The Dallas Morning News
Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Hispanic activists oppose immigration plan because Bush offered it

By RUBEN NAVARRETTE / The Dallas Morning News
 
By now, you've probably heard the following: The only reason that President Bush proposed the most significant change in U.S. immigration policy in two decades is to impress Latino voters this election year.

Not so fast. Mr. Bush had any number of reasons for coming up with his plan, which would among other things legalize millions of undocumented immigrants already here and allow in millions more legally to take jobs that many Americans consider beneath them.

Mr. Bush may have been trying to improve relations with Mexican President Vicente Fox. Or woo the business interests that are forever pleading for the cheap and dependable labor provided by immigrants. Or even have been drawing on his personal experience growing up in West Texas surrounded by hard-working Mexican immigrants.

But even if the cynics are right and Mr. Bush was mainly aiming to impress Latinos, things don't appear to be going according to script. Recent media reports are replete with Hispanic officials expressing reservations about the Bush plan. Of course, many of these officials also have reservations about the Bush presidency.

That is true of the 20-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which has blasted the Bush plan as indentured servitude and a way of keeping immigrants disenfranchised. By the way, many members of the Caucus all of whom are Democrats have already expressed a preference for one Democratic presidential candidates or another.

In a press release dated before the President formally unveiled his plan, Caucus Chair Congressman Ciro Rodriguez, D-Texas, called the Bush proposal to bring in new workers a "modern-day rewrite of the 1940's bracero program."

For Mexican-Americans in the baby boomer generation, those are fighting words. The bracero program, a guest worker program that ran 1942 to 1964, is infamous for the ghastly way in which workers from Mexico were imported into the United States and then exploited once they got here.

The Hispanic Democrats are right about one thing: That dark chapter of history must not be allowed to repeat itself. Once Congress gets its hands on the Bush plan, it has to put in safeguards to ensure that guest workers are completely covered by laws covering minimum wage, workplace safety, workers compensation and enjoy the same protection as any U.S. worker might. The White House probably won't like this next part, but that includes giving guest workers the right to sue employers when their rights are violated.

Even that might not be enough. I still say that the very concept of guest workers is inherently flawed because, by serving up workers on a silver platter, we teach employers not to respect what they have been given. Besides, you can't very well expect employers who accept a labor subsidy to spend the money necessary to make reforms and provide an environment that respects workers' rights. Why, doing that would negate the value of the subsidy.

Still, appearances do matter. If Congress secures the safeguards, it'll send a message that it cares as much about protecting workers as it does securing them. And that will go a long way toward muting the concerns of those partisans whose big problem with the Bush immigration plan is let's face it that Mr. Bush is the one who proposed it.

A more interesting response comes from an unlikely source: the immigrants themselves. Spanish-language media reports are replete with Mexican immigrants who already live in the United States expressing support for the Bush plan. They say it's better than what they have now which is nada and that they're encouraged by the idea of being able to live in this country legally without fear of being deported. They also recognize that, once they come out of the shadow, they'll have more leverage that demand things like fair wages and safe working conditions.

Think about that. Even as Mexican-Americans blast the Bush plan, Mexican immigrants are feverishly praising it. That makes sense. There is a chauvinism that comes with citizenship. Too often, those born in this country whatever their ethnicity never seem to grasp what a precious thing it is to live here legally and to come and go freely. And so while Mexican immigrants have to think about what's best for them, Mexican-Americans have the luxury of criticizing something that won't impact their lives one way or another.

That's the thing with Latinos and politics. They're so worried about getting their best deal that they become their own worst enemy.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is an editorial writer and columnist for The Dallas Morning News. His e-mail address is rnavarrette@dallasnews.com.