January 23, 2004

By Nativo Vigil Lopez


Thirty years ago, Bert Corona, considered the father and architect of the amnesty immigration law of 1986, drafted what many would later call the Bill of Rights for the Immigrant Worker. His concept was to propose a minimum and maximum program – the immediate and the ideal.

By those dates of the 70s, Corona had already accumulated some thirty years as a trade unionist and an untiring organizer for the rights of all workers, and immigrants in particular. He was intimately familiar with the Bracero Program that existed in the U.S. during 1942 to 1962, and which facilitated the contracting of millions of Mexicans for farm labor. His organizer colleagues of that epoch were Ernesto Galarza, author, sociologist, and farm worker organizer, who wrote more about the Bracero Program than any other writer, and the other, was a young community organizer who later would become legendary as a trade unionist – Cesar Chavez. They all were forced to address the many abuses of that program of contract labor.

On more than one occasion, we had the opportunity to talk about his experiences in this regard. In truth, it was based on the benefit of those experiences that Corona was able to exercise the leadership to propose the necessity of some sort of legalization during the 70s and 80s. In the same manner, the combination of his union work, which included negotiating collective bargaining agreements that by their nature require a priority of demands of the workers, and to determine which are short and long term, the possible and attainable, and the most difficult and remote – served him in order to propose the social-political demands of the immigrant workers.

He always reminded us to take into consideration the peculiar circumstances of the period within which one conducts the struggle and that the demands must derive from direct consultations with the very workers. The struggle belongs to those who live the problem, because they know better than anyone what they are willing to sacrifice to confront the social dynamic that oppresses them.

The minimum program of demands for immigrant’s rights designed by Corona, and I have personal knowledge that he shared the same with Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, consist of the following: employment authorization, freedom of transit between the U.S. and the country of origin, protection under the existing labor and social security laws, the right to benefit from the contributions to the social security system, the right to move from employer to employer, the right to organize the union and belong to social organizations, and lastly, the right to legalize one’s status and family reunification.

The maximum program was a general and unconditional legalization of any worker with the right to family reunification in the U.S., if that was the desire of the worker. It is an error of gross arrogance, living within such a large and rich country, to conclude that all immigrants prefer to stay in the U.S. instead of fortifying their family economy and repatriate voluntarily to their country of origin.

After the approval of the amnesty program in 1986, Corona was preoccupied about the millions who were left out because they did not qualify, and the millions more who would come later. What were the prospects of another similar program in light of the fact that it took us sixteen years to attain the first amnesty? Very remote, he concluded.

As a result, he began to study the European experience with temporary worker programs. In 1989 he sent a delegation of twenty members of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, almost all immigrants, to France and Spain to meet with government officials with the goal of learning from close up about the agreement between both countries in the use of temporary workers. Later, he refined his ideas on the matter and shared this information with the governments of both the United States and Mexico.

Corona recognized the imperfect reality of the immigration situation, and between the ideal and the immediate and practical, he searched for alternatives not based solely on political-ideological postures, but based also on the popular sentiments of the people who live the immigration problem and dynamic on a daily basis. Ultimately, he constantly repeated to us, the permanent organization of the workers, both immigrant and native, is the best answer to correct any social injustice that they face. Any immigration proposal must be rated and analyzed based on popular consultations with the very immigrant workers who live this reality.

(Nativo Vigil Lopez is the National Director of Hermandad Mexicana Latino-americana and the National President of the Mexican American Political Association – nativolopez@sbcglobal.net)

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