President Reagan is about to kick over a hornet's nest involving foreign relations, domestic economy, social tensions, and hardball politics. The issue is the large and growing influx of Mexicans coming illegally to work in the United States.
Mr. Reagan has pronounced himself "intrigued" with the idea of legalizing many of these workers to provide a more controllable "safety valve" for Mexico's economic troubles. Within a matter of days he will receive a Justice Department task force study on immigration that addresses a possible "guest worker" program. It will most certainly be discussed when Reagan meets with Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo June 8-9.
The President finds himself bucking the tide of public opinion on this issue. Recent polls show most Americans favoring a heavier clampdown on illegal aliens. Labor unions, church groups, and Hispanic organizations oppose any form of "guest worker" program as well. Reagan's interest in the idea comes as Western European countries have been trimming, if not abolishing, similar programs that have brought thousands of laborers from Mediterranean and Mideastern regions.
At the same time, however, Texas Gov. William Clements and Republican senators from California, New Mexico, and Arizona are pushing guest worker programs. Political leaders from these four states have met and joined with the governors of the six Mexican states that have borders with the US in support of such a program.
All of this draws obvious comparison with the "bracero" program that brought as many as 445,000 Mexican workers into the United States annually. It was begun in 1942 when unskilled labor was needed to replace Americans who left to fight in World War II.
"Braceros" were under strict contract to individual employers (mostly growers) who were supposed to pay them prevailing wages, as well as provide shelter, food, medical care, and other benefits. In fact, the braceros often were treated very badly.
"The bracero period is always known as one of exploitation," said Dr. Joseph Ghougassian, a White House policy analyst working on a guest worker program for Reagan. "It was really the Old South concept of those big cottonfields. . . . The employer had the upper hand throughout."
There is also general agreement that the program actually increased illegal immigration, at least until the US Border Patrol began "Operation Wetback" in 1954 to catch and deport many illegal aliens. Under pressure from civil rights, church, and labor groups, the federal government stopped the bracero program in 1964.
Supporters of a guest worker program say times have changed considerably since then. There have been important gains in civil rights, employee protection, and unionization. There is also the growing recognition that given Mexico's economic plight --unemployment of 20-to-30 percent, for example -- some kind of temporary, bilateral measure may be inevitable until conditions in that country improve.
There is another key point summed up in one word: oil. The US needs a more reliable source of supply. Its neighbor to the south has the potential for providing a great deal of that need.
This was certainly on Reagan's mind when he talked about a program of work visas providing a "safety valve" for Mexican unemployment. "It is to our interest also that the safety valve is not shut off and that we might have a breaking of the stability south of the border," he told Walter Cronkite.
"With the continuing exports of Mexican oil and gas, Mexico will become even more important to the United States as a trading partner," says Sen. Harrison Schmitt (R) of New Mexico, author of one of the guest worker bills. "The desirability and mutual benefit of having a close-by source of imported energy for the United States and a close-by export market for Mexico is obvious to all. . . . It serves our interests to preserve and strengthen Mexico as a nation and our good relations with that nation."
Senator Schmitt's bill would allow Mexican workers to stay for temporary periods up to 240 days. Unlike the bracero program, they could work anywhere except in specific places or professions where the US secretary of labor determined that there were willing and qualified Americans to fill the jobs.
The guest workers would come under all wage, benefits, unemployment, and social security laws. Because they no longer would fear being caught and sent back to Mexico, Schmitt feels, they would not hesitate to report exploitation or mistreatment.
Schmitt's "United States-Mexico Good Neighbor Act" does not specify the number of Mexicans who would be allowed to work here, but leaves it up to the attorney general to set quotas based on the availability of jobs.
Texas Governor Clement's plan is similar, but would add a $1,000 fine for employers who hire illegal aliens.
"According to all recent factual studies, Mexican migrant workers add productivity and jobs to the American economy, work largely in low-skilled jobs only they will take, and pay far more in taxes than they receive in social services," Schmitt writes in a law review article to be published in June. "The vast majority return home regularly and permanently after earning enough money to meet the economic crisis which brought them north."
One of the areas most heavily affected by illegal aliens is California's San Diego County. A study commissioned by county officials there found that illegal aliens contribute eight times as much in unemployment insurance, workmen's compensation, social security, and disability than they take in social services.
Removing all undocumented workers from the San Diego area would result in "measurable short-term disruptions in the regional economy," the study found. As many as 59 percent of local agricultural workers are illegal aliens, and "a high percentage of those jobs would go unfilled by United States citizens" if the illegal workers were sent back to Mexico.
In the study year they earned $260.3 million, spending most of it in the United States and sent some $97 million back to Mexico in the form of what Schmitt calls "indirect foreign aid."
The New Mexico Repbulican's bill is cosponsored by Sens. Barry Goldwater and Paul Laxalt (one of President Reagan's closest friends and confidants on Capitol Hill), among others.
Opposition to any new guest worker program is considerable and comes from two general sources: those who want to drastically reduce the number of aliens, legal as well as illegal, coming into the US; and groups that fought the original bracero program.
A bill by Sen. Walter Huddleston (D) of Kentucky would beef up the Border Patrol, prohibit the hiring of illegal aliens, and set an annual immigration ceiling of 350,000 -- less than half the number admitted last year.
Roger Conner, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, notes that the unemployment rate for young disadvantaged Americans, particularly minorities, is as high as for Mexicans.
"If American unemployed workers are to be aided by the operation of free market forces, can we now create a large, new costly program to import Mexican unemployed workers to the United States?" he asks. "Will this competition hinder the absorption of American unemployed workers into the work force?"
As part of their ammunition, Mr. Conner and others point to: the recent recommendation by the Select Commission in Immigration and Refugee Policy that a guest worker program not be launched; estimates of from 3 million to 6 million illegal aliens in the US; and last year's Gallup and Roper polls showing that 80 percent of Americans want immigration cut in half.
Opposition from another quarter comes from Hispanic groups. Tony Bonilla, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens calls it "legalized slavery." The NAACP, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the American Jewish Committee, the US Catholic Conference, and the AFL-CIO are similarly opposed.