AFL-CIO chief criticizes guest worker programs for immigrants
WASHINGTON – The nation’s largest labor organization on Tuesday criticized plans to expand guest worker programs for immigrants seeking to come to the United States, parting company with longtime Senate Democratic allies who pushed successfully to include them in broad-based immigration legislation.”Guest worker programs are a bad idea and harm all workers,” AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said in a statement released the day after the Senate Judiciary Committee cleared an immigration bill. “They cast workers into a perennial second-class status, and unfairly put their fates into their employers’ hands.”Sweeney’s statement praised numerous provisions of the overall immigration legislation, particularly a part that gives illegal aliens an opportunity to apply for citizenship. Still, his criticism underscored the unusual political pressures at work as President Bush and Congress grapple with an emotional issue in the run-up to midterm elections.Republicans have long appeared divided over the immigration issue, with Bush and some GOP members of Congress supporting temporary worker programs that other Republicans attack as amnesty for lawbreakers.On the other hand, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., a longtime liberal, was the target of good-natured jokes during the committee meeting for his work with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on the immigration measure. And while Sweeney criticized the temporary worker program, the Service Employees International Union issued a statement supporting the Judiciary Committee measure.The legislation, to be debated on the Senate floor beginning Wednesday, includes two provisions that together could create room for nearly 2 million temporary workers.One is a five-year temporary program for up to 1.5 million agricultural workers advanced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Immigrants living in the U.S. illegally as well as those outside the country would be eligible.The other, backed by Kennedy, would create a new temporary visa to allow as many as 400,000 foreign workers into the country.In both cases, individuals would have an opportunity to apply for citizenship after several years.All eight Democrats on the Judiciary Committee supported both guest worker provisions on Monday, and all of them frequently work in concert with organized labor.Feinstein said during the committee meeting that the agriculture industry was “almost entirely dependent on undocumented workers,” a reference to individuals in the country illegally. She described her proposal as an attempt to assure a legal workforce. “The people are here. They’re going to work regardless,” she said of thousands of illegal immigrants who pick crops.Kennedy, arguably labor’s strongest voice in Congress, noted that the proposal “has the support of agribusiness and farm workers.” Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, another longtime ally of labor, said he, too, was satisfied with the program, noting that it had provisions that would help his state’s dairy industry. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York added that he had no difficulty with the provision, either, as long as there were no problems associated with farms in his state. The New York Democrat is chairman of the party’s senatorial committee, which relies on labor’s support.Sweeney saw things differently.”Guest worker programs “encourage employers to turn good jobs into temporary jobs at reduced wages and diminished working conditions and contribute to the growing class of workers laboring in poverty,” he said.Sweeney issued his statement as White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters that Bush wants a temporary worker program included in any immigration measure that clears Congress. “Because what a temporary worker program would do is help relieve pressure on the border. It will allow our law enforcement officials and Border Patrol agents to focus on those who are coming here for the wrong reasons, the criminals and the drug dealers and the terrorists,” he said.The House has yet to pass legislation dealing with immigration issues involving workers, although it has approved a bill that calls for building a fence along 700 miles of the border with Mexico.Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, who voted to approve the fence project, indicated he may change his mind based on a recent trip to the Southwest. He told reporters he had met with farmers as well as law enforcement officials and “no one in the room thought the wall would work, because if you build the wall, then you have to police the wall.”He added: “If the people on the border don’t believe the wall will have the effect that people here think, then we ought to reconsider it.”Vail, Colorado
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