Dec. 7, 2005 – For Neftali, coming to the US from Mexico six years ago to be here for his sonâ€™s birth was a harrowing, four-day journey. Twice he crossed the border illegally with the help of smugglers. First, he swam a river on a cold November morning only to be caught by border agents and sent back. Next, he tried at night, running with other hopeful immigrants across a bridge. At one point, a young woman traveling with his group became so exhausted that Neftali and his friend carried her in order to keep their frantic pace.
"It was seven at night when we arrived at [a] forest," he recounted, "and we were walking, walking, walking all night until seven in the morning without jackets in hellishly cold temperatures." Neftali said he and his companions ate whatever they could find and drank water from irrigation ditches, "because there wasnâ€™t anything else." At the end of the ordeal, they paid their smuggler $2,000 each.
Undocumented immigrants like Neftali who risked so much to come to the US are the subject of a raging political debate brought again to the forefront last week by President Bushâ€™s most recent immigration reform proposal. But just as Neftali and millions of others made their trek to the United States undetected, their needs go largely unconsidered by policy makers. Instead, business interests, the desires of American consumers and the fears of US citizen-workers dominate the agenda.
While some anti-immigration groups decried the measure as too soft on immigration, undocumented residents and their advocates say the program is more pro-business than pro-immigrant.
Like Neftali, Francisco and JosÃ© made the arduous journey across the border illegally. They took a desert route that eventually led to higher-paying jobs but cost them years of separation from their parents and other family members.
"There comes a time in life in which one, as a worker, doesnâ€™t have another option," Francisco told The NewStandard, explaining that he could no longer make a living as a farmer in Mexico.
When JosÃ© arrived twelve years ago, he wanted to leave poverty behind and help his parents live better. His father worked in agriculture, but even with JosÃ© and his nine siblings helping in the fields, the earnings were not enough to sustain his loved ones.
"We were from the lowest [economic] level," JosÃ© explained. His family lived in a house made of cardboard and sticks and one of JosÃ©â€™s goals in the US was to earn enough money to build a concrete house for his parents.
These days, JosÃ© dreams of returning to Mexico and opening his own business. But he wants to wait until his daughter finishes school, in case she decides to stay behind in the US, her native country.
JosÃ©, Francisco and Neftali are just three of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States â€“ people whose lives and families may be irrevocably altered by Bushâ€™s recently announced immigration reforms.
"America has always been a compassionate nation that values the newcomer and takes great pride in our immigrant heritage," Bush stated in a November 28 speech at the Davis-Montham Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. "Yet weâ€™re also a nation built on the rule of law, and those who enter the country illegally violate the law."
For those undocumented workers already living inside the United States, JosÃ© believes a temporary work program would be a mixed blessing.
Bush went on to outline what he called a "comprehensive strategy." It includes immediate removal of undocumented immigrants caught within 100 miles of the Southwest border; an expansion of immigration detention facilities; the hiring of 1,000 additional Border Patrol agents; an investment of more than $200 million to upgrade detection technology and build new border barriers; an increase in resources to arrest undocumented workers and punish companies that hire them; and the expansion of an automated system that allows businesses to screen immigrants for work eligibility.
The plan also includes the creation of a program to allow more non-citizens temporary status as "guest workers" and an increase in the number of green cards that can lead to citizenship each year. The president has provided few details about how the guest-worker program would be structured and the White House refused a request from TNS for an interview.
While some anti-immigration groups decried the measure as too soft on immigration, undocumented residents and their advocates say the program is more pro-business than pro-immigrant. They fear the temporary visas would make it easier for employers to hire low-wage workers while leaving in place the systemic barriers that already prevent undocumented employees from pushing for their rights.
"With a program like that, itâ€™s only going to tie the hands of the worker," Francisco predicted. "Basically, one arrives forced to work with a sole employer. And if the employer treats someone badly, that person has to put up with it."
Neftali, whose wife and three children legally reside in the United States, lives in constant fear of deportation.
Michele Waslin with the Hispanic advocacy organization National Council of La Raza reflected Franciscoâ€™s concerns. "We donâ€™t want to set up a system that encourages abuses," she said, "so we need to make sure that employers are paying decent wages and abiding by wage and hour laws."
Waslin added: "Immigrant workers have to have the opportunity to organize, to come forward and complain, to lodge a complaint or sue if the contract is not being met. We think that workers should also have the opportunity to stay here permanently if the job becomes permanent."
But in spite of concerns over worker treatment, the opportunity to work in the US legally is tempting to some. Jaime GonzÃ¡lez, an art teacher living in Jalisco, Mexico, said he would consider enrolling in the program. "In six years, you can make a good amount of money," he said. "And then you can return to your country and start something new."
But JosÃ© worries that it may not be so easy for people who want to participate in the temporary worker program to even enroll if Bushâ€™s proposal becomes reality. He believes the guest worker program may only serve people from Mexicoâ€™s middle class and not those who are most desperate.
"If a poor person goes to request [a temporary work permit], the first thing they will do is ask for many requisites that the poor person will never have," he predicted, based on what US immigration authorities already ask of Mexicans seeking to visit this country legally. "What are they going to ask for? A bank account or any property in case the person doesnâ€™t return. They are not going to give anything to the person who doesnâ€™t have anything."
