Bush’s bracero immigration plan: Indentured servitude for the 21st century

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Introducing his immigration proposal on January 7, George W. Bush attempted a fraud: he advertised it as relief for immigrant workers, when it really is a gift for the bosses who exploit them. An update of the shameful bracero program begun during World War II, the proposal would formalize access for big business to a supply of low-waged, vulnerable workers.

While corporations depend on immigrant labor, they must be able to control it. Bush’s plan answers the need.

And, as a companion to his proposal, he says he will crack down harder on illegal immigration. He describes the plan as a component of the war on terrorism.

The war on labor is more like it. Immigrants keep the U.S. economy alive, and they do more. Their militancy is also keeping the U.S. labor movement alive. A hefty 14 percent of all U.S. workers are foreign-born, and many of these workers bring with them a sharp class consciousness.

Just one example is Los Angeles, where the infusion of immigrants has turned a notoriously antilabor city into a hotbed of workingclass organizing. Another is last year’s Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, organized by the AFL-CIO in a notable departure from that body’s often anti-immigrant tradition.

Bush’s scheme, then, is not just an election-year ploy. It is a serious response to a political situation that, as the bosses see it, threatens to get out of hand.

Second-class status cemented. Bush would make the government a matchmaker between employers who want cheap labor and workers from other nations who desperately need jobs. People in the program could work legally without a green card (which recognizes permanent residency status) for three years, with possible extensions. Included as eligible would be the estimated 8 to 14 million undocumented workers already in the U.S., mainly from Latin America, with more than half from Mexico. But future “illegal” immigrants would be excluded.

Bush’s blather about “compassion” and “fairness” notwithstanding, his blueprint is a sinister one.

• Bush clearly said that participating workers will not get any boost toward permanent legal status. So did a Department of Homeland Security official who told a Senate subcommittee that the program “does not lead to permanent residency or to citizenship.”

• The only jobs available would be those that employers show cannot be filled by U.S. workers. Thus, temporary laborers would be stuck, without escape, in the worst possible jobs — the lowest paid and most arduous.

• Workers would be at the mercy of their bosses. Those who lose their jobs would be deported, regardless of how long they have lived in the country or the roots they have put down. Who would feel free to speak up about job conditions at this cost?

• Guest workers would have to get security clearances and would be issued cards encoded with biometric identifiers, such as facial recognition based on detailed measurements.

In essence, Bush’s proposal revives the bracero program of the last century, while adding a few new police-state flourishes.

Yesterday’s braceros and their fight today. During the vast unemployment of the Great Depression, nearly half a million Mexican immigrants, some of them naturalized citizens, were expelled from the U.S. A few years later, however, World War II created a huge labor shortage, exacerbated in the fields by the internment of Japanese American agricultural workers.

Democratic Party President Franklin Delano Roosevelt began the program of braceros (“helping arms”) in 1942. Until its end at the close of 1964, some 4.5 million short-term contracts were issued to Mexicans willing to keep U.S. crops growing and railroads running. The ill-paid braceros had no rights and suffered abominable conditions, cruel treatment, and political scapegoating.

The braceros’ contracts stipulated that 10 percent of their wages would be withheld, transferred to savings and retirement funds managed by the Mexican government, and paid to them after their return home.

Bush suggests something similar in his plan. But let the new bracero beware! Most of the former braceros never got their deferred compensation — and where the money went is a well-shrouded mystery.

In 1999, bracero activists initiated a campaign insisting on payment by the Mexican government. Tens of thousands of braceros came forward within a matter of months. In February 2004, about 2,000 people made headlines when they forced their way past security and occupied the family ranch of Mexican President Vicente Fox to demand action.

The question of immigration causes at least as many sleepless nights for Mexican officials and bosses as it does for their U.S. counterparts. Money sent home by workers in the U.S. is Mexico’s second-highest source of foreign income. Further, the severely troubled Mexican economy, with its high level of unemployment, would be even more strained without the escape valve of migration to the U.S.

The escape valve is necessary, of course, because of economic damage caused by the U.S. (See article on page 3 for a discussion of NAFTA’s effects.)

Solidarity: the challenge for U.S. workers. The capitalists in the U.S. depend on immigrants as a pool of cheap labor that drives down conditions for all workers. Politically, they play a racist game of divide-and-conquer. U.S. workers are encouraged to see foreign-born workers as separate and inferior and to blame them for evils of the system like unemployment.

But capital recognizes no borders, and they should not be closed to workers struggling to survive. And, if U.S. workers accept the super-abuse of immigrants today, it will be their paychecks and healthcare that are cut tomorrow. The problems workers face are global ones: blaming immigrants or trying to turn them away solves nothing. It is high time the U.S. labor movement organizes with other workers internationally for the benefit of all.

In fact, Bush’s proposal is the equivalent of officially bringing to the U.S. the “free enterprise zones” that create immense misery abroad. It is in every worker’s interest to defeat this plan, and to demand equal rights, decent wages and benefits, and full legal protections for all immigrants, whether documented or not. Immigrant and native-born workers will rise or fall together.

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