E-Verify, Guest Worker Program, H-2A, Immigration, Labor, Legislation, Opinion/Editorial/Commentary, Undocumented Workers

Navarrette: An About-Face on Foreign Workers

From VCStar.com, Ventura County Star, Ruben Navarette, 8 Oct 2011.

Who says you can’t teach an old elephant new tricks?

Republicans like to pitch the fairy tale that illegal immigrants take jobs from American workers, and then use that as an excuse for deporting the undocumented.

Are we supposed to believe that a political party that fights minimum-wage increases and eases regulations on business suddenly cares about workers? Why not admit that the real motivation for the crackdown is that the GOP is marketing itself to voters as the party of the past, intent on running off illegal immigrants so it can return the country to the way it looked in the Ozzie and Harriet era of the 1950s?

Now, the fairy tale has ended. A Republican in Congress has basically conceded that he was wrong when he suggested that if we remove illegal immigrants from the dirty business of farm labor, out-of-work Americans would rush to take their place.

Introducing Lamar Smith 2.0. When the San Antonio congressman became chairman of the House Judiciary Committee earlier this year, he piggybacked on the national anxiety over high unemployment by positioning himself as a kind of jobs czar. His plan was to offer a bill that required all U.S. employers to participate in the “E-Verify” program, which is supposed to let employers know that new hires and existing employees are legally authorized to work. Once the illegal immigrants left, the theory went, the jobs would open up and Americans could take them.

Smith might get his bill passed, and jobs might open up. But, absent hypnosis, he can’t make Americans take hard and dirty jobs that they have been going to great lengths to avoid all these years.

Smith needed schooling, and he got some when U.S. agribusiness leaders pulled rank and told him that his bill was a nonstarter since, without an illegal immigrant workforce, they would be out of business. An estimated 1.1 million illegal immigrants work in agriculture in the United States.

Smith gave in, as he tends to do when powerful interests snap at him. He offered farmers a generous three-year extension before they have to fulfill the E-Verify requirement.

The grace period didn’t satisfy agriculture. Before the farmers would even consider supporting the E-Verify bill, they demanded from Smith — and got — a proposal creating a new guest-worker program. So now, the compliant congressman has gone from trying to get rid of foreign workers to bringing in additional foreign workers.

Confused? Join the club.

Smith has proposed creating a program that would, every year, bring in 500,000 foreign workers to toil in agriculture while being tethered to specific employers. He is proposing a complete overhaul of the archaic H-2A program, which is supposed to bring in foreign workers but has become mired in red tape.

This is an about-face for Smith, an acknowledgment that he was wrong that Americans could be counted on to fill the jobs that illegal immigrants would no longer be allowed to do.

It’s also a throwback to another remnant of the 1950s — one that started a decade earlier, during World War II. Proving that bad ideas never die, Smith wants to bring back the braceros. That was the name given to foreign workers — an estimated 5 million of them — who were brought in from Mexico to fill the vacuum in the fields when America’s young men went off to battle tyranny in Europe and the Pacific. But when the men came home, they were no longer interested in fieldwork. So the guest workers stuck around.

A program that was supposed to be temporary lasted more than 20 years, from 1942 to 1964. In fact, Congress only pulled the plug when renowned television journalist Edward R. Murrow exposed abuse by employers who were treating the workers like indentured servants. This is an indecent chapter of U.S. history that we should not repeat.

So, if Smith is giving many of those jobs away to foreign workers anyway, then what’s the real reason for requiring employers to use E-Verify? Simple: It wouldrun off illegal immigrants. And why is that so important to some people? Simple: Ozzie and Harriet.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

Source: VCStar.com, Ventura County Star, “Navarrette: An about-face on foreign workers” by Ruben Navarette, 8 Oct 2011.

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