Bush's immigration plan under fire

Labor groups say changes benefit only employers

January 09, 2004|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

Local labor and immigrant advocacy groups in Baltimore yesterday sharply criticized President Bush's proposed changes in U.S. immigration law, saying the reform benefits only employers and could create more problems for immigrant workers.

They argued that the proposed changes, which would allow immigrant workers to work and live in the United States legally for a limited time, would leave workers too afraid to complain about unfair labor practices for fear of losing their jobs - and being deported.

"They're going to be stuck in jobs that are abusive and unlawful. Jobs that don't incorporate appropriate protection equipment against workplace industry, jobs that don't pay overtime even when workers are working overtime hours," said Kim Propeack, director of the advocacy department for CASA of Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group with offices in Baltimore.

Under the proposed changes, announced by President Bush Wednesday, workers who come to the United States or are working here illegally would be able to legally work for up to three years in jobs that no Americans can be found to fill. The three-year work period could be renewed, but would eventually end and workers would have to return to their home countries.

The changes could potentially affect thousands of Maryland's growing number of immigrant workers. Propeack said there are between 100,000 and 200,000 undocumented workers in Maryland. Between 6,000 and 10,000 of them are living in Baltimore, she said.

The groups that represent those workers say many are earning below minimum wage or being forced to work extra hours without overtime pay. The administration's reforms, they say, would create an environment that would set the stage for even more of those violations because workers' green cards would be tied to their jobs so they would be afraid to complain about such problems.

They say the proposal maintains the dynamic of the low-wage labor market, while giving employers a "captive work force."

"It's an incredibly unjust imbalance of power, and it would, I think, lead to tremendous abuses, maybe even more than we see now, where undocumented workers are being abused by employees," said Roxie Herbekian, head of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 7 in Baltimore.

Herbekian said the proposal is a "recipe for incredible exploitation of workers" and called it an extension of the Bracero program, a controversial program in the 1940s and 1950's that allowed Mexican farm workers across the border temporarily to do seasonal work on U.S. farms.

Employers benefit more than workers under the proposed changes, agreed Larry Rubin, communications director for the Service Employees International Union District 1199E-DC, which represents health care workers in Maryland and Washington.

"Although it does give the workers some protection, it goes nowhere near guaranteeing decent benefits and wages or a decent life. In fact, it could do just the opposite. We are against discriminating against workers based on do they have a green card or not," Rubin said.

Not all were as critical. Elizabeth "Beery" Adams, Baltimore's immigrant support and outreach coordinator with the mayor's office of community investment, said that, while the proposal is still vague, if it is followed by concrete action it would be a step in the right direction.

The proposed changes could benefit Maryland's employers, said Richard Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore. In areas where there are worker shortages, such as construction and agriculture, the changes would make it easier for companies to fill jobs with immigrant workers.

But for Maryland natives, despite the fact that the proposal is aimed at hard to fill jobs, the changes could mean more competition for local jobs, Clinch said.

"For lower-skilled city residents, it's a negative," Clinch said.

But many of Baltimore's low-skill jobs are hard to fill, said Kevin Griffin Moreno, communications director for the Job Opportunities Task Force in Baltimore, a work force advocacy organization. The proposed changes, he said, are an improvement from the current situation that exploits illegal immigrants, but the devil will be in the details.

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