Guest workers: a way to solve labor shortage?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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.

"The bracero is largely responsible for creating the patterns of our undocumented worker problem," says Luis Plascencia, associated director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute in Austin. "Technically it ended, but in reality it did not. Nobody knows how to stop it."

Business backers

If Arizona does get permission from Congress to try out a pilot bracero program, it will likely have strong support from the business community.

Consider the plight of Kevin Werner, a hotel manager in Tucson, Ariz., a city where hundreds of hotel and restaurant jobs remain vacant for months at a time.

"We have trouble filling many of our entry-level positions that are more labor intensive," says Mr. Werner, general manager of the downtown Holiday Inn in Tucson. In a strong economy, many Americans move on to higher-paying, higher-skilled jobs, he adds. "But the people who are learning a new language, they'll be more ready to accept jobs at the entry level."

Border towns most supportive

The situation is perhaps more tense in a border community like Douglas, Ariz. With a population of just 14,000, Douglas has become the chief illegal crossing point from Mexico, leading to 60,000 apprehensions in the past three months alone. This fact has Mayor Ray Borane embracing Hull's proposal to revive the bracero program.

"It's one way of addressing a major problem in this community and in this state," says Mr. Borane. "Hopefully, [the guest worker program] would stop the flow of illegal immigration, and the word would get out that you can do this legally," he says, instead of risking lives out in the bone-dry ranches of Arizona.

For critics, any program that bears the name bracero will lose their support, given the program's history of abuses. When Mexican workers got "uppity," demanding better wages or working conditions, some growers called the Immigration and Naturalization Service and had them deported.

"Latinos will not be keen on bringing back anything that has the name 'bracero,' because it stands for terrible exploitation," says Christine Sierra, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Adds Giev Kashkooli, a regional organizer for the United Farm Workers in Washington: "It's shameful that a governor would have what is essentially an indentured-servant program, when there's double-digit unemployment for farm workers in major rural areas."

Others critics warn that bracero might encourage more Mexicans to enter the US and stay here.

In this scenario, US growers and hotel owners would be profiting from cheap labor, while giving taxpayers the burden of paying for the education, health, and other services of those who overstay their visas.

"Whether it's Bill Gates or Governor Hull, this is about greed and exploitation," says Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington, who promises to fight the proposal "tooth and nail." "Politicians think they're getting temporary workers, but they're getting permanent people," he adds.

But Mr. Starr, the California state librarian, says Americans should just learn to accept their dependence on Mexican labor. And he's not concerned that a renewed bracero program will usher in a return to the bad old exploitative days either. "Any state that has a lieutenant governor who is Latino, a Speaker of the House who is Latino, and a growing contingent in the assembly who are Latino would not approve of a program that would be exploitative," says Starr.

In any case, southern California would collapse without Mexican labor, he adds. "Those are the arms, the muscles that make the place work."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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