Braceros or Amnesty

David Bacon

This article is from the November/December 2001 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

issue 238 cover

This article is from the November/December 2001 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

The choice is not over what policy will or will not stop people from coming across the border, but over what happens to people when they're here in the United States. It is the age-old American dilemma—bondage or freedom.

At the end of Mexican President Vicente Fox's first state visit to Washington, D.C., in September, he left frustrated and empty-handed. It wasn't supposed to work out that way.

Months before, the occasion had been planned for Fox and U.S. President George W. Bush to unveil far-reaching proposals for immigration reform. Fox would return to Mexico City with much-needed proof of his effectiveness in office, and Bush would quickly introduce the package in Congress, enhancing his carefully crafted pro-Latino image.

Instead, Bush couldn't keep key members of his own party, who oppose any amnesty, on board. And without their votes in his pocket, he wasn't about to introduce anything. When a frustrated Fox told the Washington media that he expected to have a proposal negotiated by the end of the year, non-plussed Bush-administration officials made soothing public statements of general good intentions, but avoided any concrete promises.

Republicans are stuck on the horns of a dilemma. The industries that provide them with political contributions need workers to pick crops, clean hotel rooms, and do other hard work at low pay. These workers are increasingly undocumented immigrants. But a new immigration amnesty—allowing undocumented workers currently in the country (and conceivably those yet to come) to apply for legal permanent residence—carries the prospect of political upheaval. Many Republicans are loath to legalize the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States—who might, as a result, join unions, become citizens, and vote (probably not for the GOP).

For Bush, the easy answer is "guest-worker" programs. These programs, which permit the recruitment of workers in other countries for temporary jobs in the United States, have a long history here. Widely known as bracero (laborer) programs, after the system that allowed growers to recruit farm workers from Mexico during the 1940s and 1950s, such programs have historically drawn opposition from unions and Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander communities. While guest workers have rights on paper, employers can not only fire those who protest bad conditions and organize, but in effect can deport them as well. César Chávez could only begin organizing the United Farm Workers (UFW) when workers became free of the bracero system. Despite the end of the original bracero program, two guest-worker programs still exist in the United States, supplying skilled workers to the high-tech sector and farm laborers to agribusiness.

This year, even Republican right-wingers like Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Sen. Phil Gramm (R-TX) - once opposed to any measures that would let more people into the United States legally - have changed their stance on guest-worker programs. Both now favor the programs' expansion to meet the rising labor needs of employers in their states. This sudden conversion makes the immigration debate clearer. The choice is not over what policy will or will not stop people from coming across the border, but over what happens to people when they're here in the United States. It is the age-old American dilemma—bondage (whether as slaves, indentured servants, or braceros) or freedom (even if that still means workers will have to organize and fight to improve conditions).

New Friends: U.S. Labor and Fox Join Hands on Immigration

As usual, the new fault lines in the immigration debate were more visible in Los Angeles than anywhere else. After laying siege to Santa Monica's Loews Hotel, where management has stalled its immigrant workers in their pursuit of a union contract, hundreds of delegates to the July convention of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) marched to the Fairmont Miramar. There, in its cavernous ballroom, they welcomed Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda with a standing ovation.

Just the appearance of a high official of the Mexican government at the convention of a major U.S. union is a sign of changing times. For decades, U.S. unions and the Mexican government have looked at each other across the border with deep suspicion and hostility. Unions have condemned Mexico's low-wage economic policies, while its government has accused U.S. unions of protectionism and racism toward Mexican migrants.

Ironically, President Fox is probably the most pro-business head of state Mexico has had since the Mexican Revolution (1910-1921). Yet his push for immigration reform in the United States, along with the new interest of U.S. unions in defending Mexican immigrants, has created a whole new relationship. "Finally the U.S. has accepted that both countries have to discuss immigration," Castañeda told HERE members. "And for the first time, Mexico has agreed that it has joint responsibility with the United States for it. These are enormous changes—we have to take advantage of them."

Just as Castaneda was addressing the HERE convention, the White House's Mexican Migration Working Group, headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft, was leaking its own proposed recommendations. As soon as the press corps began reporting that the Working Group might recommend a legalization program for undocumented immigrants, the White House immediately made clear it would not support such a move.

The administration seemed anxious to show powerful Congressional Republicans like Sen. Gramm that they could still call the shots on immigration. During Fox's visit, Gramm made it plain that there would be no GOP support for an amnesty. As a result, the Working Group's report has yet to be released. In the wake of the crossed wires during Fox's visit, the panel seems unable to make a decision the administration can live with.

