Be Our Guest
Expanding the guest worker program may be one way out of the immigration bind.
The system's broke, as they say.
The immigration system on the Mexican border has been broken for decades. The primary issue is the tragic absurdity of Mexicans and other Latin Americans passing through hell and high water just to get to jobs picking peaches or potatoes or laboring in construction or forestry.
Thousands of illegal immigrants have died wandering sunstruck through the hellish heat of deserts. Others have died crossing the high water of the Rio Grande. The main issue is broken people.
To rightists the system is broken because the southern border became so porous to undocumented immigrants that it was almost meaningless. To them, a state of law is better than a lack of law. So some want to shut out every avenue toward legality for undocumented workers.
The Republicans' loss of the last presidential election has forced them to face the issues that concern Latinos in the US, and one of their most important issues is immigration reform.
But at this moment whether any reform will happen at all is still up in the air. Which side of this issue will prevail? Can some kind of compromise be reached? At this moment no one really knows.
The path to citizenship for workers without papers is one of the most controversial issues.
Anybody has to factor into their opinions how hard Mexican immigrants work and how much they've contributed to our economy — some maybe for 25 years, since the amnesty of 1987 and 1988.
Picking in the fields in New Mexico is extremely hard work. Workers try to pick every chile they can to earn every penny they can. They get no breaks or lunch hours. A lot of pickers fall asleep almost immediately after getting home, I've been told.
Many fieldworkers get on busses in El Paso at 1 a.m. to travel to Deming, Hachita or Lordsburg and don't get back till late afternoon.
I've known a couple of workers in the food processors who have held two full-time jobs simultaneously for a few months, and they say they're not alone. They sleep for just one or two hours in a 24-hour period. It's truly phenomenal.
Working so hard for so little pay ought to confer some rights on a person.
One new idea that's being debated is the so-called "blue card." This can be given to experienced undocumented fieldworkers for a fee of $400. It will protect them and their family from deportation while they continue to work in the fields for three more years.
They can then apply for the green card, or permanent resident status and possibly to citizenship. This is an important program to support.
The H2A guest worker program has been heavily criticized by farmworker advocates because farmworkers have been more restricted in this program than they are when they work independently in the fields. They are restricted to one employer, for example, making it hard to complain about work conditions for fear of deportation. Some people have called it "slavery." Others think that's an exaggeration.
Farmworker organizations have documented extreme cases of abuse, such as Jamaican workers who got transported to the US and then exploited so badly that they returned with almost no money. The Farmworker Justice Fund (FJF) opposes expanding the guest worker program.
But the position of the FJF leaves a really crucial issue untouched: How are workers going to get across the border without risking their lives?
Edward R. Murrow's documentary "Harvest of Shame" in 1960, about the bracero workers, exposed the hard living and working conditions of the Mexican workers. It was important in bringing the Bracero Program to a stop in 1964.
But ironically, what Mexicans remember about the Bracero Program is that it got them across the border safely.
"That was a good program!" said a former farmworker at the Border Agricultural Workers Center in El Paso a few years ago. "They had an office in my town [Sain Alto, Zacatecas] where you could get papers to cross the border." Center director Carlos Marentes said this attitude is common.
Chuck Barrett, who lives in Hillsboro, worked for years for both the United Farm Workers and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. He's now the director of his own development organization called Amanecer that supports the Mexican organization Small Farmers Network of Mexico (RCPP) in 227 indigenous communities.
Barrett says that out of those communities, there are over 1,000 men who are eager to cross the border and be part of the H2A guest worker program in the US with the assistance of these organizations. "Peer pressure in these towns is enormous," he says.
"They are so glad to get away from the chaos and destruction and death" that are part of the undocumented migrants' experience, Barrett adds. He supports the expansion of the guest worker
program, but only as an evil less than that of undocumented border-crossing RCPP and Amanecer also help the workers avoid the widespread corruption of the Mexican recruiting companies through which workers usually get guest worker status.
There are shortcomings to the guest worker program. Social Security or unemployment benefits for workers aren't even on the table right now. Guest workers don't get a path to citizenship. But if this program gets the expansion that is proposed, it may get liberalized.
They are already talking about letting guest workers work for more than one employer and for more than 10 months at a time. In general, the whole program may be made more flexible for both worker and employer.
There are even a lot of agricultural employers who are working toward a more liberal immigration reform. Barrett works with Mike Gempler, the executive director of the Washington Growers League and former president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers.
Gempler is working night and day to get growers to support immigration reform. Barrett describes him as saying to politicians, "Please, please, please, please, if you pass it, we will support you."
The over 1.5 million deportations under the Obama administration have hit US growers hard. Some say they've lost millions or even billions of dollars because of them. Farmers in Georgia and Alabama, where legislatures imposed extreme laws opposing illegal immigrants in 2011, have lost crops or cut back on planting.
A lot of growers would like stronger and more flexible guest worker programs to harvest their crops.
If some kind of immigration reform is to be passed at all, will it be enough to break the back of the broken system?
Only time will tell, but widespread expansion of the guest worker program may be the closest possibility for satisfying both sides of the immigration debate and making it safe for Mexicans to get to work.
Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.