A group of Mexican-American leaders told White House officials yesterday they would oppose the expansion of any federal program that could bring an increased use of temporary foreign labor in the United States.
"Experience has shown that these programs deny jobs to domestic farm workers, most of whom are Mexican Americans, and at the same time license exploitation of workers who take these jobs," the representatives of Hispanic civil rights groups said in a joint statement of concern presented yesterday at a White House meeting with President Carter and administration officials.
The Hispanic leaders also said they were "extremely concerned" about current U.S. policy affecting illegal Mexican immigrants, and urged the administration to "develop bilateral policies with Mexico that will comprehensively address" the issue.
The White House meeting with the 24 Hispanic leaders occurred two days before Carter is scheduled to go to Mexico for a three-day conference with Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo. The 55-minute meeting, which also included Hispanic politicians as well as representatives of groups like the Mexican Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), was called by Carter. Hispanic leaders said yesterday it was the first such such conference held with Carter since his election.
Scheduling of the meeting caused some political embarrassment, both to the White House and to the Hispanic leaders. A coalition of Hispanic civil rights groups three weeks ago had scheduled a news conference for yesterday morning, several hours before the meeting took place.
Some of the Hispanic leaders said the White House expressed some displeasure that the news conference, which went on as scheduled, was held. Other Hispanic leaders said privately that the conference, which also focused attention on the administration's immigration policies, should have been canceled.
Vilma S. Martinez, president and general counsel of MALDEF, said the purpose of both events was to urge Carter to discuss with Lopez Portillo important issues affecting Mexican Americans. Chief among those is the feared expansion of the H-2 program, administered by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The program allows temporary foreign workers to enter the United States for mostly menial jobs when "unemployed persons capable of performing such service cannot be found in this country."
Hispanic groups have long voiced concern that Carter might attempt to use the program as a trade-off in a deal aimed at reducing chronically high unemployment in Mexico in return for U.S. access to newly discovered Mexican oil reserves.
Hispanic leaders emphasized yesterday that they were not opposed to more Mexicans coming into the United States and seeking employment as permanent resident aliens. "It's just that the H-2 program hurts everybody by undermining U.S. [migrant] farm workers, and by treating the temporary workers as part of a captive labor force," said Eloise Rosas of the National Association of Farmworker Organizations.
The White House had no comment on yesterday's meeting with the Hispanic leaders. However, Carter said at his press conference yesterday that he would pay particular concern to immigration matters in his discussions with Lopez Portillo.
"We will be discussing some very important and some very difficult problems, including trade, energy and border issues," Carter said.