May 27, 2005

New Immigration Proposals: A Fast Track to the Past

By David Bacon


Proposals for a new temporary worker program are popular in corporate America. Now they’re popular in Congress as well.

President Bush a main proponent of temporary worker programs since early in his first term. Bush, who opposes legalization for undocumented workers currently here, calls instead for linking “willing employees with willing employers.”

Corporate pressure for these programs has grown so strong that even bipartisan proposals for immigration reform now include them. The word in Washington, D.C., is that no immigration reform is worth discussing unless corporate America gets what it wants. Last week, a new bipartisan bill was introduced by Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain, which includes a program even larger than that proposed by Bush.

The President’s program calls for three-year temporary visas for 300,000 people, renewable for another three. It was adopted point-by-point from a report written by Daniel T. Griswold for the conservative Cato Institute in 2002. The Kennedy-McCain bill calls for 400,000 temporary visas.

The Cato report, Bush’s proposal and the bipartisan bill all incorporate demands by the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, made up of 36 of the country’s largest trade and manufacturers’ associations, headed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. This group includes the National Association of Chain Drug Stores (think Wal-Mart), the American Health Care Association, the American Hotel and Lodging Association, the National Council of Chain Restaurants, the National Retail Federation and the Associated Builders and Contractors.

These industries are already heavily dependent on immigrant labor. In fact, if Mexicans in the United States disappeared tomorrow, as imagined by the movie “A Day Without Mexicans,” their operations would quickly grind to a halt.

Since these industries already have an immigrant workforce, why do they want workers on temporary visas? Despite their claims, there is no great shortage of workers in the United States, immigrant or native-born. But today’s immigrants are actively organizing unions and fighting for better conditions. There is a shortage of workers at the low wages industry would like to pay.

Temporary worker proposals are not new. In fact, they’re a fast track to the past. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers were contracted to come to the United States from 1942 to 1964, to work in the fields and on the railroads. The “bracero” program was abusive. Workers were kept in military-style barracks, paid low wages and sent home if they complained. Resident workers didn’t like it either, because when they tried to strike, they were easily replaced. Growers kept wages low, and when they were through with the “braceros,” they just sent them somewhere else.

Eventually, Mexican-American activists, including César Chávez and Ernesto Galarza, fought successfully to end the program. Chavez later said that organizing the United Farm Workers, a union mostly made up of immigrants, would never have been possible if the program hadn’t been stopped.

Some surveys claim undocumented workers here in the United States like the idea of temporary visas. But a choice between becoming a bracero or risking death by crossing the desert illegally is no choice at all. One respected group of Mexican immigrants, the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations “disapproves (of the Bush proposal) because it doesn’t guarantee respect for labor and human rights.” Instead, the organization calls for legalizing current undocumented workers. Ventura Gutierrez, head of the Union Sin Fronteras, a group of veterans of the original bracero program, says “people who lived through the old program know the abuse (the new programs) will cause.”

Real immigration reform could encourage immigrants to form stable families and communities. But temporary workers cannot do this, since they have no right to live with their families, to develop their culture, to housing and health care or to political representation. All that counts is their ability to work. When the work is done, so are they.

Seven years ago American unions came out on the side of immigrants, agreeing to fight for equality and legalization for the 10 million undocumented already here. Unions voted to seek the end of employer sanctions, a law which makes it a crime to hire undocumented workers and is frequently used to bust union organizing efforts. If unions support temporary worker programs, these goals will be harder to reach.

The flow of immigrants into the United States will not stop as long as huge differences persist between the world’s rich and poor. Over 130 million people today live outside the countries in which they were born. Employers would like to channel this flow into temporary worker programs, eventually replacing their current workforce, whether all at once or over time. What other advantage can these programs give them?

Instead of increasing job competition and pitting one group of low-wage workers against another, the needs of all low-wage workers should be considered instead. African American and other minority communities need more jobs and training. Immigrant workers would benefit from legalization, permanent residence visas and stronger defense of their rights.

One bill, by Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Houston), takes this approach. Getting it passed may not be easy, and may take time and require demonstrations, marches and visits to Congressional offices. But a real solution, benefiting all workers, is worth fighting for.

David Bacon (, a freelance writer who writes on labor and immigration issues. His latest book is “The Children of NAFTA” (University of California Press, 2004).

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