he said the U.S. should take a "broad, comprehensive approach" to the problem of illegal immigration and suggested that workers brought in on temporary visas should be allowed to eventually apply for citizenship, a position out in front of many in his party. [....]

Schaffer is clear to say he doesn't support amnesty for illegal immigrants now in the U.S. Instead, guest-worker visas should be available only to those who have not broken the country's immigration laws, he said.

The millions now in the country illegally would likely go home through tougher enforcement and as a legal avenue for more immigrant labor became available — a process of attrition that he suggested could take 25 years. [....]

One of the difficulties that Schaffer now faces is that his current views are at odds with more hard-line positions he has staked out in the past. In Congress, he praised Tancredo's Immigration Reform Caucus as the "only organization in Washington looking at finding balanced, sensible solutions." And in 2006, as National Republican Committeeman, he supported a resolution that called for the elimination of automatic citizenship for babies born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants.
On the face of it, this does sound like a more reasonable and "moderate" position than the one Schaffer used to take. But the heart of his new position is the advocacy of an expanded "guest-worker" program for importing non-immigrant labor on a temporary basis. A number of western European countries tried this approach in the decades after World War II (the euphemistic term "guest worker," or Gastarbeiter, was coined in what was then West Germany), and it didn't work out brilliantly for them. But Schaffer has another model in mind:
He pointed to the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. protectorate that imports tens of thousands of foreign textile workers, as a successful model for a guest-worker program that could be adapted nationally.

"The concept of prequalifying foreign workers in their home country under private- sector management is a system that works very well in one place in America," he said of the islands' program. "I think members of Congress ought to be looking at that model and be considering it as a possible basis for a nationwide program."
Even in the best of circumstances, I think that for the US to embrace large-scale reliance on "guest-worker" programs, the whole point of which is to separate participation in the labor market from the prospect of citizenship and full membership in American society, would be unwise and un-American. (As Paul Krugman correctly pointed out in 2006, this would mean taking "The Road to Dubai".)

But part of the problem is precisely that guest-worker programs don't always operate under the best of circumstances. In practice (remember those Persian Gulf countries) they are often exploitative, oppressive, and otherwise inhumane. And it so happens that Schaffer couldn't have picked a better example to illustrate these dangers. A subsequent article in the Denver Post pointed out that the Marianas guest-worker program has long been notorious for its systematically and pervasively abusive character:
At the heart of the issue is the islands' massive textile industry, which is exempted from the U.S. minimum wage as well as most American immigration laws. The Northern Marianas economy is built on thousands of workers from China, the Philippines and Bangladesh, some of whom pay labor recruiters as much as $7,000 to land a job on U.S. soil.

A class-action lawsuit filed [in 1999] alleged that many of those workers lived in slum conditions, housed seven to a room in barracks surrounded by barbed wire designed to keep the workers in. Workers in some factories labored 12 hours a day, seven days a week, the suit alleged — without pay if they fell behind set quotas.

A U.S. Interior Department investigation found that pregnant workers were forced to get illegal abortions or lose their jobs. Some were recruited for factories but forced into the sex trade instead.

The islands' factories were cited by the U.S. Department of Labor more than 1,000 times for safety violations in the late 1990s. [....]

At the time, those alleged abuses and a push by the Clinton administration led to a flurry of congressional action. Several bills passed the Senate that would have brought the islands' factories under stricter American laws, but the legislation failed in the House.

Hired by factory owners and the government of the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, [former Republican super-lobbyist Jack] Abramoff and his firm were paid more than $11 million over nine years to fend off those efforts, according to reports.

In a 2001 memo to the Marianas governor meant to justify millions in fees, Abramoff singles out the relationships built with members of the House Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over U.S. protectorates. He points to the lavish trips for dozens of lawmakers and family members to build goodwill. And he says his connections ultimately scuttled dangerous legislation like the bill proposed by then-Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, which would have toughened the islands' labor and immigration laws.

"We then stopped it cold in the House," the memo boasts.

"In the end, this all-out public relations and lobbying blitz brought the (Mariana Islands) back from the brink of legislative disaster," the lobbyist wrote.
=> To make matters worse, it turns out that Schaffer himself played a direct role in the successful effort to whitewash and protect this abusive system:
Just before boarding a plane to the Mariana Islands in 1999, then-Congressman Bob Schaffer announced he was embarking on a fact-finding mission to get to the bottom of repeated allegations of labor abuse in the American protectorate. [....]

What he didn't say was that the trip was partly arranged by the firm of now-jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who represented textile factory owners fighting congressional efforts to reform labor and immigration laws on the islands and who was being handsomely paid to keep the islands' cherished exemptions. [....]

He left believing that allegations of widespread abuse were largely unfounded — blaming them on Big Labor's efforts to shut down a booming textile industry allowed to use the "Made in USA" label but dependent on tens of thousands of imported workers.

In a recent interview with The Denver Post, the Republican candidate for Colorado's open Senate seat described the protectorate's guest-worker program as a "model" lawmakers could use as they overhaul the U.S. immigration system. [....]

"There were some examples of problems that we found, and we raised those with the equivalent of the attorney general," Schaffer said of his visit. But in many others, "the workers were smiling; they were happy."

Said Matthew Miller, spokesman for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee: "The fact that (Schaffer) sided against the human rights of those workers, not just then, but still today, shows he was more interested in doing the bidding of the people who set up the trip than in actually investigating abuses." [....]
=> For more details, see this very useful video from Talking Points Memo:
Marianas: Let's Go to the Videotape
=> In short, this is just one more good example of what Republicans mean by "reform"--and by "moderation." (No, not all of them. To be fair, there are some Republicans who favor a genuinely open, fair, and generous pro-immigrant policy. But over the past few years, the most prominent Republican positions on immigration have wavered between anti-immigrant nativism and guest-worker programs that would funnel cheap foreign labor to big business.)

Nor are Republicans the only ones who support the expansion of temporary-worker programs. It's clear that such proposals are going to be a prominent feature of the next attempt at a bipartisan compromise immigration-reform package, just as they were the last time around in 2006, and I'm afraid that the pressures behind them are hard to resist. But it would be a mistake to adopt this kind of "moderate" pseudo-solution, which simply ratifies an existing schism between workers and citizens rather than trying to overcome it. Is the Marianas Model something we should emulate and expand over here? I think not.

--Jeff Weintraub

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