Post-Katrina easing of labor laws stirs debate

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

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.

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.

"We're very unhappy with such moves by the administration at a time when border states are more concerned about immigration than they've been in a century," says Jack Martin, special-projects director for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Mr. Martin referred to the recent emergency declarations by the governors of New Mexico and Arizona, who cited rising immigration and alleged violence associated with border-crossers.

FAIR supports an immigration proposal introduced last week by Rep. J. D. Hayworth (R) of Arizona, that would slap heavy fines on employers who hire undocumented workers and put military forces on the border. The Hayworth bill is considered the most conservative alternative to the McCain-Kennedy proposal.

Mexican politicians from every political stripe prefer the McCain-Kennedy bill. "I've read all the immigration bills on the table," says Silvia Hernandez of Mexico's Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The McCain-Kennedy bill is the only one that seems to recognize the work that undocumented laborers do and to empower them with the promise of citizenship."

At the same time, Ms. Hernandez is quick to stress that Mexico also has a pending agenda when it comes to reducing the migrant flow. "It includes strengthening the economy, giving people less incentive to leave," she says.

Some observers doubt whether debate surrounding post-Katrina reconstruction will have any lasting effect on immigration policy.

"I don't think that, post-Katrina, the signals are any less mixed than they've been in the past," says Jeffrey Davidow, former US Ambassador to Mexico and president of the Institute of the Americas at the University of California, San Diego. "We're still saying that we'll strengthen the border and tighten security, while also sending the message that once you get to the States you can get a job."

Some say that maintaining the status quo comes at a cost. "There's a reality here that's being ignored," said Douglas Massey, a professor at Princeton University who heads the Mexican Migration Project. He refers to this year's record number of deaths among illegal immigrants crossing deserts into the US. A study released last week by the Pew Hispanic Center found the number of immigrants who legally came to the US declined between 1992 and 2004. But the number entering illegally went up, despite tighter border security.

"The US wants the labor, but doesn't want to address the risks people take to get here," says Massey.

Back in Las Chepas, Sánchez, the roofer, has bigger worries. First he must cross the border, which means dodging US authorities and rubbing garlic on his skin to ward off desert snakes. Then he must earn enough to send money back to support the wife and three kids he left behind.

"I can make 10 times what I earn in Mexico working construction in the US," Sánchez said, adding that he didn't care if he did this as an undocumented worker. He then glanced at the dozens of other migrants arriving to this town as night fell. "Look at all these people," he said. "It seems there's demand for our work up there."

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