Unions interested in legalization have their own problems getting immigration-reform proposals on the table. Despite recent efforts by Bush to reach out to more conservative unions in the AFL-CIO, unions have little or no influence with the administration around guest workers and amnesty. Castañeda's appearance at the HERE convention highlights the newest twist in immigration politics. Increasingly, pro-legalization unions hope the Mexican government will represent their position in its negotiations with Bush.

In June, HERE President John Wilhelm and other labor leaders went to Mexico City to talk to Fox. "We said we were inalterably opposed to guest-worker programs," Wilhelm recalled. "We don't want any program in which a worker's immigration status is attached to their job, and where there is no realistic path to legalization."

The commitment of the Mexican government to legalization seems less clear. At the HERE convention, Castañeda described what he called "the whole enchilada," a package of proposals that the Fox administration is presenting to Bush—"regularization" of the status of undocumented Mexicans, more permanent visas for Mexicans to join relatives in the United States, greater cooperation to prevent the deaths of migrants crossing the border, and promotion of Mexican economic growth "to create more opportunities for Mexicans to stay and thrive in Mexico." The proposals are tied together, he emphasized, and Mexico won't allow the U.S. to negotiate just on the ones it likes.

The most controversial point was Castaneda's call for expanding guest-worker programs. The foreign minister even used a supposed labor shortage in the service sector as a justification. That drew strong objections from many delegates who hold service jobs in hotels and who see a tight labor market in the industry as an important bargaining advantage. "Just think what would happen if Loews could bring in a bunch of guest workers while we were fighting for this contract," grumbled one delegate as he left the ballroom. "We'd never get them to agree."

The key question is what the Mexican government means by "regularization" of the status of the undocumented. Does "regularization" mean Mexicans living in the U.S. should become guest workers to gain some form of legal status? While unpopular among Mexicans already here, that might be more acceptable to many people in Mexico considering the dangerous journey north. Fox already claims that expanded guest-worker programs will open the door to jobs and legal migration north.

That compromise has an additional huge attraction for Fox: It's the only arrangement the Bush administration will clearly support. Bush has explicitly stated he wants expanded guest-worker programs, not legalization. State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher explained that "it's really a question of an orderly guest-worker program, the safe and orderly migration, and in that context, obviously, looking at the status of people who are currently here."

Bush is looking over his shoulder at his fellow Texas Republicans, Sen. Phil Gramm, Rep. Lamar Smith, and Rep. Tom DeLay. "Anything that smacks of [amnesty] we'll oppose," warned Gramm Spokesperson Larry Neal. Smith, until last year chair of the House Immigration Subcommittee, warned that any amnesty proposal would encounter a lot of opposition. "I'd be surprised if the administration pushed it," he said.

What gives these Texans nightmares are the recent elections in southern California. In the recent Los Angeles mayoral contest, many HERE convention delegates walked precincts for former state assembly Speaker and union leader Antonio Villaraigoza, despite their lack of citizenship. "We called people on the phone, we went door-to-door," recalled Douglas Marmol, a delegate from Local 814. "It doesn't matter where you come from. We all have rights, and we need people in office who understand and respect that."

In 1997, members of HERE Local 681 working at Disneyland or at unionized hotels did the same thing in Orange County. As a result, Republican Rep. "B-1" Bob Dornan, who sat on the right wing of his party with Gramm, Smith, and DeLay, went down to defeat at the hands of Democrat Loretta Sánchez. Republicans are afraid that further opening doors to legalization and citizenship will leave them on the wrong side of the country's changing demographics.

Growers and Unions Negotiate Over Guest-Worker Programs

Agribusiness has pushed hard for expansion of the agricultural guest-worker program, which last year brought 40,000 workers into the United States. At the end of the 2000 Congressional session, California Democratic Rep. Howard Berman and Oregon Republican Sen. Gordon Smith proposed an amnesty, which would have granted legal status to hundreds of thousands of undocumented farm laborers. In exchange, requirements that growers provide housing to guest workers, and pay them a minimum wage adjusted annually for inflation, would have been relaxed.

The deal was crafted by farm-worker unions to get agribusiness support for amnesty. Unions argued that the existing glut of farm labor keeps rural wages below the minimum for guest workers in many areas, and therefore growers were unlikely to make much more use of the program. The program already exists, they argued, Congress is not likely to end it, and some expansion of the program was likely to pass in any case. But at the last moment then-Senate Majority Leader Gramm, who opposes any amnesty at all, killed the bill.

