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UT Austin > LBJ School > News

January 20, 2004

Julien Ross photo

The immigrant
labor debate

LBJ Alum weighs in on Bush proposal

President George W. Bush reignited debate about immigration policy with a proposal to expand the nation’s guest worker program to include the estimated 8 to 12 million undocumented workers currently living in the country. In the January 7 national address, Bush argued that the reform would bolster homeland security, prevent exploitation of undocumented workers and meet labor demands of the U.S. economy.

Julien Ross (M.P. Aff. 2003) says he is thrilled that immigration issues are once again making headlines, although he is unconvinced that Bush’s plan will translate into effective policy. The founding coordinator of the Central Texas Immigrant Worker Rights Center, Ross understands that the one of the biggest challenges of Bush’s plan will be getting workers to participate in it. In the following Q & A, he weighs in on the President’s proposal and sheds light on the realities faced by immigrant workers living in Central Texas.

Who are these 8 to 12 million workers and what role do they play in the economy?

“Here in Central Texas I would say that migrant workers – predominantly undocumented – are the majority in almost every major sector of construction, landscaping, restaurant work and commercial and domestic cleaning. The demographic of that workforce tends to be 80 percent Mexican and 20 percent Central American.”

What has been their response to news of the Bush proposal?

“Generally they are honored at being recognized and proud that their contributions to the economy are being recognized. For the first time, a president elaborated on some of the hardships and abuses that migrants face, both in coming here and in the work place.

“They are glad people are talking about it because after September 11 they were pretty much forgotten. The borders got tighter, but there was still the same dynamic and they were still coming up.”

From the perspective of immigrant workers, what are the primary disadvantages of Bush’s proposal?

“One of the big negatives is that the worker would be under the thumb of one employer. If the worker is dependent on the employer for his work visa, he will be less likely to report abuses. If you are a temporary worker and your visa depends on one employer, then you have no bargaining power. The basis for guaranteeing rights and improving conditions in the workplace is really based on bargaining power, collective bargaining, and ideally joining a union. Bush’s plan completely weakens that system.

”Workers should be allowed to flow freely between jobs and have the same bargaining power as citizens. A lot of workers have said they would feel trapped by the employment and have expressed doubt that they would sign up for the program.

“Second, the policy does not provide a pathway for citizenship. If we’re going to depend on the labor of these migrants and if our economy depends on the labor of migrant workers – as Bush clearly stated – then we should provide them with access to citizenship or legal permanent residency. A lot of workers just want to come for a few years and return home. But there’s no advantage for a worker to join this program if he is looking for permanent residence.”

What’s the draw of Bush’s proposal?

“The big priority for a lot of the workers is having the ability to see their families on a regular basis. In Bush’s plan, they would have the ability to cross back and forth when they want to. That’s really a step in the right direction.

“The bar is really low for migrants and for advocates right now. People are dying in rivers, in the backs of semi trucks, in trains. We want to make sure migrants arrive here safely, but in doing that we don’t want to sacrifice their rights here at home.”

Has there been much confusion among immigrants about their status?

“There are a lot of misconceptions. The details of the plan are really vague. . . .Unfortunately the media hasn’t handled it very responsibly. . . .We’re going to have a public forum in a couple weeks and hopefully a thousand workers will come and talk about this. Once the policy is fleshed out in Congress we will be lobbying.”

What’s it like working on the front lines of immigration policy?

“Often you can get more done working at the city and county level than at the federal level.

“Austin has led the way nationwide in terms of reaching out to the immigrant community. I think we just had the right components at the right time. A pro-immigrant mayor, a pro-immigrant police chief and some banks who were looking to tap into these resources. And the Mexican Consulate is proactive and supportive.

“We’re the only city in the country right now where the police department and the county attorney are looking at some of these employers who don’t pay wages as a theft of service, a criminal theft.

“So we actually have a conference call next week with Denver, San Francisco, San Diego and a handful of other cities looking to implement what we’re doing here. Austin emerged and now other cities are looking to us.”


Ross graduated from the LBJ School of Public Affairs in 2003. He has B.A. in Physical Geography from Northern Arizona University. A native of Santa Fe, New Mexico, he says he first became aware of immigrant labor issues working in restaurants as a high school student.

Since Ross founded the Central Texas Immigrant Worker Rights Center in 2002, the program has assisted workers in recovering more than $65,000 in unpaid wages and is working on 65 pending cases that could recover an additional $120,000. The program exists under the nonprofit Equal Justice Center, in partnership with Casa Marianella and the Office of Immigrant Concerns.

Related Links

President Bush Proposes New Temporary Worker Program
Remarks by the President on Immigration Policy

Microenterprise on the U.S.-Mexico Border: Translating Economic Survival into Success (October 1, 2003)

Conference examines financial services for Mexican workers in the U.S. (September 24, 2003)

The Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies at UT Austin


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512-471-4962

20 January 2004

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