Saturday, May 18, 2024

Immigration Reform, Guest Worker Programs and What We Can Learn From Braceros

Dakar LanzinoWritten By: Dakar Lanzino

In his 2005 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush said  “It is time for an immigration policy that permits temporary guest workers to fill jobs Americans will not take, that rejects amnesty, that tells us who is entering and leaving our country, and that closes the border to drug dealers and terrorists.” When you hear pundits and politicians say that immigration built this country they have a point. Whether it was the Chinese immigrants that help build the intercontinental railroad, or the more than 4-million farm workers that crossed the border every year, under the Bracero program, to work in the fields so they could send some money back to their families in Mexico, immigrants built this country through blood sweat and tears. I am not one to agree with the former president on most issues but President Bush was and continues to be right, the question is: will we learn from the mistakes of the past?

Even though public support is behind immigration reform, politicians in Washington have to understand that we can’t just pass a bill that has no teeth. We have to get this right and there is a lot we can learn from History. Take, for example, the Bracero Program started under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During World War II, the United States needed labor to keep up with the demands of the war and when Mexico declared War on the Axis powers the U.S. government approached Mexico with a plan that would help both countries. The deal was that qualified Mexican workers would be allowed to come to the U.S. to work and go back home when their job was done. There was a lot of opposition to such a program, some because of Xenophobia, and some from Labor unions who had legitimate concerns on how such programs would be executed.

AFL-CIO President, Richard Trumka, recently said in a statement to NBC news “Programs like the bracero program or temporary guest-worker programs where individuals were tied to an employer, they got exploited”, he said. “They got cheated out of wages [and] they weren’t given what was rightfully due to them. They were forced to work under unsafe conditions. They were forced to accept substandard wages. They couldn’t say anything, because if they did, [the employer] would jerk their permit and deport them.”

Mr. Trumka hit the nail on the head. The Bracero program turned out to be a complete disaster, due to the lack of accountability on the Mexican Government to make sure that only the most qualified were granted entry, and lack of accountability on the U.S. government to protect the workers from exploitation by American employers. The idea of a temporary workers permit for agricultural workers is not new and we can try another Bracero program but it will only work if the U.S. government is willing to do the work to protect the people from exploitation and unsafe working conditions. A philosophy professor once told me “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” Well, we can’t have a guest worker program without accountability and in this climate of austerity, accountability will be hard to achieve.

Two unlikely allies, Business and Labor, have come together to make sure that comprehensive immigration reform, along with a guest workers program gets done and that it gets done right. In a joint statement, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and AFL-CIO President said “We are now in the middle – not the end – of this process, and we pledge to continue to work together and with our allies and our representatives on Capitol Hill to finalize a solution that is in the interest of this country we all love.”  We have the potential to do something great. Statistics show that the economic benefits of immigration reform will far outweigh anything that the opposition says. This bill will be good for labor and business and it is about time it gets done. When the dust settles we must remember that Immigration did build this country, and it is Immigrants that continue to make it a better one.

Dakar Lanzino is an assistant for the Latinovations practice of Dewey Square group as well as the editor of La Plaza. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida with a Political Science Degree and a concentration on American Government.