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Guest Worker Programs: An Intersection of Immigration and the Dignity of Labor

July 19, 2006, 4:00 pm | Posted by FPL

On Wednesday, July 19, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing to discuss a public policy that intersects two issues important to people of faith. Guest worker programs implicate both immigration and the dignity of labor. Programs already in existence add 1,400,000 legal guest workers to the U.S. labor force. Many believe that an expansion of these programs is not only ethical but necessary to just immigration reform.

For more on immigration and labor beyond this blog entry, check out Faith in Public Life’s Resource Pages on Immigration and Just Wages. Also available in our Media Speakers Bureau are relevant faith leaders able to comment on immigration and labor issues.

Rep. “Buck” McKeon (R-CA), Chair of the Committee, called the hearing one of many Republican-called hearings to openly reconcile differences between the House-passed immigration reform bill and its counterpart from the Senate, which McKeon identified as the “Reid-Kennedy Bill”. Rep. Robert Andrews (D-NJ) pointed out that the House bill lacked any mention of guest workers and the Senate bill — which he asserted would be better identified as the “Bush-McCain-Reid-Kennedy Bill” because of its bipartisan support — did contain an expansion of guest worker programs.

Since Republican leadership has ceded that a reform bill is unlikely to be passed before November, it is hard to believe that these hearings are an effort to constructively reconcile the two bills. They came off as more of a partisan side-show staged to divide the electorate on a wedge issue before midterm elections.

The hearing included testimony from Elizabeth Dickson on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Luawanna Hallstrom of Harry Singh and Sons, one of America’s largest tomato producers. Both affirmed the necessity of immigrant workers in the American economy. Ms. Hallstrom stated that despite heavy recruitment to American-born workers, her company was unable to attract enough and has no choice but to hire guest workers. Labor shortages in several other sectors and industries are predicted.

Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the committee’s senior ranking Democrat, shared his own concerns about the effect of guest workers on the livelihood of middle and lower class Americans. Economics would predict that increasing the number of industrial and agricultural workers would lower the wage for American workers, many of whom are already receiving sub-poverty wages.

Miller’s apprehension is understandable considering the increasing gap between the rich and poor in America, but it was addressed by Rebecca Smith of the National Employment Law Project and Immigrant Worker Project. While in support of expanded guest worker programs, she contended that such expansions must be coupled with stronger enforcement of labor protections, which have ebbed over the past 30 years. More federal investigators and higher penalties to violators are needed to discourage the use of intimidation tactics to prevent unionization, incorrect classification of workers as independent contractors who receive less benefits, and other forms of exploitation. According to Ms. Smith, the dignity of guest workers will be best protected if the dignity of all workers are protected.

A minimum wage for American and foreign-born workers above $5.15 an hour wouldn’t hurt either.

The Book of Deuteronomy states, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land’” (15:11) As Rep. McKeon pointed out during his own statement, people are hiding themselves in automobile gas tanks to come to America. They come out of desperation from their current bleak situation in hope of something better. If we focus solely on border enforcement and close our hands, these people will only continue to find new and far more dangerous means to come to America.

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