Western farm-labor issue once again perils immigration reform

Rep. John Burnett of Alabama was angry. Mexicans were flooding across the US border to work on Western farms. He demanded that the White House tell him why tens of thousands of these workers were being allowed illegally into the United States. Why were the laws not being enforced? He charged that Secretary of Labor W. B. Wilson had so little regard for American law that next he might welcome ``polygamists [and] anarchists'' to the country.

Political buffs will immediately recognize that W. B. Wilson is no longer secretary of labor, nor is John Burnett still a member of the House. This clash over Mexican farm workers occurred in 1917, some 68 years ago.

During the past week on Capitol Hill, however, Burnett and Wilson would have felt right at home. The Senate's approval of a ``temporary,'' three-year program to bring 350,000 Mexican farm workers into the US, and the angry reaction to that idea in the House of Representatives, plows the same rocky ground that politicians have been going over for decades.

The latest earthquakes in central Mexico have momentarily diverted attention from the US immigration crisis, including Mexican farmworkers. But even the earthquakes eventually lead back to immigration, the core issue in US-Mexican relations. Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid, in an interview with NBC News on Tuesday, said the earthquakes' economic impact will probably push even greater numbers of his countrymen, legally or illegally, across the US border.

Some will certainly end up on US farms, where they will cultivate grape vineyards, pick peaches, irrigate cotton. As the battle for immigration reform moves to the House, the farm worker issue could help to bottle up the bill there, or even lead to its demise.

Again, that would be nothing new. It was the same in earlier years, when frustrated reformers broke their lances on this issue.

Yet earlier debate over immigration policies offers some valuable guidance to American voters as they try to make sense out of this issue once again in 1985. If past is prologue, here is what can be expected from the present debate:

Mexican farm workers will probably be admitted in great numbers. Western growers need about 800,000 workers to harvest perishable crops each year. The majority of those farm hands at present are Mexicans, most of them in the US illegally, according to congressional committee estimates. From the days of Woodrow Wilson right down to the present, when Western farmers flex their political muscles, Congress is impressed.

Many of the Mexicans who come here ``temporarily'' will stay. In the past, Mexicans who were allowed into the US to work on farms often switched to better-paying jobs in urban areas. In 1917, as today, there were not enough US lawmen to make the immigration and employment laws stick.

Farmers will remain dependent on Mexicans. One analyst, writing about the post-World War I period, said farmers had come to ``regard the use of Mexican labor as a natural right.'' As far back as 1920, they made up the principal farm work force in the West. A plentiful supply of labor also holds down wages.

More Mexicans will be encouraged to cross the border. A congressional study in 1980 concluded that legalized farm programs, such as the one in this year's bill, encourage further illegal immigration.

For example, two years after the ``bracero'' program began to admit temporary Mexican farm workers legally to the US in 1942, the illegal tide of immigration skyrocketed -- increasing more than tenfold by 1945 and nearly 100-fold by 1950.

There's little doubt that the foreign farm-worker issue has become the most sensitive, and potentially destructive, of the 1985 immigration debate.

One reason it has been so difficult to deal with is that the US government has been ambivalent toward foreign agricultural workers. One year the government courts them, the next it deports them.

This confusion began during World War I. A US manpower shortage developed as thousands of American doughboys went to Europe to fight the Kaiser. Able bodies were suddenly needed in the sugar-beet fields in California, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho, and the cotton fields in Texas, Arizona, and California. The railways were also shorthanded.

Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor fought this tide of low-cost workers. He felt they hurt US wages and working conditions. But eventually 80,000 Mexicans took part in the program.

After the war, the railway jobs were taken away from Mexicans. But Western growers won an extension (to 1921) for agricultural workers, and thereafter gained ``exceptions'' for Mexicans. This lenient policy toward Mexican workers continued through most of the 1920s.

This infuriated people like Congressman Burnett, who was chairman of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization. He felt that at times the law was being bent to favor the Western growers.

But Labor Secretary Wilson warned the chairman that the need for labor was so great that without the Mexicans, it would be necessary to encourage migration from the Philippines and China. That, he added, would add to ``race problems'' in the US. With that, Burnett dropped his complaint.

The debate over Mexican farm workers continued into the 1930s, when the Great Depression made the issue moot. The economic bust sent Mexicans fleeing back to their homeland.

World War II, however, saw Mexican workers popular again. A carefully worked out bracero program brought 62,170 Mexicans to the US in 1944 (the wartime peak). The program was extended after the war, and 445,197 Mexicans worked in US agriculture in 1959 (the postwar peak).

Along with these legals, the illegal tide grew, with 1,074,277 people, mostly Mexicans, caught and expelled from the US in 1954. The public outcry against illegal immigration was mounting, and the days of the bracero program were nearing an end.

Attorney General Herbert Brownell in 1953 (Eisenhower was President) traveled to California to study the Mexican-border problem and found conditions there ``shocking.'' He called earlier decisions to cut back on the border-patrol budget ``the most pennywise and pound-foolish policy I've ever seen.''

Brownell ordered the toughest crackdown ever against illegal aliens. He sealed the California border, then turned his attention to Texas. At the same time, federal officers were removing 20,174 illegals from industrial jobs in Spokane, Wash., Chicago, Kansas City, and St. Louis.

Tens of thousands of Mexicans, fearing arrest and deportation, fled the country. By 1955, federal officials could report: ``The border has been secured.''

Over the years, the Mexican government has been almost as ambiguous about illegal immigration as the US. Illegals send large amounts of money back to Mexico. But the flood of people out of Mexico tarnishes its image.

As far back as 1946, the Mexican foreign minister advised the US:

``If the problem were attacked at its economic source, imposing sanctions on American employers who employ illegal entrants, . . . Mexican workers would not embark upon a venture made both difficult and unprofitable.''

That's what US reformers today think is the only long-term hope of reform.

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