"The closest thing to modern slavery"

The real beneficiaries of Bush's proposed new immigration laws are not the immigrants, but the corporations that exploit them.

Published February 19, 2004 7:11PM (EST)

President's Bush's much-heralded proposal to overhaul the nation's immigration laws was immediately called a political ploy by critics on all sides. But what was widely seen as blatant pandering to the critical Hispanic constituency, or even to swing voters moved by seeming White House compassion for the immigrant millions in an election year, is in fact something far more cynical.

Yes, the Hispanics are a significant factor in any presidential candidate's calculations. But no less important to Bush are the major American corporations whose profits are dependent on illegal foreign labor and whose contributions make up the record war chests the president and his party carry into the 2004 campaign. The special interests to whom Bush is responding are not the undocumented workers, the immigrants dying in the desert as they attempt to cross an increasingly militarized border, or the millions of illegal immigrants who cannot vote in an American election. The special interests that have influenced the president in this sweeping immigration "reform" are his corporate benefactors and contributors who want cheap, exploitable, non-union laborers who can be returned to their poverty-ridden homeland at the end of a three-year work period.

Ironically, this comes as the Republicans accuse Democratic front-runner John Kerry of being unusually beholden to special interests, surely one of the most egregious cases in political history of the pot calling the kettle black. The Bush campaign recently saturated 6 million recipients with a focused attack, a one-minute video entitled "Unprincipled," charging that Kerry has received "more special interest money than any other senator." The $640,000 figure displayed on the video screen is so paltry compared with the tens of millions of special-interest money pouring into the Bush coffers, as documented by the Center for Public Integrity and other respected monitors, that the charge seems absurd if not grotesque. The farce, though, seems no embarrassment to the Fox News Network and other right-wing outlets that have faithfully parroted it.

Bush's "temporary guest worker" proposal is the most sweeping immigration initiative of its kind since the infamous bracero program that operated in the United States from 1942 to 1964 and served as a veritable migrant slave labor battalion for California agribusiness. But Bush's plan is bracero writ large, as illegal Mexican migrant workers already in the United States have swelled to an estimated 5 million, and they are no longer confined to California's agricultural fields but span the nation. They are laborers and stonemasons, janitors and maids, bricklayers and field hands, miners and garbage collectors, washroom attendants and convenience store clerks, assembly line drones and restaurant busboys, welders and ironworkers, glaziers and heavy equipment operators, meatpackers and fishermen, manicurists and nannies, bakers and car washers, box boys and gardeners, jockeys and mechanics, gravediggers and carpenters. They live in Las Vegas and Omaha, Detroit and Boston, New York and Juneau, Atlanta and Milwaukee, and they send $14 billion a year home to Mexico -- that country's largest source of foreign capital.

Individuals and small businesses employ a small percentage of them, but large American and multinational corporations are by far the dominant employers of undocumented workers, and they are the unmistakable lobbying force behind Bush's program. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney warns that Bush's plan will create "a permanent legal underclass" of low-paid workers.

Those who stand to benefit the most from such a massive labor subsidy are Bush's biggest corporate contributors -- from Wal-Mart to Philip Morris, from Exxon to U.S. Sugar. Bush's plan is being debated on many fronts, but the essence is being missed. It is less the legalization of laborers than the organization and control of the labor supply, less an employee benefit than an employer advantage, less an expansion of workers' rights than a major economic concession to big business. A U.S. Border Patrol chaplain has called it "the closest thing to modern slavery our country has known."

Yet for all the early criticism of his industry-driven proposal, Bush has given a valuable and ironic boost to the immigration dialogue by acknowledging for the first time the dirty little secret known to millions of Americans: There exists an invisible economy in this country, and, as the president himself said, "the system is not working." (U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan has calculated that immigrants contribute $27 billion per year to the U.S. economy -- a sum that Greenspan and others admit is crucial for the solvency of Social Security and other programs.)

Bush, perhaps inadvertently, has shed light on one of the most momentous and consequential migrations in history. Every day and night, seen and unseen, thousands of men, women and children fleeing their homelands strive desperately to cross the 2,000-mile border between Mexico and the United States. Hundreds die trying. Hundreds of thousands are arrested and turned back. But many more complete one of the most contested yet most traveled passages on earth. And as they have for more than a half century, they keep coming, the thousands growing to millions. Even in an age of unprecedented migration around the world, it is the largest single shift of humanity on the planet. The vast movement of people, of promise and hope, has already transformed the economy, society and politics of the United States, and it will alter the country still more widely and deeply in the decades to come, changing America as never before.

Bush has exposed the inherent irony and paradox, the fateful contradiction, of American policy and attitude. In one dimension, the United States is virtually at war with this Mexican wave of people, from a border as bristling as any between hostile powers to the political clamor for exclusion and ever-greater fortification. At the same time, far more quietly but no less decisively, both business and the Bush government ardently tend their vested and constantly growing interest in an uninterrupted, expanding supply of migrant labor.

Characteristically, many Americans want it all. Business wants cheap labor. Consumers want low prices. Politicians want both the corporate contributions that come from supporting and tolerating the hypocrisy as well as the support of the burgeoning Hispanic constituency. But we don't want them in our neighborhoods. We don't want their children crowding our schools. We want them to pay taxes but don't want them taxing our social services. We want their labor but we don't want them to negotiate union contracts. We want to be at liberty to employ them, but we don't want them to enjoy the protection of civil liberties.

While Bush's plan might temporarily put him in a favorable light among some Hispanic voters, which is one of his motives, in the long run it could generate a devastating backlash for the president. As at least some Republicans recognize, the immigration issue opens the still obscure but inherent rift between Bush's xenophobic fundamentalist constituency and his corporate funders.

The clash between those constituencies is a potential coalition-cracking fissure that is already palpable along the U.S.-Mexico border, where vigilantes and anti-immigrationists have issued a call to arms to stem the flow of immigrants. At least one outcome of the Bush immigration ploy is clear: the issue will be around in this campaign, and raging for the next presidency and well beyond.

By Sally Denton

Sally Denton is the author most recently of "American Massacre" and is currently working on "Betrayal at the Border: Profit, Death, and the American Dream."

MORE FROM Sally Denton

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections Immigration Reform Latin America Mexico