The political class led by President Obama is as confused about immigration policy as the general public. From all corners, left and right, they harp “all we need to fix our border woes is comprehensive immigration reform.” Hogwash! Sovereignty, even citizenship, is a meaningless if a nation doesn’t control who crosses its borders.
I shall narrow the focus of this article to the case of migrant farm workers, which epitomizes the multifaceted issues on immigration policy. The political divide is clear. Many on the left are happy to leave the borders open because it facilitates building the base of the Democratic Party with the hoards of uneducated immigrants flooding our borders. And many on the right reflect the “fortress America” mindset: “lock the doors and keep them out; they come here and take American jobs.” These are expressions of woefully misinformed individuals. The fact is that without the army of migrant farm workers who grow and harvest our farms, U.S. families would not have food to set their tables. Of the total U.S. farm workers, 94% are Mexican-born. Farm work is listed as second most dangerous occupation in the U.S. behind mining. Without the migrant workers the U.S. would have an insufficient farm labor pool. Some history is due here.
Events in the 20th century changed the nature of farming on both sides of the border forever. The 1910-1920 Mexican revolution did not bring about the changes Mexicans long sought. In fact, Mexico has never been able to formulate a sustainable government since Spaniard Cortez landed on it shores in 1519 and conditions likely will never improve until they abandon the European autocratic system. While farm productivity steadily declined unemployment rate climbed and therefore Mexican farm workers with no other marketable skills were forced to move north to find work.
On the U.S. side, WWII changed everything. With a total workforce of 73 million, 15 million we siphoned off into the armed forces and millions more, mostly women, into defense plants. The war effort caused a massive mechanization of the American economy. Farm kids moved to the cities to take higher paying defense jobs. The post-war boom created even more non-agricultural enterprises and thus from then on it was impossible “to keep them down on the farm.” The situation grew critical with outbreak of WWII. Farmers were getting older while the farm labor pool shrunk and a growing population meant more people to feed.
Fortunately, Mexico and the United States struck a deal to solve the labor problem for both nations; they signed a treaty to establish a Guest-Worker Program, the Bracero (manual worker) program. Seasonal Mexican farm workers were invited to U.S. agricultural regions for the growing and harvest seasons. They entered at the El Paso center and were trucked to various agricultural regions according to their skills. In California, they began in San Diego, worked north to the state of Washington picking fruit. Well known was the fact that many West Coast farms produced two and three crops per season. As they turned around in Washington and proceeded back south, they worked some of the same farms again. Once back in San Diego at end of the season, they were returned to Mexico with enough wages to live out the winter with their family (and culture) until the next season. The system was good for Mexico, the United States and the migrant farm worker. However there were some abuses.
Some of their wages were supposed to be deposited in a Mexican bank to be drawn on in the off-season. Unfortunately, the growers pocketed some of it for which the Mexican government had to sue the U.S. Secondly, most of the Braceros could not read the English contract they signed when entering the U.S. and were unaware of the many civil rights violation.
Strongly backing the Bracero Program was community service organizer César Chávez, who for many years fought to organize the giant agribusiness under his United Farm Union. Then in 1959 liberal Pat Brown, a champion of Civil Rights, was elected governor of California, also a strong supporter of the Bracero program. Then, unintended consequence began to pop up. Braceros would leave the fields and fade in to U.S. population to take domestic jobs paying three times a bracero wage. At first Brown winked at the many Mexicans farm workers who stayed illegally to take domestic jobs, as long as they paid their union dues. Then Brown realized that more braceros meant fewer jobs for native Californians who had willingly worked in the field. Embracing the braceros put Brown squarely against his constituents. For Chavez’s union members, nothing could be worse than a steady stream of migrants willing to work for less than those who preceded them last season. Ironically, the two strongest backers of the bracero found it untenable and reversed themselves; they abandoned their sacred cow and in 1964 persuaded Congress to end the bracero program.
That set the course for a broken immigration policy that remains broken today while a permanently on-leave president and congress seemingly is incapable of fixing anything.
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Stumptalk is published weekly in the Crossville Chronicle. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the Chronicle publisher, editor or staff. To contact Stumptalk, email coordinator Jim Sykes at email@example.com.