June 2011, Week 4


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Thu, 23 Jun 2011 22:15:06 -0400
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Utah's New Immigration Bills: A Blast From the Past

The state laws have been called "the nation's most liberal,"
but they're not much different from Cold War-era deportation

by David Bacon

In These Times - Web Edition

March 18, 2011


Last week the Utah legislature passed three new laws that
have been hailed in the media as a new, more reasonable,
approach to immigration policy. Reasonable, that is,
compared to Arizona's S.B. 1070, which would allow police to
stop anyone, demand immigration papers and hold her or him
for deportation. Utah's law was signed by Republican
Governor Gary Herbert on Tuesday, March 15. Arizona's S.B.
1070 is currently being challenged in court.

Utah's bills were called "the anti-Arizona" by Frank Sharry,
head of America's Voice, a Washington D.C. immigration
lobbying firm. According to Lee Hockstader, on the
Washington Post's editorial staff, the laws are "the
nation's most liberal-and most reality-based-policy on
illegal immigration."

The Utah laws, however, are not new. And they're certainly
not liberal, at least towards immigrants and workers. Labor
supply programs for employers, with deportations and
diminished rights for immigrants, have marked U.S.
immigration policy for more than 100 years.

One bill would establish a state system to allow employers
to bring people from the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon as
"guest workers." Under this program, workers would have to
remain employed to stay in the country. They would not have
the same set of labor and social rights as people living in
the communities around them. Another bill would give
undocumented workers now living in Utah a similar guest
worker status, lasting two years. The National Immigration
Law Center (NILC) says the third bill, the Arizona look-
alike, "requires police to interrogate individuals and
verify their immigration status in a wide array of
situations, promoting harmful and costly incentives for law
enforcement to racially profile."

Utah, like most states in the west and Midwest, has been
down this road before.

From 1930 to 1935, 345,839 Mexicans were deported from the
United States. Last year alone, the federal government
deported almost 400,000. Given the growth in population,
this is about the equivalent of that Depression-era wave.

In those years, "the climate of scathing anti-Mexican
sentiment created intense polarization, producing a sweeping
suspicion of foreigners ... which linked housing congestion,
strained relief services and social ills to the large
presence of Mexicans," recounts Zaragosa Vargas, professor
at the University of North Carolina. Most immigrants in Utah
were farm workers, many laboring in sugar beet fields for
the Mormon-backed Utah and Idaho Sugar Company. Their wages
were so low that families went hungry even when they were
working. When beet workers in nearby Colorado tried to
organize a union and went on strike, Vargas says their
communities were targeted with deportations.

Then W.W. II created a labor shortage. To supply workers to
growers at low wages, the government started the bracero
contract labor program, bringing immigrants first into the
beet fields of Stockton, California, and then into the rest
of the country in 1942.

Braceros were treated as disposable, dirty and cheap.
Herminio Quezada DurĂ¡n, who came to Utah from Chihuahua,
says ranchers often had agreements between each other to
exchange or trade braceros as necessary for work. Jose
Ezequiel Acevedo Perez, who came from Jerez, Zacatecas,
remembers the humiliation of physical exams that treated
Mexicans as louse-ridden.

"We were stripped naked in front of everyone," he remembers,
and sprayed with DDT, now an outlawed pesticide. Men in some
camps were victims of criminals and pimps. Juan Contreras,
from Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, tactfully recalls that "in
Utah, women often went to the camps, and they were rumored
to be especially fond of Mexican men."

Utah and Idaho Sugar first used labor from the Japanese
internment camps in Minidoka, Idaho; Topaz, Utah; and Heart
Mountain, Wyoming. When that wasn't enough, they brought in

At the height of the cold war, in the late 1950s, the
combination of enforcement and contract labor reached a
peak. In 1954, 1,075,168 Mexicans were deported from the
U.S. And from 1956 to 1959, between 432,491 and 445,197
braceros were brought in each year.

The Civil Rights Movement ended the bracero program, and
created an alternative to the deportation regime. Chicano
activists of the 1960s-Ernesto Galarza, Cesar Chavez, Bert
Corona, Dolores Huerta and others-convinced Congress in 1964
to repeal Public Law 78, the law authorizing the bracero
program. Farm workers went on strike the year after in
Delano, California, and the United Farm Workers was born.
They also helped to convince Congress in 1965 to pass
immigration legislation that established new pathways for
legal immigration - the family preference system. People
could reunite their families in the U.S. Migrants received
permanent residency visas, allowing them to live normal
lives, and enjoy basic human and labor rights. Essentially,
a family- and community-oriented system replaced the old
labor supply/deportation program. The new (old) deportation

Today Congress, and now the states, are sliding back into
those cold war ideas. That slide didn't start in Salt Lake
City. For five years Congress has debated, and almost
passed, bills that would have done the same thing - vastly
increased immigration enforcement and set up huge new guest
worker programs. Some undocumented people might have been
able to gain legal status, but most bills would have forced
them into a temporary status, a la Utah.

