June 22, 2001

Fourteen Dead on the Border - For What?

By David Bacon


OAKLAND
- Last month fourteen men and women left their coffee farms in Veracruz, and began the journey north. Within days, their bodies were found on the hardpan of the Sonora desert. On first look, they died of agonizing dehydration, like hundreds more over the last few years, trying to cross the same forbidding border.

But their deaths were caused by more than lack of water. These farmers left their beautiful Veracruz mountains because free-market reforms - no rural credit, no crop subsidies and others - drove them off their lands. And having made the hard decision to look for jobs and a better life in the north, U.S. immigration policy made their deaths practically inevitable.

No visas were available for them - the waiting line for green cards at the embassy in Mexico City goes back to 1976. A draconian border policy has closed the safer routes across, pushing migrants further and further into the desert and mountains, making the great migrant stream less visible, along with its human cost.

And if they had arrived safely, what life would these farmers have found?

They would have become part of an migrant workforce with conditions and wages at the bottom, denied the most basic rights - no unemployment insurance, no medical care, no social benefits of any kind. Because of employer sanctions, the very act of working would have been a crime. Ironically, they might easily have been employed by the same corporations relocating jobs to Mexico, attracted by the very free-market conditions which force migrants to leave.

But perhaps the worst thing about their deaths is the way they'll be used, not to advocate for humane changes in U.S. immigration policy, but to justify a new bracero program making border-crossers like them a permanent, second-class workforce for the profit of U.S. business. President George Bush and his fellow free-market advocate, Mexican President Vicente Fox, are both under pressure to reduce border deaths. Vastly expanding guestworker programs, they argue, would open the doors of legal immigration to those now forced to cross in secret.

While guaranteed labor rights on paper, however, guestworkers depend on the continuation of a job to remain in the country. Employers therefore not only have the power to fire workers who organize or protest bad conditions, but in effect to deport them as well. Beneath a humanitarian cover, business gets what it wants - workers at lower wages with fewer rights. Susrely those who've survived the harrowing journey, those who've died in this new middle passage, and those yet to come, deserve something better.

Twenty years ago, most unions wrote off immigrant workers. In 1986, the AFL-CIO supported employer sanctions. But today unions are rethinking that attitude and as a result, the political alliances that limited the possibility for immigration reform have changed. Amnesty for the country's 9-11 million undocumented immigrants, which was off the radar screen in Washington just a few years ago, is now a realistic goal.

"Most unions today are at least trying to organize," explains Hotel Employees Union President John Wilhelm. "And no matter the industry, they run into immigrant workers. That's what brought home the failure of the AFL-CIO's old immigration policy."

Last year, the percentage of U.S. workers belonging to unions dropped from 13.5 percent to 13.3 percent, and fell to 9 percent in the private sector. For the overall percentage to stay constant, unions have to organize 400,000 workers a year; to increase by 1 percent, they have to organize twice that number, a rate not achieved since the 1940s.

Over the last decade, immigrant workers have proven key to labor's resurgence. "Every period of significant growth in the labor movement was fueled by organizing activity among immigrant workers," Wilhelm says. "We're a labor movement of immigrants and we always have been."

Reflecting this new attitude, unions are proposing an alternative to a new bracero program. "We're putting forward a comprehensive agenda, including legalization, repeal of employer sanctions, and workplace protections regardless of legal status," says Service Employees Union Vice-president Eliseo Medina. The new president of the Laborers Union, Terence O'Sullivan calls for opposition to contract labor, and for increasing the ability of immigrants to reunite their families in the U.S.

Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez has introduced a bill taking the first step - expanding legalization opportunities for immigrants who arrived before this year.

From the opposite end of Congress, Senator Phil Gramm, a recent convert (like Jesse Helms) to the bracero cause, is introducing a bill to permit recruiting guestworkers for a year's labor, so long as they have no right to stay. At the same time, he proposes increased enforcement of employer sanctions to force workers into the program, making the undocumented even more vulnerable, their labor cheaper and their conditions worse.

Some propose bracero programs with labor protections. Wilhelm answers that "to think the law will protect people whose right to stay in the country ends with their job is not living in the real world."

The choice is not over what will or won't stop people from coming across the border, but over their status in the U.S. It's the age-old American dilemma: bondage (whether as slaves, indentured servants or braceros) or freedom (even if that still leaves workers with the need to organize and fight to improve conditions).

Behind the debate lies a fundamental question: Is the purpose of immigration law to supply labor to industry on terms it finds acceptable, or is its purpose to protect the rights and welfare of immigrants themselves?

There is another framework for dealing with migration, other than contract labor and death on the border. The UN's International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families supports the right of family reunification, establishes equality of treatment with citizens of the host country, and prohibits collective deportation. Both sending and receiving countries are responsible for protecting migrants, and retain the right to determine who is admitted to their territories, and who has the right to work.

The Convention recognizes the global scale and permanence of migration, and starts by protecting the rights of migrants themselves. That's where an immigration policy based on human rights begins.

Bacon writes extensively on workers issues.

Return to the Frontpage