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Should I stay, or should I go?

19 March 2007

From California Catholic Daily:

The stepped up border presence has convinced many illegal immigrants to stay in the United States rather than recross the border. “It’s like a bathtub: The same flow is going in, but the Border Patrol has really clogged up the drain, so the tub starts to fill up,” David Spener, a sociologist at Trinity University in San Antonio, told the Times.

Anyone who lives on the border, and has been paying attention, notices the same thing.  Workers who come to raise some money for their family, if they can’t return to take care of that family, are going to bring the family to them… somehow. 

I’m enough a student of Mexican history to recognize that the old Bracero Program from WWII is the model for Bush’s “guest worker proposal.”  There were plenty of abuses,  and there are still left-over issues to be resolved for workers who never received their set-asides (the Braceros were to receive ten percent of their salary after returning home… and some guys going back to WWII, when Mexican ran the canneries and railroads and picked the crops so that U.S. workers could build airplanes and shoot Germans never did get their money). 

But… as ONE tool for dealing with the immigration problem, a “guest worker” program makes sense.  It wouldn’t be for everyone, just those workers who don’t plan on staying in the U.S. … you know, the guys the right-wingers are always complaining won’t assimilate.  Or are sending money home to Tia Chuleta to put aside for their sister’s grad school expenses, or to open that little changarra on the corner.  This is especially true for workers not planning a career or long-term employment:  working in canneries and slaughterhouses, doing construction or farm labor or working on the Alaskan fishing boats.   

For the Mexican workers, there would be an advantage… IF the program was written with avoiding the Bracero abuses in mind (labor rights would have to be monitored, and the set-asides shouldn’t be a huge problem with better accounting and tracking systems available now than there were in the 1940s).  They would have some security knowing they were going to do a certain job at a certain location, and be back at a certain time. 

Ideally, done though either agencies (or even better, through the Mexican unions), there would also be an advantage for U.S. employers.  Along the border, it was always the custom for certain Mexican families or villages to send someone to work for a known decent employer.  It was an informal process, but a good employer-employee relationship was built on trust.  The employer might not know from year to year if he’d have the same exact workers, but he’d expect his workers were tuned in to what to expect, and the conditions — and came with recommendations — from their uncle, father, grandfather, padrino, etc.  It was ad hoc, but worked to everyone’s advantage. 

Word would get around pretty fast if a given janitorial service, or packing plant was screwing people around.  This would force the employers to compete for workers, and… those with the best deals could expect the better employees. 

The “compassionate conservative” spin has been that any sort of temporary worker program will create “second-class citizens”. Funny, you never hear these guys show the same compassion for other low-wage workers, nor do they seem to notice the logical fallacy — they’re not talking about citizens in the first place. 

Yeah… like the Braceros, some workers are going to stay in the U.S.  Most are going to be younger guys, and you can expect they’ll find girlfriends or discover some new opportunities (or even be offered a career job by their “temporary employer”. 

Imperfect?  Of course.  But, on a smaller scale, it’s being done (Canada and the State of Iowa, among others, already contract for workers in Mexico and Central America).  Of course, I expect bureaucrats and legislators will put all kinds of stupid hurdles on such a program, but if they can learn to keep it simple, it just might be one ingredient in the “whole enchillada” of immigration reform.

And a hell of a lot cheaper than blimps and fences…

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