This combination was defended by Michael Chertoff, secretary
of Homeland Security under President Bush. "There's an
obvious solution to the problem of illegal work," he said,
"which is you open the front door and you shut the back
door." "Opening the front door" refers to guest worker
programs, and "closing the back door" means heavy
immigration enforcement.

The Council on Foreign Relations proposed the same goals
when President Obama took office. "We should reform the
legal immigration system," its 2009 report advocated, "so
that it operates more efficiently, responds more accurately
to labor market needs, and enhances U.S. competitiveness."
At the same time, "we should restore the integrity of
immigration laws through an enforcement regime that strongly
discourages employers and employees from operating outside
that legal system." This again couples labor at competitive,
or low, wages, with an enforcement regime of raids and

Sound like Utah?

Today the number of deportations is rising. Thousands of
undocumented workers are being fired from their jobs as part
of the same enforcement policy. And in California, for
instance, where only one grower historically used the
current H2-A federal guest worker program for farm workers,
dozens are now using it today. What Congress couldn't or
wouldn't pass is becoming the reality on the ground.

Utah's guest worker bill was written by a dairy farmer. "The
root of this discussion is productivity," according to the
bill's sponsor, State Rep. Bill Wright. To this conservative
Republican, no one has a right to a job, immigrant or
native-born. "People think because you're born here ... `I
have a right to that job, I'm going to charge what I want
for my labor even if I'm not productive.' Wrong."

But if those immigrants try to organize and get more
expensive, or are just lazy and don't work, he warns, they
"need to go."

The Utah bills were the product of negotiations, called the
Utah Compact, between the Salt Lake Chamber, a statewide
business group; and the Salt Lake City Police Department and
mayor's office. The Mormon Church of Latter Day Saints and
the Catholic Church signed off on it, as did some local
immigrant advocates. An unconstitutional overreach

One thing, however, that many other anti-immigrant nativists
and immigrant rights advocates agree on, for different
reasons, is that Utah's bills are unconstitutional. Dan
Stein, president of the anti-immigrant Federation for
American Immigration Reform, says, "States do not have the
constitutional authority to write their own immigration
policies." FAIR wants the Federal government to stop almost
all immigration and deport the 12 million undocumented
people living in the United States. It sees the Utah bills
as too weak, although it supports Arizona's SB 1070.

NILC's Marielena Hincapie calls the Utah laws "fundamentally
unconstitutional. Taken together, the laws signify an even
more sweeping state takeover of federal immigration
regulation." NILC supports legislation legalizing
undocumented people, and believes it must pass at a Federal

One prominent Washington D.C. immigration think tank, the
Immigration Policy Center, supported the labor
supply/enforcement/legalization bills of the last few years.
It also criticizes the constitutionality of state
immigration bills, but declares, "Enforcement strategies
must be coupled with reform of our legal system of
immigration in order to meet legitimate labor force needs."

That declaration moves beyond states' rights to set
immigration policy, and restates a vision it believes should
guide immigration reform. But is it an alternative to the
Utah bills?

Some immigration reformers argue for a different system, as
Chicano and Asian activists did in the 1960s, that would
give immigrants a way to come to the U.S with social
equality and rights. Among them are the Binational Front of
Indigenous Organizations in California and Oaxaca, Derechos
Humanos in Tucson, Ariz., the Mississippi Immigrants Rights
Alliance, and the AFL-CIO's constituency group for Latino
workers, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.
They've agreed on the basic principles of what they call the
Dignity Campaign.

People coming to the U.S. would have access to permanent
residence, rather than being forced into guest worker
programs. The current wave of deportations and mass firings
would be halted, while protections for labor and human
rights would be strengthened. To diminish job competition in
an era of high unemployment, the Federal government would
establish programs guaranteeing a job for anyone wanting to
work. And U.S. trade policy in countries like Mexico would
stop promoting unemployment and poverty, which boost
corporate profits but create the pressure for migration.

Utah's laws are no closer to changing U.S. immigration
policy than are these proposals. In reality, political
movement towards immigration reform is deadlocked in
Washington D.C. No legislation in Salt Lake City will change

But that's not really its purpose. Utah legislators want to
popularize an immigration policy that has strong corporate
support and deep historical roots, in one of the most
conservative, Republican statues in the country. And they
are well on the road toward accomplishing that.

[David Bacon is a writer, photographer and former union
organizer. He is the author of Illegal People: How
Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants
(2008), Communities Without Borders (2006), and The Children
of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border (2004). His
website is at dbacon.igc.org ]  


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