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Weekly Diaspora: Big Business dictates immigration policy -- at workers' expense

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Arizona's business leaders, frustrated by the deep financial fallout of increasingly radical immigration proposals, successfully swayed state lawmakers into defeating five extremist anti-immigrant bills.

New America Media's Valeria Fernández reports that 60 executives from the likes of WellsFargo bank and U.S. Airways penned an open letter to state Senate President Russell Pearce last week, urging him to leave immigration policy to federal government. Julianne Hing at Colorlines.com has posted the letter in full, but here's the gist:

Last year, boycotts were called against our state's business community, adversely impacting our already-struggling economy and costing us jobs. Arizona-based businesses saw contracts cancelled or were turned away from bidding. Sales outside of the state declined... It is an undeniable fact that each of our companies and our employees were impacted by the boycotts and the coincident negative image [...] Arizona is looking like a nativist, restrictive and intolerant place, and that's bad for business.

The legislature subsequently voted down five controversial measures that sought to redefine citizenship and ban undocumented immigrants from hospitals and public schools, among other provisions.

Pearce, whose behind-the-scenes manoeuvring repeatedly saved the contentious bills from dying much sooner, has vowed to continue pushing his agenda by voter referendum, if necessary. If he does, he may have more success. Arizonans have repeatedly voted in favour of harsh anti-immigrant proposals, including measures that stripped undocumented college students of financial assistance, banned ethnic studies, and ended equal opportunity programs.

Arizona's business leaders overlook immigrant workers

It's worth noting, though, that while the letter's signatories handily criticized the legislature's immigration agenda for negatively impacting the state's economy, they had almost nothing to say about its detrimental impact on the state's workers -- a considerable proportion of whom are  immigrants. Instead, they urge "market driven immigration policies" that will "preserve our ability to compete in the global economy" -- language that is more evocative of labour-exploitative capitalism than worker solidarity.

Their calls for "the creation of a meaningful guest worker program" are similarly suspect. While the notion of a "meaningful guest worker program" that would legalize certain undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. may, on the surface, seem like a sympathetic solution -- particularly in light of the federal government's failure to move forward with any kind of comprehensive immigration reform -- it nevertheless poses dire implications for undocumented workers.

Utah's guest worker proposal evokes Bracero program abuses

As David Bacon at In These Times posits, "guest workers" whose legal status is contingent on their employment situation are uniquely vulnerable to workplace abuse and exploitation, and could face labour conditions "close to slavery." The Bracero Program, a guest worker initiative which imported Mexican labourers primarily for work in agriculture between 1942 and 1964, stands out as stark example of the dark side of guest worker programs. Bacon explains:

Braceros were treated as disposable, dirty and cheap. Herminio Quezada Durán, who came to Utah from Chihuahua, says ranchers often had agreements between each other to exchange or trade braceros as necessary for work. Jose Ezequiel Acevedo Perez, who came from Jerez, Zacatecas, remembers the humiliation of physical exams that treated Mexicans as louse-ridden.

"We were stripped naked in front of everyone," he remembers, and sprayed with DDT, now an outlawed pesticide. Men in some camps were victims of criminals and pimps.

Arizona isn't the only state to toy with the idea of establishing a guest worker program. In an effort to distance itself from Arizona's contentious and economically disastrous immigration agenda, Utah -- a fiercely red state and Arizona's northern neighbour -- is considering creating its own guest worker program, according to the Texas Observer's Victor Landa. The law would grant legal residency to working, undocumented residents who do not commit serious crimes.

While Landa notes that the purportedly progressive measure nevertheless runs afoul of federal immigration laws (only the federal government can grant immigration status), the bill presents other issues. One must stay employed or lose residency -- a circumstance that would strip employees of bargaining power while granting their employers an inordinate amount of license in the workplace. In practical terms, that doesn't much change the existing workplace dynamics of undocumented immigrants, who frequently endure exploitation and abuse without recourse.

Labour unions vs. worksite immigration enforcement

What's more: Exploitative employers generally get off scott free even when targeted by employer sanctions efforts; it's the workers, not employers, who bear the brunt of the federal government's worksite immigration enforcement. For this reason, a Services Employees International Union (SEIU) leader, Javier Morillo, has condemned the Department of Homeland Security's emphasis on workplace raids and employer verification, according to Nicolas Mendoza at Campus Progress.

Responding to the termination of 250 unionized janitors in Minnesota following an I-9 audit -- a verification process through which the federal government can ask businesses to check the immigration statuses of their employees -- Morillo said:

Under the leadership of Secretary Napolitano the federal government has become an employment agency for the country's worst employers. With each I-9 audit, the government is systematically pushing hardworking people into the underground economy where they face exploitation… Let's be clear: I-9 audits, by definition, do not go after egregious employers who break immigration laws because many of them do not use I-9 forms. Human traffickers do not ask their victims for their social security cards. [emphasis added]

Mendoza notes that the federal government's employer verification programs rely on the honesty of employers and rewards them for firing undocumented workers, rather than sanctioning businesses for hiring them. Workers pay the price, while employers get off.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about immigration by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Diaspora for a complete list of articles on immigration issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, and health care issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Pulse. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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