In If Immigration Can’t Be Stopped, Maybe It Can Be Managed the New York Times touted a “new” temporary worker scheme created by the Center for Global Development, matching Mexican workers with U.S. employers.
The CGD patterned their plan on the 1942 Bracero Program. They argue it will address labor needs and end undocumented migration. It is shocking to see this shameful old chapter in U.S. labor history resurrected as shiny immigration reform.
The Bracero Program began as a temporary provision, sold to a xenophobic population as a necessary measure to address a war-time labor shortage. However it outlasted the war by two decades, and actually expanded during peace time, cresting in the mid 1950s and enduring until 1964.
The United States/Mexico low-wage temporary labor system did not begin with the Bracero Program. It developed sixty year earlier, with completion of the Pacific Railway and passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Chinese workers recruited to build the railroad became the first “illegals” when their usefulness to railroad tycoons was over.
The new rails made it possible to connect southwestern products to global markets and new irrigation techniques spurred the desire for a new army of temporary workers to plant and harvest. Newly discovered copper, silver and oil mines also needed workers to unearth its treasures. Peasants in Mexico, displaced by these same railroads, mining companies and factory farmers operating on both sides of the border, became that labor army, displaced and forced into a migrant stream that continues to this day.
U.S. employers became dependent on this bilateral labor system for workers they could recruit when needed, super-exploit and remove when no longer required. The system has depended on and helped ensure the continued impoverishment of Mexico and the seasonal resurrection of anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican racism in the U.S.
Far from removing the most exploitative aspects of this bilateral labor system, the Bracero Program of 1942 codified and justified it. Braceros were denied the right to build families and communities in the United States. They were tied to employers like slaves, unable to take their labor elsewhere. They were treated like cattle, subject to naked inspections and sprayed with poisons at the border.
The Bracero program withheld a percentage of the worker’s wages until they returned to Mexico. Most workers never received those wages. Despite the success of recent law suits some workers and their heirs have yet to recover those stolen earnings. It is the definition of hubris, that the Center for Global Development’s “new” proposal includes the same wage-withholding provision.
The new proposal, (like its predecessors) promises to be kinder and gentler. For example, it will not tether workers to employers. It is best not to ask how this would actually work, because such a question thrusts us into the minutiae of a proposal that is rotten in its premise.
We need to answer the new Bracero Program proposal with a transnational labor plan that seeks to END that super-exploitative labor system begun 130 years ago – not shore it up! Workers on both sides of the border need living wages, benefits and protections, environmental regulations. We need to enforce the inalienable right of all workers to stay home OR roam. We need regulations that force large employers on both sides of border to investment in local, sustainable economies.
Instead of resurrecting a 1942 system of labor dehumanization, lets dump free trade and fast-track a transnational bill of workers rights.
In designing such a bill we can look to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Article 13 states: Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country. and Article 23 declares: Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.