“I believe there ought to be a temporary worker card that allows a willing worker and a willing employer to mate up, so long as there’s not an American willing to do that job, to join up in order to be able to fulfill the employers’ needs.” —George Bush, presidential debate, Oct. 14, 2004
“We need a guest-worker program, but if it’s all we have, it’s not going to solve the problem.” —John Kerry, presidential debate, Oct. 14, 2004
The mutual call by both George Bush and John Kerry for new guest worker programs during the last presidential debate brings the institution of a new bracero program closer than it has been for the last 40 years.
In 1964, Ernesto Galarza, Cesar Chavez and other Latino progressives won the abolition of a program under which U.S. growers, beginning in World War II, brought Mexican workers to U.S. fields. These activists accused growers of maintaining military-style, exploitative conditions for those workers, and deporting them when they protested. Further, Galarza and Chavez said that growers created an oversupply of workers in order to drive wages down, and used braceros to break farm worker strikes.
By no coincidence, the great grape strike in which the United Farm Workers was born started the year after the bracero program ended.
The importation of workers by U.S. employers didn’t completely end, however. Four new visa categories were eventually created, allowing companies to bring limited numbers of workers into the United States for jobs in agriculture, high tech, health care, and other industries. These programs have been condemned by labor and immigrant community activists for years, for abusing workers much as the bracero program did. Just this spring, the North Carolina Growers Association was sued by the state’s Legal Aid office for extensive violations of health and safety laws, and for maintaining a blacklist of workers who protested.
The key weakness of the programs, critics charge, is that they give employers power, not just over jobs, but also over visas—the ability of workers to stay in the United States. Further, contract temporary workers can never become a permanent part of a community in the United States, since they must eventually return to their countries of origin. They are truly strangers in a strange land.
Nevertheless, starting in 1999, major U.S. employer associations banded together in a shadowy organization to promote the vast expansion of those temporary worker programs. The Essential Worker Immigration Coalition (EWIC) quickly grew to include 36 of the country’s most powerful employer associations, headed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The National Association of Chain Drug Stores belongs (think Wal-Mart), as does the American Health Care Association, the American Hotel and Lodging Association, the National Council of Chain Restaurants, the National Restaurant Association, and the National Retail Federation, the Associated Builders and Contractors, the Associated General Contractors and the American Meat Institute. All represent industries with a work force in which immigrants are well represented.
There’s no question that many U.S. industries have become dependent on immigrant labor. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that, in 2001, undocumented workers, mostly from Mexico, comprised 58 percent of the work force in agriculture, 23.8 percent in private household services, 16.6 percent in business services, 9.1 percent in restaurants, and 6.4 percent in construction. The Migrant Policy Institute reports that in 1990, 11.6 million immigrants, documented and undocumented, made up 9 percent of the U.S. workforce. By 2002, their numbers had grown to 20.3 million workers, or 14 percent.
As Bush began negotiating over immigration reform with Mexican President Vicente Fox in 2001, EWIC called for “a temporary worker program...markedly different from the existing and past models.” The association was joined in 2002 by the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank close to the administration. A Cato Institute report authored by Daniel T. Griswold called for a guest worker program “that would allow Mexican nationals to remain in the United States to work for a limited period.” It suggested issuing about 300,000 such temporary visas, good for three years and renewable for another limited period.
When Bush proposed his immigration reform plan in January of this year, it was taken almost word for word from the Cato Institute report, and recommendations by EWIC.
Bush’s proposal was not warmly embraced by immigrants themselves. In a poll conducted by Bendixen and Associates for New California Media (a project of Pacific News Service) and the James Irvine Foundation, 50 percent of the undocumented workers surveyed opposed it once its provisions were explained, while only 42 percent supported it. Veterans of the old bracero program were even more critical. One former bracero, Manuel Herrera, told the AP’s Juliana Barbassa, “they rented us, got our work, then sent us back when they had no more use for us.” Ventura Gutierrez, head of an organization of former braceros, said, “people who lived through the old program know the abuse it will cause.”
Nevertheless, one mark of EWIC’s lobbying success is that guest worker programs are now being proposed from both sides of the aisle. Both a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sens. Tom Daschle and Chuck Hegel, and a Democratic bill introduced by Congressman Luis Gutierrez and Sen. Edward Kennedy, call for expanded guest worker programs. It was no surprise, then, to hear both presidential candidates agree on the corporate-backed measure in the last debate.
There are alternative proposals for immigration reform that would help undocumented immigrants achieve legal status, but which don’t contain guest worker provisions. One is sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Lee calls Bush’s approach an unrealistic, “flat-earth program.” Nevertheless, whichever candidate becomes president will be one already committed to bringing back the braceros.
David Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer who writes regularly on labor and immigration issues. His latest book is The Children of NAFTA (University of California Press, 2004).