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Immigration Reform, Big Business, NAFTA and the Impact on the African American Workforce

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On Capitol Hill, the debate over immigration reform is heating up in Congress as protests for immigrant rights continue across the country. We speak with labor journalist David Bacon and University of Maryland professor Ron Walters. [includes rush transcript]

Protests are continuing across the country against proposed changes to the nation’s immigration laws. In New York, tens of thousands of people marched from Brooklyn to Lower Manhattan on Saturday in support of immigrant rights. The rally came a week after upwards of million people demonstrated in Los Angeles, and after weeks of historic protests in cities from Chicago to Denver to Phoenix.

On Capitol Hill, the debate over immigration reform is continuing in Congress. On Sunday, Senate majority leader Bill Frist said he wants a full Senate vote on immigration legislation later this week despite sharp divisions over the issue between Democrats and Republicans as well as within his own party.

The Senate Judiciary Committee last week approved a bill that would allow the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country a chance to work here legally and eventually become U.S. citizens. President Bush supports a guest worker plan that would not allow undocumented workers to obtain citizenship but would let them stay in the country as legal residents. Meanwhile the House has already approved legislation written by Republican James Sensenbrenner that has been described as the most repressive immigration bill in 70 years. House bill 4437 would, among other things, make every undocumented immigrant a felon and make it a crime for priests, nuns, health care workers and other social workers to offer help to undocumented immigrants.

The issue of immigration dominated the Sunday talk shows this weekend. Sensenbrenner called the legislation “the toughest thing that I’ve done in 37 years in elective public office.” Senator George Allen of Virginia broke ranks with President Bush saying, “I don’t think we ought to be passing anything that rewards illegal behavior or amnesty.” And South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham cast the debate as “a defining moment for the Republican Party.”

For more on the issue of immigration we speak with two guests:

  • Ron Walters, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park. His most recent book is titled “Freedom is Not Enough.”
  • David Bacon, a veteran labor journalist who writes for a number of publications, including The Nation, The Progressive and the Pacific News Service. He is also a programmer on Pacifica station KPFA in Berkeley. Bacon is author of the books “The Children of NAFTA” and “Communities Without Borders” which is being published later this year.
  • - See website*

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on issue of immigration, we are joined now by Ron Walters, Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. His most recent book is titled Freedom Is Not Enough. He joins us from Washington, D.C. And on the line from California, David Bacon, veteran labor journalist who writes for a number of publications, including The Nation, The Progressive, the Pacific News Service. He is also a programmer at Pacifica station KPFA in Berkeley. David Bacon is author of the book The Children of NAFTA and Communities Without Borders, which is being published later this year. David, let’s begin with you. How do you frame this discussion, and your response to what’s happening now on Capitol Hill?

DAVID BACON: Well, first, the most important thing, I think, are these outpourings of divisions that are taking place around the country with a million people on the streets in Los Angeles, the demonstrations that just happened in New York. They are happening in places where we don’t even think of, the states that don’t have large immigrant communities. Charlotte, North Carolina, for instance, or there was even a demonstration confronting Frist in Tennessee, itself. So, this has become something that’s taking place, you know, nationally around the country.

In the Congress, though, I don’t think that the debate in Congress is really reflecting what’s happening out in the streets, because it is posing two alternatives, neither one of which, I think, offer a reasonable improvement in the lives of undocumented people here or any kind of solution to our immigration problems, if, in fact, you see immigration as a problem, which, I think, is the basic issue underlining the whole debate. Sensenbrenner, as you said, proposes a bill that is probably the most regressive immigration bill in the history of our country, you know, that would turn 12 million people into federal felons.

But the Senate bill is really not that much of an improvement either, because what the Senate proposes to do essentially is to establish huge new guest workers programs that we have experienced — it’s ironic that this is happening around the birthday of Cesar Chavez, because Cesar Chavez was a big opponent of one of the first big guest worker programs in the U.S., the Bracero program. And Cesar said that organizing the United Farm Workers union would not have been possible, so long as that program continued to exist, one of the main reasons he had for opposing it and for ending it.

So, here’s the Senate now proposing to establish a program that would be much larger, and not just for agricultural workers, but for workers in many different industries, and say — and the Senate says that the only way in which somebody who is here without papers can get any kind of legal status is to enroll as somebody in one of these programs. And at the same time, the Senate bill also increases enforcement, as well, by increasing the enforcement of employer sanctions, for instance, which is the law that says that undocumented people are committing a federal crime by working. We’ve had that on the books since 1986. And instead of eliminating that law, the Senate bill proposes to enforce it on steroids, more or less.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Ron Walters, I would like to ask you, Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee has called the immigration issue the civil rights issue of our time, but it’s not necessarily a view that is shared by many of our other fellow members of Congress from the African American Caucus or obviously from a large number of members of the Congress. Your perspective on how especially the African American community is viewing this immigration debate.

RON WALTERS: Well, I’m reminded that tomorrow is the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and that when he was alive, of course, the Civil Rights Movement helped Cesar Chavez to oppose the Bracero program, and has always stuck with the community in terms of coalitions. But when I look at the tremendous mobilizations that are occurring now, I consider that as ridiculous for that reason, to try to criminalize people coming across the border. It is both ridiculous and inhumane. And I think that if he were alive, he would stand against that even today.

But against a backdrop of this mobilization that’s going on, we have not really heard the fact that a thousand African Americans met in Gary, Indiana, at the site of the famous conference that took place in 1972, to talk about the economic status of blacks. We have not heard really that three days ago the Urban League released a State of Black America, and said that blacks’ economic status is only 56% of whites. And then, I’m just coming back from this tremendous march that Reverend Jackson led in New Orleans, where we talked about poverty and racism.

So there are a lot of things happening in the background, which talk about the pain that African Americans are suffering at this moment in history. And I think just to be truthful about it, that what we have now is an immigration approach that is really not comprehensive, because it doesn’t take that aspect into effect. And, of course, what I mean by paying, particularly with respect to low-wage jobs is that there is a very sort of vibrant competition that is unregulated and that it is continuing to push particularly black males out of the labor market.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, but one of the things that I have noticed in the debates and the discussions in the corporate media is that the emphasis has been largely on this guest worker program. And it seems that there is even larger opposition to the question of legalizing the 10 to 12 million immigrants that are already here in the country who are undocumented, when the reality is that it would be the legalization process that would help to drive wages up, because in reality, right now you have 11 to 12 million people living in a situation where they cannot challenge their employers. They have no legal status. They can be completely exploited. Any kind of a process of legalization would allow them to assert labor rights more and, in essence, begin to bring the sort of bottom of labor wages up to some degree.

RON WALTERS: Well, you’re right about that. But that could happen even without undocumented workers. Features of the movement that’s going on right now could take on what happened in the early 1930s in this country, when blacks were coming up into the industrial auto plants in Chicago and Detroit. And the NAACP said that well, you can’t just come up here, because you are going to be used as scabs and strike breakers and lower wages for white workers. So what you have to do is to join the labor movement and to kick up those wages, and that historically is what occurred.

So, what I don’t hear enough, I think, is that aspect of it, from people who already have legal papers, who already sort of know what this movement is about, and I think that is going to help more than anything else. But I think that there is all — another thing here that I think has to be monitored, and that is that I think that people who have been here for four generations have to have some consideration for these low-wage jobs. The process of oppression in this country has created that low-wage labor market for African Americans. And for that privilege, that right for them to have jobs in their own country, not to be protected by any legislation, as far as I’m concerned, does not make this approach comprehensive in the long run.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Ron Walters, Professor of Government and Politics, University of Maryland, College Park; and labor journalist, David Bacon.

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