Last week, U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao organized the first ever National Hispanic Safety and Health Summit in Orlando. The focus, ostensibly, was the very serious health and safety issues facing Hispanics in the workplace. If, however, you go behind the headline, the summit was one more example of how the Bush administration never misses an opportunity to seek political advantage without actually exhibiting leadership.
The very high rate of workplace injuries for the growing Hispanic workforce has been known for some time. In 2002, 15 percent of workers who died from workplace injuries were identified as Latino, though they represent a smaller percentage of the workforce. As The Associated Press reported in March, foreign-born Latinos, particularly Mexicans, are 80 percent more likely to die from workplace injuries than native-born workers, a big jump from the mid-1990s when Mexicans were about 30 percent more likely to die on the job. Possible explanations for this disparity are language and lack of legal status for many of these workers.
While Chao may have pointed to increased bilingual staff and a Spanish page on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Web site, the summit was yet another political photo-op. What else can one conclude when the big news of the summit was a grant in the sum of $2.75 million to Esperanza USA, a faith-based Hispanic nonprofit organization, to work in nine U.S. cities with at-risk Hispanic youth? While a worthwhile goal, it is hard not to see the political opportunism at play here when two of the cities are Miami and Orlando in hotly contested Florida. Even the declaration signed with Mexico’s secretary for foreign affairs, also announced at the summit, was all talk and no action. That declaration simply affirmed both countries’ commitment to improving workplace protections for Mexican workers in the United States, without any new resources or enhanced enforcement efforts.
Had the Bush administration truly been serious about the health and safety of Latino workers, Chao might have used this summit to announce administration support for the AgJobs bill sponsored by Sens. Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican, and Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat. Enactment of this bill would do more to save lives and prevent injuries than Chao’s thinly veiled political pandering of last week. Why? Simply because one of the three most dangerous industries in the country is agriculture, and Latinos comprise more than 90 percent of farmworkers. Yet because 80 percent of that workforce is undocumented, many workers are afraid to speak up when facing work-safety issues for fear of deportation.
The AgJobs bill would grant temporary legal status to approximately 500,000 farmworkers and an opportunity to obtain permanent legal status if those workers continue to work in agriculture for a specified period of time. And because agriculture is so dependent on a foreign workforce, the bill would also update the existing foreign temporary worker program to enable employers to recruit the workers they need in a legal manner, and no longer be complicit in the underground labor market that is the underpinning of agriculture.
The White House’s active involvement in preventing a vote on AgJobs in the Senate on July 7 is now well-documented. At the very time that Bush was addressing a national convention of the League of United Latin American Citizens and calling for immigration reform that would grant temporary legal status to workers, the White House was working with Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee to avoid having AgJobs come to the floor of the Senate.
In the highly partisan atmosphere of Congress, when a bill has 63 Senate co-sponsors of whom 27 are Republican, as does AgJobs, many rightly wonder why Bush is afraid to let this bill come to a vote. When a bill has the support of both organized labor and the agriculture industry, who is the president afraid of offending? The vocal but small anti-immigrant wing of the Republican Party appears to be more important to Bush than finding solutions to intractable problems.
Leadership is about doing what is right in the face of opposition, not simply talking about it. In this case, both Bush and his secretary of labor care more about political theater — hoping speeches and political events will persuade the millions of immigrant and Latino voters in this country that they care about Hispanics. This time, however, the brazen political calculation is evident to all.
Maria Echaveste is a senior fellow at the American Progress Action Fund, a progressive think tank, and a member of the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.
This column originally appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on August 4, 2004.