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L.A. Workers Join Fierce Debate Over Immigration

Jobs are a key issue in an area with a large Latino population and high black unemployment.

February 20, 2006|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

Drexell Johnson and his Young Black Contractors of South Central Inc. are hungry for work -- and when polite requests for an opportunity are rebuffed, they're not afraid to raise a ruckus.

After Johnson was cut out of a contract when Staples Center was being built, he drove to the construction site, spinning 360-degree rolls and kicking up doughnuts of dust until, he said, a bulldozer nearly ran him down. In Torrance, his group staged a mock hanging in front of an automaker's office. And earlier this month, they hauled a makeshift "slave ship" to an Inglewood mall development to symbolize economic injustice.

The tactics may seem outrageous, but they underscore the rage and frustration that Johnson and his cohorts feel about losing out to other workers in the region's construction boom. Their anger is fueled by a 14% unemployment rate among African Americans in Los Angeles, twice as high as among whites.

So the news that President Bush and some members of Congress are pushing to bring more blue-collar guest workers into the country -- perhaps 400,000 annually -- leaves the contractors indignant.

"Hell, no, don't bring no one in from nowhere," said Johnson, a 47-year-old Mississippi native who founded his consortium of 35 minority contractors a decade ago. "Train the people here. Give the people here the same opportunity you're willing to give someone out of this country."

The guest-worker proposals have reignited fierce debate -- and sharply divided the Republican Party -- over some of the most controversial aspects of national immigration policy. Do immigrants take jobs from Americans? Or are they needed to fill jobs Americans won't do? Do they lower the wages of America's least-educated workers? Or do they benefit most Americans by providing cheap labor for a wide range of jobs, from nannies to construction workers?

Such questions are particularly critical in California, where immigrants make up one-third of the state's labor force, the highest percentage in the nation.

Unlike legislation recently passed in the House, the Senate's comprehensive immigration bill, scheduled for debate next month, is expected to contain bipartisan provisions for guest workers and a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants.

The proposal to allow hundreds of thousands of guest workers into the country each year to fill jobs if qualified Americans can't be found for them is sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass). It is considered the most likely of several proposals to be included in the Senate's bill; Bush also advocates a temporary-worker program but has provided few details about how it would work.

Backers of the McCain-Kennedy approach include a rare alliance of business and labor leaders who say there is a need for more immigrants to fill jobs in such blue-collar fields as landscaping, construction, healthcare and food service. As baby boomers retire, advocates say, the need for new immigrant labor will grow.

Supporters also argue that so many migrants come here illegally -- 700,000 annually, according to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center -- that the most realistic option is to provide legal ways for some of them to work.

"It is a common-sense solution to bring an underground economy above ground, with strong labor protections to improve working conditions for all," Kennedy said in a statement.

But the proposal has proved highly divisive, splintering alliances and creating new ones. Republicans are split between those who support business demands for more workers and those who want to restrict immigration. Democrats also are torn, some by issues stemming from ethnicity and class.

"The Democratic Party cannot afford to ignore the tension and anger among blue-collar African Americans and whites here, because they feel [immigrants] are taking their jobs," said Kerman Maddox, a Los Angeles public relations executive who has worked on several Democratic campaigns. "Everyone wants the emerging Latino vote, but at what expense?"

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) opposes a large-scale guest-worker program outside agriculture, fearing it will increase illegal immigration. Sen. Barbara Boxer, also a California Democrat, has voiced similar fears, opposing Bush's proposal. But their constituents are strongly divided, as was demonstrated last week when activists held dueling rallies at Feinstein's Los Angeles office.

A coalition of churches, labor unions and immigrant advocacy groups staged a noisy rally, featuring Korean drums and a Mexican trumpeter, urging legalization for undocumented immigrants and more visas for workers and relatives of Americans. Later that evening, immigration-control advocates held a vigil urging Feinstein to oppose any new guest-worker program.

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