For those undocumented workers already living inside the United States, JosÃ© believes a temporary work program would be a mixed blessing. "When they give us that amnesty, they give us wings with which to fly because right now we canâ€™t walk around freely," he said. "On one hand, it would benefit us and on the other hand, it wouldnâ€™t because it is temporary work that they are giving us, and we donâ€™t know if they are going to renew the visa."
Bush has been careful to stress that his proposal does not include "amnesty" for people living in the US illegally, so it is unclear whether the program would be available to immigrants already residing in the country without papers.
The White House proposal also leaves out a solution for families separated by borders. Family reunification has been a key demand from immigrant rights groups seeking reform.
Neftali, whose wife and three children legally reside in the United States, lives in constant fear of deportation. "I think that itâ€™s the only fear I have," he said. "I get up every day and I have it on my mind. Itâ€™s like my shadow; itâ€™s always there." He and his wife now own a car and have just purchased a house, so Neftali considers his family "well established." But, he said, "suppose a massive deportation does occur and they come to take me away? It is a fear that I canâ€™t put into words. What would she do? What would she do with the kids?"
Isabel GarcÃa, co-chair of the Arizona-based rights group Derechos Humanos, indicated that Netaliâ€™s family situation is hardly unique. "I have seen families with US citizens literally deported â€“ deported because the US citizen children move with their [undocumented] parents. You either break up the family or the family has to be deported."
Lucas BenÃtez, staff member with the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers, pointed to the irony of the Bush immigration policy when compared with the Republican Partyâ€™s stance on family values. "If the Republicans really think so much about family values, they are contradicting themselves because they are not respecting or carrying out their value of having a united family," he said.
For his part, Neftali comforts himself with the thought that a massive deportation is unlikely. "I donâ€™t think that it suits the government and the companies here to get rid of us," he said. "It is something that they have to think about very carefully if they are going to do it because a lot would be lost: a lot of money, a lot of production."
This is why many immigrant advocacy groups think President Bushâ€™s workplace enforcement strategy will not be successful in curtailing employment of undocumented immigrants.
"I donâ€™t think [businesses] are going to be made frightened by some hard-hitting speeches that the president makes in Arizona because theyâ€™ve been able to get away with this for nearly 20 years and little is likely to change that," said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, which stands up for undocumented immigrants and refugees.
Immigration opponents also found much to criticize about Bushâ€™s proposals. Jack Martin, special projects director for the Washington, DC-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks to stem illegal immigration and limit the amount of legal immigration, said his group found "little new" in Bushâ€™s latest proposals "except for a new thin veneer of immigration law enforcement added on."
Martinâ€™s group is advocating a mandatory system for employers to verify new workersâ€™ legal status. Such a system is available now as a voluntary program, but Martin said the government should require it "so that all employers are competing on an even playing field."
According to a fact sheet provided to The NewStandard by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement in lieu of an interview, the Department of Homeland Security "will implement an employer self-compliance program that will link government and business in a united effort to reduce the employment of unauthorized aliens in specific industries. The partnership will assemble a â€˜best practicesâ€™ methodology that employers will use to minimize certain known vulnerabilities in the legally required employment eligibility verification process."
BenÃtez, however, does not feel that these workplace enforcement policies will do much to change the situation. "In the workplace, the thing that interests many employers is how much a person can produce," he said. "And the thing that least interests them is the legal status of that person."
And as workers interviewed for this story noted, the same powerful people who mistreat immigrants also live off their labor. "We put food on the table for this countryâ€™s people," Francisco said. "I think that is something that the government should take into consideration â€“ and based on that, respect and ensure the rights of each worker that is producing for this country.".
Francisco believes US immigration policy should guarantee all undocumented workers a fair wage and the opportunity to gain legal status â€“ rights that are not included in Bushâ€™s current proposal.
"It is very sad that Congress and President Bush himself are making those proposals that do not solve the huge immigration problem," said JosÃ© Sandoval, coordinator for Voluntarios de la Comunidad, a California-based social justice group.
His organization believes that there are better alternatives to President Bushâ€™s proposed policies, such as The Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act that would allow undocumented workers access to legal status.
When it comes to aiding specific groups of undocumented immigrants, Sandoval favors the Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act and the Agricultural Jobs, Opportunity, Benefits, and Security (AgJOBS) Act. The DREAM Act would help undocumented youth go on to college and allow these students to obtain legal residency, while the AgJOBS Act would give farm workers temporary legal status and provide them with a way to secure permanent residency.
For Arnoldo GarcÃa of the California-based National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the solution to problems that many Americans attribute to undocumented immigration lies much deeper than changing US immigration laws. To him, changing US foreign policy toward countries from which migrants flee is key.
"There is no way that border militarization and the federal program in general, or any type of guest-worker program, is going to actually solve the problem," noted GarcÃa. "And whatâ€™s the problem? The problem is that we are displacing and destabilizing other communities, other countries, and in some cases, some of those people that are displaced end up in international migration."
According to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a progressive think tank, manufacturing wages in Mexico after implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement declined by 20 percent and NAFTA was pushed by business interests and policy makers on both sides of the border but broadly opposed by labor groups.
As of 2004, the Mexican economy was producing jobs at only half the rate needed to sustain the growing pool of available labor. Additionally, the countryâ€™s agriculture sector has been eviscerated by import-induced price plummets and the retraction of farm subsidies.
"Immigration is never going to stop â€“ never, never," JosÃ© said. "People will always be immigrating to this country because in Latin American countries, like in other countries, there are poor people looking for a future. We are looking for a future, each one of us."