With Bush in the White House, growers scrapped last year's compromise. Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig introduced a new guest-worker bill, with no amnesty provision. Instead, undocumented farm workers currently in the United States would have to work 150 days in each of five years to qualify for permanent residence, a difficult feat for seasonal workers. Only work in the fields would count. The new bill requires only the minimum wage, and the government would no longer have to certify a labor shortage to permit importing workers—the growers' word would do. After meeting with Mexican President Fox, UFW President Arturo Rodríguez told the press, "We've made it clear that without legalization there will be no new guest-worker program or revision of the current guest-worker program."

Other industries now want guest workers, too. In Congress, the push comes from the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, which includes the American Health Care Association, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

HERE convention delegates unanimously rejected the idea of a bracero program in their industry. HERE President Wilhelm called an expanded guest-worker program "a terrible idea." "We need amnesty instead," said Pedro Navarro, an Anaheim delegate who works at Disney's Paradise. "It's the only way we'll be able to work securely, to face the police in our streets, or feel our kids will have real rights in school."

A first-ever HERE committee on immigration and civil rights reported to delegates that "tens of thousands of workers would be [made] hostage, and ultimately destroy wage and working conditions in the hospitality industry." Instead, the convention called for a broad legalization and citizenship program, and for repealing employer sanctions - the law which makes it illegal for undocumented workers to hold a job.

In an effort to solidify union ranks across racial lines, HERE also announced its intention to force hotels to begin hiring Black workers, alleging that in its eagerness to hire immigrants, the industry has erected discriminatory barriers to African-Americans. Wilhelm assailed the failure of the industry to hire Blacks in cities like Los Angeles as a "social catastrophe," while one of the union's highest ranking Black officers, National Executive Board Member Isaac Monroe, criticized the labor movement for "its failure to promote the leadership of African-Americans." But Monroe also warned delegates that "demographic changes are a wakeup call. The movement for immigrant rights is real, it's important, and it's our future."

The union's support for immigrant rights isn't just convention rhetoric. A majority of HERE members are immigrant workers. Two years ago, Los Angeles' Local 11 negotiated a master hotel contract allowing workers time off to normalize their immigration status, and requiring management to notify the union if the Immigration and Naturalization Service begins enforcement action against them. In San Francisco, Local 2 successfully won new legal protection for workers who in the past lost jobs when the Social Security Administration told employers their numbers were invalid. And Wilhelm heads the immigration committee of the AFL-CIO, pushing the labor federation to fight in Washington for immigration amnesty.

The Possibilities for Immigration Reform

Anti-immigrant fever has already begun to build in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Calls for beefing up border enforcement and restricting immigration are appearing on the op-ed pages of major U.S. newspapers. Along with the economic downturn, that will complicate the future of immigration reform.

But the labor needs of employers are not going to disappear, and the strategic drive for a new relationship with Mexico, while not as high on the agenda as it was during Fox's visit, is still a centerpiece of Bush's foreign policy. Fox said Bush called him the weekend after the attacks, saying he "hasn't forgotten that we have commitments to work to regularize the situation of immigrants." In turn, Castañeda announced that "the United States has every right and reason to seek revenge. We cannot deny them support." The statement made it clear that Mexico's foreign-policy independence and frequent criticism of U.S. military intervention was a thing of the past. Whether it will ease discussions of a guest-worker program, however, remains to be seen.

HERE President Wilhelm argues that a guest-worker proposal can be defeated, especially if employer groups take a long-range, enlightened view of their own self-interest. "Some have said privately that guest workers aren't the answer, just a temporary Band-Aid," he explained in an interview. "Everyone thinks the labor shortage will get worse over the next two decades, and there's no incentive to provide training, or even English classes, to guest workers. So if we can get a significant group of employers to reject the idea, we have a shot. Short of that, I'm very fearful."

The union, in any case, isn't waiting passively. HERE has already announced plans for an "Immigrants Freedom Ride" to Washington, D.C., next May "in search of legalization and immigrant rights." The union's call uses the language of the 1960s civil-rights movement, and refers to the time when people from the North rode busses to southern states to end segregation. "We want full and complete amnesty," Pedro Navarro emphasized. "We want the same rights everyone else has, nothing less."

Unfortunately, such an outcome now seems further away than ever.

David Bacon is a journalist and photographer covering labor, immigration, and the impact of the global economy on workers.