From SLTrib.com, The Salt Lake Tribune, “Paying for a guest worker law already in place” by Bruce Goldstein, 14 Apr. 2011.
Amidst the debate and controversy surrounding Utah’s new immigration laws, state legislators in Salt Lake City seem to think they’ve created a model for America. They portray their pilot guest worker program as a compromise that others might use as a model.
They must think Utah’s taxpayers aren’t paying careful attention, because they’ll be saddled with spending money to duplicate a program that largely already exists.
Last month, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed into law four bills heralded by some commentators as a holistic and comprehensive state approach to immigration reform. One of the bills would create a pilot program to bring guest workers from the state of Nuevo Leon, Mexico, to perform temporary work. (Another would create a guest worker status for undocumented workers already working in Utah.)
If the pilot bill for managing guest workers in Utah sounds familiar, that’s because, in spite of the media attention and self-congratulation that accompanied the state law, we have had a federal system in place since the 1940s that does virtually the same thing. In fact, the United States already has two such programs for temporary or seasonal jobs, the H-2A visa for agricultural work and the H-2B for nonagricultural work. Each visa already requires state involvement.
But aside from wasting tax dollars, Utah’s legislators are duplicating a system that doesn’t work well. While the federal programs grant guest workers some workplace protections, their “nonimmigrant” status deprives them of bargaining power, which encourages employers to prefer guest workers over American workers and helps keep wages low for both. And the government has been passive about enforcing the protections for both the domestic and foreign workers.
Guest workers aren’t in a great position to complain, for fear of losing their jobs or not being called back the following year, and foreign governments remain quiet so they don’t lose precious jobs to another needy nation. Americans displaced by these workers, where they exist, are not organized or able to do much to protect themselves.
Guest workers are refused any opportunity for citizenship and suffrage, making it impossible to integrate them fully into our communities. They work in limbo, often unaware of their admittedly limited rights. Guest workers generally are not permitted to bring family members to the United States, causing great hardship.
The guest worker model runs contrary to our democratic, economic and pro-family traditions. And as America faces competition in the globalized economy, does it really want 50 different sets of immigration rules?
State Rep. Bill Wright seems to understand the need to find a viable solution to dealing with some of America’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. “A lot of these people are intertwined in our society,” said Wright. “They have financial obligations: they have bank notes; they’ve bought houses; they contribute; they have jobs.”
But understanding the need for a solution isn’t good enough.
In the agricultural sector, after much conflict, farm worker organizations and agribusiness employers reached agreement on a reasonable solution that has bipartisan support in Congress. Passage has been tied up largely because of congressional gridlock on comprehensive immigration reform.
Known as AgJOBS (the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act), it could lead the way as a model for immigration reform. AgJOBS would give current undocumented farm workers — roughly half the national agricultural labor force — an opportunity to earn legal immigration status, and eventually citizenship, through continued work in agriculture.
AgJOBS also would reform the H-2A program to help grant U.S. workers greater access to jobs and decrease exploitation of foreign workers, while assuring employers’ access to guest workers when truly needed. It is endorsed by a broad spectrum of organizations, including farmers’ associations, business groups, Latino leaders, religious groups and farm worker organizations.
Any immigration reform package must take careful consideration of its effect on the roughly 2 -2.5 million migrant and seasonal workers on farms — men and women performing back-breaking labor in the fields to put food on America’s tables.
Utah’s lawmakers took an important step forward by recognizing the need for changes in our immigration laws, but these laws are not a solution. They won’t protect farm workers or citizens who may want to do farm work and it’s no model for federal immigration reform. While Utah begins implementing the new laws, Congress should get to work on real solutions — starting with passing AgJOBS.
Bruce Goldstein is president of Farmworker Justice, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., that works to improve living and working conditions for migrant and seasonal farm workers: www.farmworkerjustice.org