by Molly Ivins
policy is one of those subjects, like taxes, that really is complicated, and it's a disservice to simplify it, no matter which side you're on. President Bush's new plan to offer amnesty to 3 million illegal Mexican workers has both an upside and a downside. It would probably work better if it were part of an overall immigration reform program.
The upside is that it would help the illegal workers already here who have no rights and are consequently exploited to a degree that would make your jaw drop. All Americans should read the current issue of Mother Jones, which has a stunning article on conditions in the meat-packing industry: "The Most Dangerous Job in America." "In some American slaughterhouses, more than three-quarters of the workers are not native English speakers," reports Eric Schlosser.
Although injures in the industry are notoriously underreported, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics more than one-quarter of America's meatpackers suffered a job-related injury or illness in 1999. The workers are injured and then discarded by their companies in one of the most shameless and repulsive systems imaginable.
To use Upton Sinclair's approach in "The Jungle," what happens to all those severed fingers, severed hands and severed arms if, as Schlosser reports, "The chain never stops," no matter who gets hurt or how badly? This article is truly "must-read" for anyone in a policy-making position.
The exploitation of illegals after they are here creates curious political bedfellows. The nativist, Pat Buchanan wing of the Republican Party comes up against the business wing of the party. Put your money on the business end. Entire industries -- especially agriculture, restaurants and those that need service workers -- now depend on illegal workers. At one time, we were supposed to have solved this problem by putting heavy penalties on employers for hiring illegals, but as you can imagine, that was quickly gone. Amnesty for 3 million Mexican workers also helps Karl Rove in his dedicated pursuit of the Hispanic vote, dovetailing nicely with business interests.
Meanwhile, the labor unions, which once opposed immigration on the theory that it cost Americans jobs, have been having some success organizing illegal workers. Unions that concentrate on workers at the bottom end of the payscale, like Service Employees International Union (SIEU), have been especially effective. It is critical that these workers be legalized and unionized if they are not to become a permanent serf class. There are already alarming reports on the failure of working-class Hispanics to find much social mobility in this country.
The downside to the proposed amnesty is that it isn't fair and will in all likelihood cause a rush of illegals at the border. There are approximately 3 million more illegal Hispanic workers in this country who aren't Mexicans, most of them from Central American countries. Nor is the program fair to the lines of people in other countries who wait patiently for permission to immigrate legally. In addition, past amnesty programs have caused radical increases in illegal immigration on the U.S.-Mexican border. Expanding visa programs seems a sensible compromise.
Americans are mostly ambivalent about Mexican immigration. Sometimes it is portrayed as dread menace, a sea of brown feet moving north, imposing nothing but a staggering burden on us (medical care, education, welfare -- poor us, think of the taxes). Other times we recognize the more complicated truth that much of our economy, not to mention our comforts and luxuries, rests on the brown backs of exploited illegal workers, who do, in fact, pay taxes.
As many experts have pointed out, the only real solution is the economic development of Mexico. As long as we are a rich nation bordering on a poor one, we're going to have this problem. Desperate Africans are now literally swimming into Spain.
Meanwhile, many of our institutions are drowning, as well. The federal court system is swamped. Between 1994 and 2000, border drug prosecutions doubled and immigration cases increased seven-fold. The five federal court districts on the borders of California, Arizona and Texas handle 27 percent of all federal court criminal filings in the United States. That's just 6 percent of the judicial districts with more than a quarter of the work.
Meanwhile, those who benefit most from the current mess are American employers. At least one part of the answer is to put agricultural workers under the aegis of the National Labor Relations Act, which would at least allow them to get the minimum wage.
The old labor argument was that immigrants take jobs away from Americans. Now, "Taking jobs Americans don't want" has become a commonplace of immigration discussion. The reason Americans don't want them is because they pay so little. According to Schlosser's article, "Thirty years ago, meatpacking was one of the highest-paid industrial jobs in the United States, with one of the lowest turnover rates."
In the 1960s, employers broke the unions, brought in Mexican workers and wages fell by as much as 50 percent. Today meatpacking is one of the nation's lowest paid industrial jobs, with one of the highest turnover rates. Nativists, meet the unions.
July 19, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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