Mexican farm workers helped keep food on American tables during World War II. But the bracero program that brought laborers from south of the border to solve a US manpower shortage left a bitter taste that remains the source of opposition among Mexican-Americans to proposals for a new temporary worker program.
In a recent television interview, President Reagan said he was "intrigued" with the idea of a new visiting workers program put forth by Texas Gov. William P. Clements. The White house Office of Policy Development is studying the idea, and some observers say they believe it could be on the agenda when President Reagan and Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo meet in April.
A basic apeal of such a program is the order and regulation that proponents say it would bring to the illegal migration of Mexicans into the United States. Granting some form of temporary work visa would eliminate or greatly reduce the incentive for illegal immigration, they say. Undocumented aliens are conservatively estimated to number at least 3.5 million in the US.
Howeve, citing the abuses of the bracero program, which ended in 1964, leading US Hispanic organizations want nothing to do with a new worker program, no matter how different in form.
"We're totally opposed to the whole idea," said John Huerta, director of immigration law for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Mr. Huerta said the experience of the bracero program was so negative for hispanics that any new effort is viewed with great suspicion. The way he describes it, a temporary worker program would need an array of guarantees of rights for visiting Mexican workers before it would have any merit.
"And as soon as you provide all that protection, it would become economically unattractive to employers," he asserts.
The proposal that has received favorable attention in the Reagan administration was first proposed by Governor Clements at a meeting of governors of US-Mexico border states in 1979.
"It is not a bracero program," insist Eddie Aurispa, special assistant to Celements. Mr. Aurispa says the program, still vague in outline, would:
* Provide visas to Mexican workers for a three-to-nine month job stint in the United States.
* Allow the workers to hold jobs of their choice anywhere in the US, and enable them to move from job to job as they wish.
* Guarantee the guest workers some established minimum wage, which may or may not be the same in the US minimum wage.
* Provide some form of medical insurance for the workers, to be paid for by the employer and the employee.
* Levy a $1,000 fine against US employer found hiring illegal immigrants outside the program. The fine would be used to deport the worker.
The fundamental difference between this proposed system and a bracero program is the mobility and freedom of choice given the visiting worker.
In the bracero program, workers, for the most part, were allowed to take only agricultural jobs, and they were not free to roam from one job to another. These restrictions, in the view of many analysts, were the root causes of abuses. Most employers who participated in the program gained, in effect, a semi-captive work force.
Hispanics also oppose a visiting worker program on the grounds it hurts resident American workers, a concern they share with organized labor.
"It is a means to displace American workers, and it depresses wages," says Ruben Bonilla Jr., president of the LEague of United Latin American Citizens. "The only approach we see as working [to slow illegal migration] is long-term economic planning and development."
Mr. Bonilla believes US activity should be targeted at helping Mexico create more jobs to absorb its growing labor force.
Chad Richardson, director of the Institute for Borderland Studies at Pan American University Texas, is less critical of the temporary worker concept.
"It could be an improvement over the status quo if you build in certain protections," he asserts. Those protections would include wage guarantees, visitation rights for families of the guest workers, requirements that the visiting laborers not be used to break strikes, and the right to join unions.
In a recent report, Congress' Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy urged tougher border enforcement as the centerpiece of a package of reforms that included amnesty for illegal aliens now in the US. It recommended no new temporary worker program, just improvements in an existing program for hiring foreign laborers.