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Bush’s plan a rotten tomato for migrant workers

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, February 26, 2004

A hometown friend of mine was mistaken for a migrant worker at the local hospital when he mentioned he had been in North Carolina for the past few months. “Aye Paisanito,”or “little migrant worker,” said the emergency room nurse without a moment’s hesitation while she scribbled in his chart. He laughed, but he wasn’t shocked.

In the border town of Laredo, Texas, the people aren’t supposed to – and often don’t – have the opportunity to go off and have adventures. For many of us, North Carolina means working in the fields because that’s what the many people huddled in the back of the truck next to us are going to do.

So now Bush, with convenient election timing, has called for a major overhaul of U.S. law and plans to give legal status to millions of illegal workers, many of which cross through my city every day and Hispanics are supposed to give him the vote. Not likely; at least not anytime soon. Surprised?

On one hand, the Bush plan to give legal status to illegal workers has its bright side. Many Mexicans attempt to cross the dangerous Rio Grande daily, braving a river teeming with tricky undercurrents, biohazardous waste and multi-tailed fish. If Bush’s plan were to be put into action, many lives would be spared.

The border patrol will be able to rest a little easier without having to deal with the enormous number of people who cross illegally, even though they’ll still have to go through individual documentation of commuters, not to mention the increased traffic congestion at the bridge that will make my highway a living nightmare.

My schoolmate who got caught smuggling illegal migrant workers into the country may also be happy to hear about Bush’s new and “great” idea, as will the maids that work at many of the houses in the neighborhood, even though their employers may not be too thrilled about the extra expense – not that they’d actually pay it.

The foolish man that inserted his foot into his mouth and sat next to me on the plane last summer complaining about Mexican Americans will be pissed.

But I doubt the migrant workers that make up the majority of illegal workers will come any closer to getting the basic respect they deserve.

Firstly, the conditions for these workers won’t necessarily be improved by the Bush plan. The fact that the migrant worker is horribly exploited by cheap labor isn’t exactly groundbreaking news, but people must take into account that this is not the only exploitation that the workers suffer. Even though the Bush plan would ensure minimum wage and fix the cheap labor problem, it wouldn’t change the other ways in which the workers are demeaned.

While the Bush initiative may ensure the workers with minimum wage, they are still readily exploited through a language barrier, lack of education and a make-no-objection mentality that makes the migrant worker the ultimate victim. Under Bush’s plan, the migrant worker must be sponsored by a company – that is, must be claimed as a worker which would give the company just as much bargaining power over the worker. The worker doesn’t really gain any more power as a legitimate employee than an illegitimate one.

Bush’s plan also specifies that workers can apply for guest worker status at a U.S. company only if it is proved that no U.S. citizen is there to take the job. It seems odd to prove something like that and all too easy to manipulate that sort of information. If what Bush is trying to do is put Americans that are worried about their jobs at ease, it doesn’t seem to be working. The unanswered questions just underline the anxiety that many already feel about voting for Bush.

Additionally, legal worker status would only be granted for a period of three years initially. But what happens when this period is up? If after this term the worker must leave and the company must find a replacement, both the worker and the company would lose. Now, for a migrant worker, it would seem more practical to continue in illegal status, avoiding documentation that would make them traceable and force them to leave the country after three years than acquire legal status. Bush hasn’t specified, but there are definite questions that remain.

The bottom line is that Bush would have to make some detailed outlines of his plan before Hispanics and all concerned can feel comfortable voting for him. If Bush really wants the Hispanic vote, the plan must include a more sound way to combat the exploitation of the migrant worker – that and he must change to the Democratic ticket. As of yet, the realization of either of these seems unlikely.

Dolores Diaz is a junior English major and journalism and theology minor. She enjoys thinking. Contact her at ddiaz@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.