The New Bracero Program

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The New Bracero Program within Comprehensive Immigration Reform

by: Gilbert G Gonzalez

April 22, 2013

On Easter Sunday newspapers announced that a deal had been reached between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO on a general framework for a new guest worker program within comprehensive immigration reform proposed by the Senate bi-partisan committee gang of eight. Although Senate and House committees were assigned independently to reach agreements on CIR, the matter of a guest worker program which both parties supported, was assigned to the Chamber and AFL-CIO for negotiation. That the guest worker program was intended by the Senate and House committees to be included in the final version (if one were to be reached) of comprehensive immigration reform is not at all surprising. The Congressional Research Service reported that since 2006 most CIR proposals have favored “[l]arge-scale low skilled temporary worker programs.”  While the Dream Act or a general pathway to legalization and citizenship for the undocumented has raised storms of controversy, the 2012 election prompted the republican leadership to engage CIR. However, the matter of guest workers was something that both parties had long before reached general agreement on and it has been a goal that U.S. corporations dependent on Mexico’s cheap, accessible, controlled and disposable labor have been championing for over a century. Including a new guest worker program in immigration reform has little to do with reform and has much to do with the history of guest worker programs employed by the U.S., in particular, the Bracero Program. Unfortunately, immigrant rights organizations lobby worthy objectives, legalization, path to citizenship and more, but generally ignore the guest worker proposals within CIR.

With the rise of undocumented migration caused by the North American Free Trade Agreement which uprooted nearly two million campesinos off traditional subsistence farmlands, “illegal” immigration quickly became a critical national question. As the undocumented entered into the job market, legislation to limit their public life such as California’s Proposition 187 soon set numerous states’ legislative agendas. However, the matter of moving the undocumented (and those who might cross without papers) into the job market via a guest worker program simultaneously took on life. The Essential Immigrant Worker Coalition, representing national businesses including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, lobbied with the Clinton administration in the late 90s to establish a new guest worker program, which Clinton supported but never followed through. The Bush administration revived the effort in the early decade and brought forward negotiations with Mexico’s President Fox for “a new guest worker program that would legitimize many who entered the country illegally,”  but that too was derailed by 9/11 but the measure never left his desk. In 2004 Bush proposed legislation that the undocumented were to “be authorized as guest workers for three years and then required to return home”. Bush described his proposal as “a temporary worker card that allows a willing worker and a willing employer to mate up, as long as there is not an American willing to do the job…It makes sure that people coming across the border are humanely treated…”  Although the proposal included importing guest workers, it failed to generate support, conservatives labeled the allowing undocumented to become guest workers an amnesty for law violators.

Several more proposals were brought forward by both sides of the aisle for a new guest worker program including what became known as AgJobs. Senator Dianne Feintstein (D-CA) proposed such a measure in 2006 which would require undocumented farmworkers to enlist, pass a review and work for 150 days a year for three years or 100 days a year for five years and at the end, with good deportment, would be granted legalization after paying a $400 fine. Agribusiness interests were strong supporters of the measure, as a report from the Senator’s office noted:
Senator Feinstein was joined at a news conference by dozens of growers and nurserymen. These growers were among the more than 100 members of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform (ACIR) who traveled to Washington, DC, this week to call on Congress to pass responsible immigration reform.

What is not noted by the supporters of the measure is that those who enlist will in effect become guest workers for set number of years, guaranteeing agricultural corporations a labor supply working at “prevailing wages,” in effect poverty wages. No immigration reform measure passed except that border enforcement rose to new heights.

The election of Obama did not alter the immigration agenda; however, deportations rose to new levels and detention facilities soon came to house over 30,000 undocumented waiting for final decisions.  In 2011 the Obama Administration issued a report, Building a 21st Century Immigration System, in which the administration laid out plans for a temporary worker program and AgJobs. The proposal recommended reforms “that carefully balances the needs of businesses and worker rights” to the H2A agricultural worker and H2B non-agricultural guest worker programs. Reform meant improving an existing guest worker program to serve businesses better while preserving existing worker rights. It should be noted that the Bracero Program guaranteed worker rights that domestic workers never dreamed of and that only if domestic workers were not available would braceros be contracted. But those federal regulations were violated widely and sanctioned by local, state and federal authorities.

In the recent agreement reached between the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce, guest workers are to be paid the prevailing wages and provided standard working and living conditions, the very same measures that were to regulate the Bracero Program which were ignored. However, in none of the proposals put forward was there any mention of the dire working and living conditions that H2 workers currently experience in spite of protections written into their contracts. The Southern Poverty Law Center researched the conditions and found that “far from being treated like “guests,” these workers are systematically exploited and abused…guestworkers do not enjoy the most fundamental protections of a competitive labor market.”  The immigrant rights organization, International Labor Recruitment Working Group, reported that guest  workers generally experience “fraud, discrimination, severe economic coercion, retaliation, blacklisting and in some cases, forced labor…”  H2 guest workers are supposedly afforded all sorts of protections, as were the braceros, but facts speak otherwise. A new guest worker program is designed above all else to assist businesses acquire cheap labor while the rights of workers are marginalized, at best. Natalie Gochnour, the chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, underlined the expected reform outcomes: “Fixing the immigration system will create a more attractive labor supply, will lower the costs of businesses and we will have more customers.  Rather than representing labor, the AFL-CIO joined with the Democratic and Republican parties in supporting key objectives designed by corporations in their search for cheap, accessible and disposable labor. Mexico continues to serve as a huge pool of labor accessed when the need arises and in that capacity Mexico is now joined by Central America and the Caribbean. Guest worker proposals remain to be addressed critically by immigrant rights organizations.

Gilbert G Gonzalez Author: Guest Workers or Colonized Labor? Mexican Labor Migration to the United States

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