Guest workers: a way to solve labor shortage?
At a time of unprecedented immigration, legal and otherwise, it might seem odd to ask for more migrants. But that's precisely what some business and political leaders in the American Southwest are doing.Skip to next paragraph
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They're calling for a revival and expansion of America's bracero program - a controversial guest-worker initiative dating back to the 1940s - as the quickest way to address two fundamental problems at once: controlling the flow of illegal immigration, and filling jobs in industries - not simply fields - where workers are sparse.
But the proposal has kicked up a fiery debate over race, history, and opportunity. Like a similar proposal to import more foreign, high-tech workers, the bracero idea is igniting a lively discussion about how dependent the United States has become on foreign labor.
"We have never been able to live without Mexican labor - and now we're looking for the next generation of farm workers, as this generation either finishes its work, or leaves it altogether," says Kevin Starr, a California historian and the state librarian. "Farm workers don't raise their children to be farm workers. It's tough, tough work."
The move to revive the bracero program is being spearheaded by Gov. Jane Hull (R) of Arizona. Governor Hull has good reason to push the idea: Arizona has many farms, resorts, and other businesses scrambling to find enough workers, and is among the states absorbing large numbers of illegal immigrants.
"The reality is that no matter how effective border enforcement is, illegal immigrants will continue to enter the United States to work," said Hull, during a recent gathering of Mexican and American border governors in Tijuana, Mexico. "Something must be done to meet the need for workers in the US economy."
While other border states face similar labor-market and illegal-immigration pressures, reaction to Hull's proposal has been muted. Many political leaders, in fact, were caught off guard by her sudden announcement of the proposal in Tijuana.
New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R) immediately backed the idea. Gov. George W. Bush of Texas is more nuanced in his support, saying, "We should revisit the temporary worker program." Other politicians, from Rep. Jim Kolbe (R) of Arizona to Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, are reserving judgment until they study the specifics of Hull's proposal.
The reticence is perhaps understandable. Like some other immigrant-labor initiatives, the bracero program has had a long and checkered history.
It began in 1942 as a bilateral treaty between the US and Mexico. America gained field workers to replace the young men who had gone off to fight in World War II. (In Spanish, bracero means "helping arms.") Mexico gained by getting rid of unemployed citizens from three states - Jalisco, Guanajuato, and Michoacan - where a pro-Catholic rebellion was in full swing.
Public opinion changed
Political support for bracero ultimately weakened in 1964, after an Edward R. Murrow documentary called "Harvest of Shame" exposed abuses by the growers, including unpaid wages, poor housing, and the physical toll of "stoop labor."
But while the bracero was officially dead, the migration patterns it established simply kept going, albeit illegally. According to the latest figures, some 600,000 illegal immigrants work on US farms, making up nearly 37 percent of all agricultural workers. By contrast, the Department of Labor only certifies 18,000 guest workers under the H-2A visa program that took the place of bracero.