Past has cautionary lessons for guest-worker programs

In Europe and America, programs to legalize undocumented workers have often had negative impacts on workers, nations

As church faithful light altar candles and Spanish-language hymns echo down hard-tile hallways, a group of Mexican elders huddles inside La Placeta Catholic church here. The 10 men are former participants in a guest-worker program that ended in 1964 - and they are still seeking pay they say never got.

"Each of us is still owed thousands of dollars by the US or Mexican government ... we don't know which," says Vicente de la Rosa Hernandez. In the early 1960s, he picked strawberries, tomatoes, and lettuce as one of 4 million Mexican participants in the so-called bracero program. To make sure Mr. Hernandez and his colleagues exited the country, US authorities gave 10 percent of their pay to the Mexican government, which the workers could retrieve only by returning.

Mr. Hernandez is now an undocumented alien living at the local Delores Homeless Mission. And today, with President Bush urging Congress to create a new guest-worker program, his tale highlights some of the cautionary lessons that similar programs in the US and Europe hold.

Among them, experts say:

• Such programs are often set up with the needs of employers in mind - making workers vulnerable to exploitation.

• Even if guest workers aren't put officially on a path to permanent residency, many stay in the host nation for good.

• The creation of a new legal status for guest workers doesn't necessarily slow illegal immigration.

For Mr. Bush, the guest-worker initiative is designed as a compromise that will not grant amnesty to illegal workers, but will formally acknowledge the presence of millions of them. And it asks employers to treat them like other American workers.

But despite the promise of steady work and legal status, the prevailing sentiment among immigrants is distrust. "We feel we trusted the system and got burned, so we do not feel like going through the same thing again," says Hernandez.

Under the plan Bush outlined, illegal immigrants already in the US could apply for a three-year work permit, which would be renewable at least once. Workers in foreign countries who have been offered jobs here could also participate. But neither group would receive special consideration for permanent residence or citizenship.

Supporters of the Bush plan say much has been incorporated from past mistakes and successes from the bracero program to the 1986 amnesty plan, which legalized about 3 million people. Those include better controls for employers and workers.

Critics worry there are no cap on the number of immigrants that can take advantage of the Bush plan, that there is no way to get workers to go home at the end of their stay, and that border problems will remain difficult from crossings attempted by those too afraid to trust the new law. The track record abroad is not promising, they add.

Since World War II, "the Swiss tried it with the Italians and Spanish, the Germans tried it with the Turks, and the French with the Algerians," says Paul Heise, professor of economics at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. "Everywhere, it has been a disaster for both the welfare of the workers and the moral character of the employing country."

The biggest problem of all, some say, is that once workers and their families become established in a new country, they do not want to leave. "The main lesson of previous guest-worker programs in the US and across Europe is that there is nothing more permanent than a temporary worker," says Rosemary Jenks, of Numbers USA, which works to limit immigration. "History has yet to find an effective and humane way to make them go home."

Often, workers develop families and roots in their adopted countries but cannot become citizens and thus live a kind of second-class status.

Besides spelling out an answer on getting workers to leave - including funding for enforcement and penalties for noncompliance - experts on both sides say policymakers should put strong worker protections in any guest-worker program.

"One of the past mistakes of guest-worker programs here is that employers had too much leverage in sending workers home, which left the worker vulnerable to exploitation, sub-market wages and terrible conditions," says Dan Griswold, associate director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. "The president has tried to remedy that by allowing workers to move more easily from job to job."

Experts also call for sanctions against employers who hire illegals knowingly. That was a goal in the 1986 amnesty, but experts say enforcement has largely lapsed. Moreover, the tide of illegal immigration has continued in succeeding years. Many worry that such details have been left out of Bush proposals for the moment, and that given current understaffing of the Border Patrol, new regulations will be laxly enforced.

Another concern: No matter what procedures are put in place, the system is likely to be overwhelmed by bureaucracy. "The people I talk to in government burst into laughter when they hear of another plan requiring technology and other tracking mechanism be put in place," says Scott Wright, an immigration lawyer with Faegre & Benson in Minneapolis. "Law enforcement all over the US is still waiting for money and machines for extra surveillance after 9/11."

Most advocates, however, welcome one aspect of the Bush proposal: It has put the prickly problem of immigration back in the forefront of national attention.

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