[Stop-traffic] News/US: Hopes, hazards are seen in guest-worker proposal

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Subject: [Stop-traffic] News/US: Hopes, hazards are seen in guest-worker proposal
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Mon Jan 29 2001 - 09:54:11 EST

Hopes, hazards are seen in guest-worker proposal
By Dane Schiller
The San Antonio Express-News, January 21, 2001

Pot scrubbers, gardeners and cooks who form the underground of undocumented
immigrants are wondering if their opportunities soon will improve thanks to
unlikely allies.

Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, and several other lawmakers are touting a plan
for a guest-worker program that would permit thousands of Mexican
blue-collar workers to temporarily work in the United States.

"We currently have a program that is an embarrassment to both countries,
and we can fix it," Gramm said.

It is time to deal with the reality that millions of undocumented
immigrants live in the United States and that the economy is dependent on
them, he said.

Many details need to be worked out, but the proposal will be taken up
informally at a meeting in Washington this week, said Gramm, who sponsored
legislation in 1995 that led to the U.S. Border Patrol doubling in size to
10,000 agents.

Mexican President Vicente Fox, who met with Gramm and other senators this
month, also is calling for more opportunities for his countrymen working in
the United States.

Gramm, like Fox, says the United States would benefit by having more
workers. And Mexico would benefit from workers sending money home.

Some critics caution that while such a program could help undocumented
immigrants, it could create a second-class caste in the United States and
set up Mexico for an economic depression.

There also are questions about how such a plan would be carried out, which
industries could participate, who would make sure legal wages are being
paid and whether working conditions were up to par.

On the streets of San Antonio, there is support for the program, especially
from those who make a living despite the fear of being caught by the Border

"Everyone would want this," said Pedro Zamora, who as an undocumented
immigrant built homes and worked area ranches for 16 years.

Now a legal resident, Zamora recalls long days driving a tractor near
Uvalde and getting paid half as much as legal workers.

Zamora, 43, whose leathery hands tell the story of his life, conceded that
undocumented immigrants will work in the United States regardless of
whether the program is passed.

"The people will still come, but it would be better," he said.

Frances, who lives in Alamo Heights and spoke on the condition that her
last name not be published, said a guest-worker program would address reality.

"I have a yard man, and he has lived here for 20 years," said Frances, who
also has employed undocumented immigrants as housekeepers. "He is willing
to do work other people won't do."

No one knows how many undocumented immigrants are in this country, but some
estimates are as high as 5 million.

Gramm said it is time to change a system under which the United States
benefits from undocumented immigrant labor while "winking at the law, which
prohibits their presence."

"We have got a lot of people interested in this issue and believe the time
has come to stop sweeping this under the rug," Gramm said. "We have
millions of people working in this country illegally right now, and that is
a reality."

Guest workers won't take jobs away from U.S. citizens because they often do
work nobody else will touch, he said.

The proposal includes issuing workers renewable one-year permits that would
entitle them to the same wage and hour protection as all U.S. workers,
Gramm said.

Although he wouldn't estimate how many people could participate in the
program, he said their ranks should be tied to the health of the U.S.
economy. When unemployment is low, more permits would be issued.

Gramm said the program could enlist a host of employees, including
restaurant workers, farm workers, maids and nannies.

While the program would make it easier for employers to hire immigrants, it
also should stiffen the penalties for hiring illegal workers, he said.

But it is far too early to tell if the program would help or hurt Mexico's
"invisible" people in the United States, contends Jorge Gonzalez, a Trinity
University economist born in Mexico.

The difficulty is that the U.S. and Mexican economies are so linked, he
said. If the United States were going through a recession and decided not
to renew many thousands of work permits, Mexico could be pounded into a

"For the Mexican economy, it is dangerous," Gonzalez said, cautioning that
the key will be ensuring that work permits are easily and regularly renewed.

Still, he said the program could make life better for many people.

"I don't like having 2 to 5 million people working here, receiving very
little money and always being afraid they'll be kicked out of the country,"
he said.

In a West Side restaurant, a young waitress often smiles while serving
Tex-Mex cuisine but said life was tough.

"We work seven days a week," said the woman, who arrived in San Antonio as
an undocumented immigrant three months ago. "It is not easy."

A man who left Monterrey, Mexico, to open a small restaurant here said he
would welcome a guest-worker program because it is difficult to find people
willing to work hard for low wages.

Cecilia Munoz, vice president for the National Council of La Raza, said she
would like to know more about how guest workers would be treated.

She said she doubted it would do much good for immigrants if they weren't
given the opportunity to live here permanently.

"The question is: Are we going to treat these people decently or not?" she

She said agricultural programs have shown that guest workers are subjected
to low wages and harsh work.

Dimitri Papademetrious, co-director of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in
Washington, said guest-worker programs are always a challenge.

"If you don't handle them with care, they can become a mess," he said.

He said the Bracero Program, which took in more than 300,000 workers from
Mexico in the 1950s and '60s, was poorly handled and attacked from all sides.

Problems included the morality of the program, whether contracts were
honored and how employers treated workers.

San Antonio immigration attorney Justine Daly said she has questions about
Gramm's motives and said she hopes any plan would help small businesses and
provide an opportunity for workers to reside here.

"I'm concerned because Phil Gramm has traditionally not been a big
supporter of immigrant rights. What's up?" she said.

She, too, said that undocumented immigrants are filling vital niches in the

"If the INS ever decided to make a sweep through Alamo Heights, it would be
like the world stopped," she said. "No one would get fed, diapers wouldn't
get changed, the yards wouldn't get cut."

Rose Panuelez, a San Antonio resident whose grandparents came from Mexico,
said a guest-worker program would be humane and make sense.

"Some of them are willing to do anything to make a living," she said. "They
are humans. They need to make a life."

Melanie Orhant

Stop-Traffic Moderator

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