The Coastal Post - March, 1999

A New Bracero Program?

With an estimated 2 million undocumented workers in the US, do we need more foreign workers? Yes, say some growers, backed up by Republican legislators. No, say the Democrats, there are no labor shortages in agriculture. Several years ago both parties agreed that there may be shortages and passed H2A, a bill that allows growers to legally bring in seasonal workers during harvest time. However, growers complained that it's too cumbersome and too bureaucratic. In response to these concerns, the US Senate approved a modification of the H-2A program, which according to Senators Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith, would have satisfied growers.

Critics said the proposed law would enable growers to bring as many workers as they want and would put the onus on the federal government to prove that Americans were not available or willing to do the job. Growers would not have to provide housing or even pay minimum wages to each worker as long as a group of workers were paid on average the minimum wage.

Thanks to lobbying from Hispanic groups and the efforts of Deputy White House Chief of Staff Maria Echaveste, who grew up in a migrant family, the bill was eventually defeated. Democrats did not support it claiming that there is no shortage of workers. If there really were a shortage, they insisted, wages in agriculture would be rising.

A victory for undocumented workers? Maybe.

Millions of undocumented workers toil in American farms under miserable conditions without benefits, always fearful that immigration officers will catch them and deport them. Clearly they would all be better off if they were allowed to work legally in the United States.

However, every time an attempt is made to bring agricultural workers legally into the US, people who care about immigrant workers remember the bracero program. By all accounts, including Wyden's and Smith's, the program was a failure. The nearly five million Mexican workers who took part in the program between 1942 and 1964 were little more than indentured servants. Workers' rights were not protected in spite of the agreements prepared by Mexican and American officials. Workers could not leave an employer without risking deportation. Mexican authorities even refused to allow their workers to be recruited into Texas because of rampant discrimination there.

But the fact that the bracero program was a failure does not mean that a new program could not work well. Unfortunately, while Republicans organize these government programs, Democrats keep insisting that they are unnecessary. Thus several million of undocumented workers toil in agricultural, garment, meat- packing, poultry, and hotel-motel industries at the mercy of employers who can treat them pretty much as they want.

The Democratic Party seems to think that there is no problem. In its attempt to win elections, it focuses on courting the middle class. Non-citizen foreign workers, legal or illegal, do not vote. And on top of that, the presence of undocumented workers depresses wages for unskilled American workers whom the Democratic party is supposed to represent.

Republicans seem to play the role of white knight in their attempts to bring in people to work legally. Democrats give the impression of not caring at all hoping that whatever shortages there may be, will cause wages to rise and force growers to value and treat better their current workers, undocumented or not.

Neither position is, however, an appropriate response. Canada can point the way. For the past several years Mexican workers have been going to Canada do to seasonal jobs. The numbers are small but the cooperation between the Mexican and Canadian governments insures fairness to all.

Democrats, who supposedly stand for the little man against the big corporations, need to cooperate with Republicans to insure that programs to bring workers into the US protect immigrant rights. Bipartisanship brought about NAFTA which helps companies sell their products across borders. How about a similar program to help workers sell their services legally and escape the vise of smugglers and unscrupulous employers?

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