July 21, 2000


We should allow free movement of labor from Mexico to U.S.

by Russell Contreras

This spring the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) announced that it is suspending crackdowns on undocumented immigrants for the duration of the 2000 census.

But undocumented immigrants shouldn't take to the streets dancing la vida loca just yet. History tells us these good-neighbor attitudes change with the conditions of the economy.

The agency reported that arrests for the purpose of deportation have dropped to 8,600 last year from 22,000 two years prior. The INS has opted to pursue undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes and leave alone those working in low-wage jobs because of a rapidly expanding economy and labor shortage.

The United States has a long history of welcoming immigrants when corporations need them, and booting them out when the economy shrinks.

During World War I and World War II, the U.S. government actively recruited Mexican "guest workers" to the country to combat an agricultural and industrial labor shortage. It sponsored such programs as the "Good Neighbor Policy" and the "Bracero Program" to get Mexican immigrants to the mines of Arizona, the fields of California and the ranches of Texas. Both recruiting periods were during economic expansions.

In the recessions that followed those expansions, the immigrant workers were told to leave. There were massive deportation raids, and the U.S. government even sponsored an effort in the 1950s called "Operation Wetback" that was responsible for the forced deportation of nearly 4 million Mexican workers.

The United States is currently seeing its longest economic expansion in history and experiencing another labor shortage. After immigrants dodge bullets of the militarized southern border and cross through deserts and rivers, they are welcomed by employers who are having a hard time finding enough workers.

But when the economy enters a recession, the mood is destined to change again and immigrants will be sent packing once more.

This is an inhumane way to proceed. The United States should allow free movement of labor between here and Mexico. After all, we have free movement of capital and trade under NAFTA.

We should take a lesson from European nations that are increasingly moving toward more open immigration policies within the European Union. We need to acknowledge this nation's historical reliance on labor from Latin America and the Caribbean and change our policies to end the unnecessary pattern of forced deportations.

Immigrants should be allowed to live without fear in a country that wants their labor. If not, we will only see the sad history of deportations repeating itself.

Russell Contreras is a contributing writer for the Houston Press and Latina magazine. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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