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Post-Katrina easing of labor laws stirs debate

Foreign workers may form a big part of Gulf Coast reconstruction.

By Monica CampbellCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 4, 2005


Mario Pérez, muscular and 16 years old, is a budding carpenter. Next to him is Samuel Sánchez, 32, an experienced roofer. Fed up with earning $4 a day in Mexico, they recently arrived at this tiny town on the Mexican-New Mexican border to start the two-day walk to the US.

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They talked about where they would go. "Probably Texas," said Mr. Sánchez. "What about New Orleans?" suggested Mr. Pérez.

In the wake of hurricane Katrina, recent moves by the US government may help would-be migrants like Sánchez and Pérez decide where to go. And decisions in Washington are reigniting the immigration debate.

At a time when Latino immigrants are expected to form a big part of the Gulf Coast reconstruction labor pool, the Department of Homeland Security has temporarily suspended sanctioning employers who hire workers unable to prove their citizenship, essentially allowing contractors to hire undocumented workers.

That move followed President Bush's Sept. 8 decision to lift in Katrina-hit areas the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act, which requires federal contractors to pay at least the average regional wage. Bush says it will hasten one of the world's largest reconstruction efforts.

The post-Katrina changes are stirring the immigration debate, especially between the US and Mexico, which have been talking about the need for changes in immigration policy for years.

Jorge Bustamante, a leading expert on Mexican migration, says the government's temporary provisions only cement the inferior status of undocumented workers.

"Katrina is producing a large demand for undocumented workers," says Mr. Bustamante, a professor at Notre Dame University in Indiana. "That's why they're bending the rules. But then once the job is done, it's back in the shadows. The hypocrisy is astounding."

Bush recently pledged to address immigration reform more vigorously. His plan calls for a temporary-worker program that would allow illegal immigrants already in the US the chance to receive legal status.

An alternative plan is the McCain-Kennedy bill, named after Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts. It would allow unauthorized workers to enroll in a guest-worker program and would eventually lead to citizenship.

Tom Tancredo, a Republican congressman from Colorado, is pushing another bill called the Real Guest Act, which would require undocumented immigrants to return to their home country before being granted guest-worker status and would limit their US stay to 365 days every two years. "My bill contains no amnesty," says Mr. Tancredo, who also heads the House Immigration Reform Caucus.

Tancredo criticizes the temporary changes. "Why don't we just erase our borders and have the entire Third World work here?" he says. "If the president doesn't like the current laws, then he should repeal them altogether and stop pretending that we've got an immigration policy."

"Our rule of law means nothing," says Chris Simcox, head of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, a volunteer border-patrol group, referring to the decision not to fine federal employers hiring undocumented workers.