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Congress is locked in an increasingly bitter dispute over immigration, focused on “criminalizing” the illegal presence of aliens in the United States versus allowing their eventual citizenship through “amnesty.” Establishment of a greatly expanded “guest worker” program has garnered less attention. According to opinion polls, it is favored by most Americans, as well as the White House, the agricultural and business communities and, rather surprisingly, several large international unions, but not the AFL-CIO. Guest workers. It is such a benign, almost gentle term. Here’s another way to look at it. There has been sharp criticism over the loss of American jobs to the “maquiladoras”-low-paying sweatshops-in Mexico and beyond. The proposed “guest worker” program will simply bring the maquiladora here. It is also not a new idea. Beginning in the 1850s-before the Chinese Exclusion Act-200,000 Chinese were legally brought here as guests to cultivate California’s fields. Japanese, Sikhs, Filipinos and especially Mexicans soon followed. Intervention by the Mexican government in the 1920s over their exploitation brought legal reforms. No worker would be allowed to enter the United States without a contract signed by an immigration officer establishing the pay, work schedule and place of employment. Workers without such documents were fugitives, the U.S. border patrol was established and the “illegal alien” was born. Through 1964, some 4 million Mexican workers were legally brought to the United States-more than the number of slaves here during the Civil War. They were often under the brutal thumb of the grower. Child labor, unsanitary working conditions and nonpayment of subsistence wages were commonplace. In the 1940s, some 400,000 “braceros” replaced American men who had gone to fight in World War II. Their return, mechanization in the fields and exposure of wholesale human rights violations combined to bring an end to the program in 1964. However, during their stay, 10% of the braceros’ pay was deducted by their employers to be repaid by Mexican government banks upon returning home. Few were ever paid. Proposed legislation demanding repayment has floundered. A San Francisco federal court has allowed litigation to move forward, and Mexico has created a program to repay some of the aging braceros. More than 30,000 guest workers are currently on American soil-in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). Brought there as bonded labor primarily from China, these guests, the U.S. Department of Interior found in a 1998 report, were victims of “fraudulent recruitment practices, substandard living conditions, . . . health problems and unprovoked acts of violence.” A recent settlement of a human rights class action brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act and RICO eliminated the worst forms of abuse (such as “shadow contracts” shackling workers with up to $7,000 in “recruitment fees” to factory owners). Doe v. The Gap, No. CV-01-0031 (D. N. Mar. I.) They remain grossly underpaid and can be summarily deported. Attempts to amend the federal minimum wage and immigration laws to apply in the CNMI have been consistently blocked by the Republican-controlled Congress, most effectively through the efforts of felon Jack Abramoff and indicted former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. It is against this backdrop that the pending guest-worker bill-sanctioning 400,000 new guests to pick our food-must be judged. Several needed measures Immigration, legal or illegal, does not occur in a vacuum. Migrations throughout the world occur in response to the global economy. Any serious discussion of American immigration “reform” needs to start with first principles, addressing the need for a sharp increase in the minimum wage, wallowing for nine years at a paltry $5.15 an hour; labor law reform, making meaningful the right of recent immigrants to join a union and bargain collectively; access to education for immigrant children as the best means of preventing a permanent underclass; access to the courts to prevent abuses of the past such as violations of human rights; and tough new enforcement measures against labor contractors and employers who violate the law. The leadership of this Congress will have none of that. They favor a society run by the powerful, oblivious to the dispossessed, requiring few if any regulatory controls. They are comfortable with a permanent underclass. We should not be. Other societies have tried that approach, with dire consequences. At bottom, the immigration dispute reflects even broader issues, essentially two visions of the American Dream. One is based on notions of community and social justice. The other is based on deregulation and neglect, as most recently on display post-Katrina. The promise of America is to provide the blessings of liberty for all within our borders. How to fulfill that promise should be the cornerstone of this debate-whether for “guests,” the undocumented or American citizens. It is a debate that will not be resolved in a House-Senate conference committee over immigration legislation. Instead, the next round is scheduled for November. Al Meyerhoff, of counsel to the Los Angeles office of Lerach Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins, is a civil rights attorney whose past clients have included farmworkers, immigrants and, most recently, 30,000 “guest workers” in the Mariana Islands.

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