San Diego Union-Tribune

August 12, 2001


New immigration plan raises new issues
    US Mexican strategy goes beyond amnesty, guest-worker program


WASHINGTON -- U.S. and Mexican negotiators are steering away from the traditional notion of either an amnesty or guest-worker program as they work to draft a new approach to managing immigration.

They've come up with a concept called "phased-in access to earned regularization" to achieve the goals of both an amnesty and a guest-worker program without relying on either, according to sources close to the talks.

Under the plan, a portion of the undocumented population living in the United States would get visas and work permits good for several years. If the visa holders continued to do designated jobs during that time, they could be eligible for green cards and, eventually, citizenship.

For now, only workers in the service industry are being considered, such as hotel and restaurant employees. Agriculture is excluded, sources said. Other industries, including meatpacking, are seeking inclusion.

While the conceptual framework is clear, many questions remain:

How many of the nation's estimated 6 million to 9 million undocumented immigrants would be eligible?

Talk currently centers on 3 million.

Would the program be open to undocumented emigrants from countries other than Mexico?

President Bush has said he would consider it.

How soon could workers get green cards?

A key option calls for a three-year visa that could be renewed once, for a total of six years. Then the worker would be eligible for a green card.

What kind of work requirements would they face?

Complex schemes are being discussed calling for immigrants to work a minimum number of days each year in a certain type of job, with that number changing from year to year. The idea is to keep them from moving to more desirable jobs once they get their visas and work permits, an effort to address employers' concerns about losing them.

What industries would be involved?

Now it's just the service sector. Negotiators are haggling over what constitutes that sector, and how they end up defining it will determine which employers are eligible.

What about worker protections?

The negotiating group is almost certain to recommend that workers be allowed to move from one job to another, although it is unclear what else might be done.

What about the legal status of a worker's family?

Negotiators are grappling with a proposal to exempt Mexico from the 25,620-people-a-year ceiling on legal emigration from any country. That would sharply increase legal emigration from Mexico, but would not immediately help families of workers in the program.

Negotiators face other tough questions:

Can the already-overwhelmed Immigration and Naturalization Service handle a massive, new regulatory scheme?

What can be done to curtail continuing illegal immigration?

How can the massive fraud and lawsuits that marred the last major effort to give legal status to undocumented immigrants in 1986 be avoided?

"It's tough to refashion immigration policy as we know it," said Frank Sharry, director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration organization. "It's a set of tough policy questions and a huge political challenge."

Public awareness of the talks has increased in recent weeks, but advocates have been advancing the agenda since last year.

A coalition of pro-immigration forces and business interests has provided the main impetus, including a group that calls itself the Essential Workers Immigration Coalition. Its membership includes the National Restaurant Association, American Hotel and Lodging Association and Building Service Contractors Association International.

Labor unions have joined the movement to legalize undocumented workers, but are resisting the guest-worker push.

The agriculture industry, acting more quickly than the service industry, negotiated a separate deal in Congress last year that was based on the same model, offering farm workers an eventual shot at green cards if they performed a certain amount of farm labor over several years.

The deal eventually blew up. One reason the agriculture industry is being excluded from the current talks is to pressure it to abide by the terms of the deal it struck with the United Farm Workers last year, according to sources close to the talks.

Also last year, a group of U.S. and Mexican immigration policy advocates, including Sharry, drew up a manifesto for President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox just before their meeting in February.

Jorge Castaņeda was part of the group that wrote the manifesto. Fox later named him foreign minister, and the group's report has become the blueprint for the current U.S.-Mexican talks, with Castaņeda playing a central role as foreign minister.

The cornerstone of the report is what the group called a new immigration agenda for the two countries based on a "grand bargain." The bargain, as they outlined it, includes giving legal status to undocumented Mexicans living in the United States, providing a greater number of future visas for Mexicans who want to come to the United States, and a cooperative effort at cracking down on immigrant-smuggling operations at the border.

The concept got added attention this year after its backers portrayed it as a way to decrease the number of border-area deaths. That came in the wake of the deaths of 14 immigrants in Arizona in May.

News of a looming immigration agreement burst onto the front pages when portions of a working document were leaked to The New York Times last month. Since then, the administration has been trying to tamp down expectations.

"Frankly, I think the story got out in front of them," Sharry said.

Linking amnesty with a guest-worker program pulls together two forces in the immigration debate. Amnesty is favored by pro-immigration forces and guest-worker programs are backed by business groups, but they are very difficult to pass in their pure form.

But the hybrid also unravels easily over details.

Congress isn't expected to act until next year, which is an election year. It's unclear how the intensified partisanship of an election year will affect a bill's prospects.

As the working group bogs down over details of the new approach, skepticism abounds.

"They're trying to satisfy many different goals here," said Philip Martin, an agricultural economist at the University of California Davis. "They're trying to get workers for the employers, legal status for the workers, and at the same time bring them out of the shadows of indenture.

"It's going to be awfully hard to satisfy all of those goals simultaneously."

Timing is an additional problem.

Susan Martin, director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, noted that this comes at a time when the service sector is slumping.

"It's entirely likely that we'll put in place an expanded guest-worker program just when we don't need it," she said.