‘A legalised form of slavery’- US guest worker proposal

FRFI 174 August / September 2003

‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.’

An immigration reform proposal gaining ground in the United States would embrace the words inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty – provided that the masses remain poor and tired and do not huddle in the country for long.

The Border Security and Immigration Reform Act of 2003, proposed to the US Congress in July by Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, would create what is euphemistically being called a ‘guest worker’ programme: undocumented immigrants would be permitted three one-year stints of low-wage servitude in the United States, before being forced back to their countries of origin.

The proposal contains no general amnesty for current resident immigrants, as President George W Bush promised during his campaign for the presidency. Guest workers will have no opportunity for naturalisation or permanent residency.

While assaulting the interests of immigrants and the working class, the guest worker proposal strikes an elegant balance between two currents of reaction: on one side, the racist aspiration to close the US borders to brown and black people, and on the other, the dependence of domestic capital for profitability on unorganised, inexpensive immigrant labour.

Under the ‘guest worker’ plan, racists need not worry about the ‘browning of America’, because the roads to citizenship or permanent residency are explicitly closed. Concerns about dark skinned evil-doers are soothed, since the newly created Department of Homeland Security will ‘keep tabs’ on guest workers by requiring them to reapply annually and demonstrate ‘good behaviour’ to maintain their status.

Primarily, however, the proposed legislation is a gift to the sector of domestic capital that depends on cheap immigrant labour to sustain profitability. The huddled masses, as Senator Cornyn points out, ‘make a tremendous contribution to our economy...The United States depends on the labour that these immigrants provide.’ From the perspective of profitability, the less ‘these immigrants’ are paid, the more ‘tremendous’ their contribution will be. There are approximately 10 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, the most oppressed segment of the working class, making up close to 8% of the total US labour force and accounting for extraordinary profits for the corporate sector.

The representatives of domestic capital, in particular the service industries, have long been pushing for ‘guest worker’ legislation, to increase the nation’s supply of cheap labour, while undermining a recent trend toward unionisation among immigrants. As David Bacon of The Nation has argued, ‘Immigration laws have less to do with who gets in than with their working conditions when they get here.’ The three-year limitation on ‘guest workers’ is intended to create a permanent source of temporary workers, who will be prevented from settling or developing the lasting relationships and communities that are crucial to successful organising. The legislation has been designed as a counter-attack to the recent, and partially successful, drives of some unions to organise undocumented workers. For those immigrants who do attempt to organise during their stay as guest workers, the proposal’s annual reapplication and ‘good behaviour’ requirements will provide wide latitude to the state for punishment by deportation.

When immigration reform was originally proposed during the 2000 presidential election, the ‘guest worker’ provision was one portion – capital’s portion – of a wider and more balanced plan, which was to include a significant concession to the increasingly important Latino vote: a general amnesty for undocumented residents, the first such amnesty since 1986, when three million immigrants were legalised. The attacks of 11 September 2001 and the deepening economic crisis, however, have changed the political landscape, making the guest worker proposal politically feasible, but not any sop to the Latino vote.

‘It seems to me like a legalised form of slavery,’ observed Mario Brito, an organiser of undocumented immigrants in Houston, Texas. In that regard, the new proposal finds itself at home with a long history in the United States of the ruling class welcoming the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, on terms calculated to profit from their exploitation. As in the past, there is one known remedy: organising among the most oppressed segments of the working class to oppose the interests of capital and the capitalist state.

Dalton Hilliard


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