Beyond Braceros

Beyond Braceros

In a misguided GOP reform effort, Congress is ready to pass measures that would militarize border controls, violate workers’ rights and give corporations a new bracero program. Immigrant rights groups, unions, civil rights organizations and working families push for something better.


It’s time to say no.

Every new Republican proposal for immigration reform in Congress makes the prospect of winning legal status for the nation’s 12 million undocumented residents more remote. At the same time, Congress appears ready to pass measures that will increase border deaths, lead to wholesale violations of workers’ rights and give the country’s largest corporations a huge new bracero program. Supporters of immigrant and workers’ rights face a moment of truth. Can they defeat the right-wing “reform” offensive? Even more important, can they build a movement for a real alternative?

In September George W. Bush reintroduced his predictably corporate-friendly proposal for immigration reform, calling for contract labor programs that would allow corporations to recruit hundreds of thousands of workers abroad. The workers could stay in the country only while they work, for a maximum of six years. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel has now proposed four separate reform bills. The first bill would beef up border enforcement, although the increasingly militarized border forces migrants to cross in the most dangerous areas of the desert. Hundreds already die every year as a result. The second bill would strengthen employer sanctions, turning the Labor Department and the Social Security Administration into immigration police, hunting and deporting those without papers. Sanctions enforcement destroys unions and lowers wages. The third bill would create a new guest-worker program. Historically, bracero programs have exploited immigrants mercilessly–while undermining the wages and rights of citizens and legal residents. Finally, in the only deviation from Bush, the senator promised a fourth bill to offer the undocumented some form of legal status tied to their employment.

While the details are in flux, the politics are clear. Republicans can muster the votes for enforcement, especially by waving the bloody flag of national security. Bush and the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition (an alliance of the nation’s forty-three largest employer associations, from Wal-Mart to Tyson Foods) can win passage of new guest-worker programs, even over the opposition of the xenophobic ultra-right. But when Congress finally arrives at the fourth bill, legalization, the majority will evaporate. This reform agenda will produce repression and braceros, and not much more.

Immigrant rights advocates have been divided over the best strategy to win legalization. Some unions and civil rights organizations support a bill proposed by senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy that includes all four elements proposed by Hagel. Liberals have formed an alliance with employers and enforcement advocates, tacking the promise of legalization onto a guest-worker program. The alliance has used Tamar Jacoby, senior fellow at the anti-labor, ultra-right Manhattan Institute, as a spokesperson. This strategy has led the national movement for immigrant rights into a blind alley. Once McCain-Kennedy advocates endorsed employer sanctions, increased border enforcement and bracero programs, they were in no position to organize opposition to more extreme Republican versions.

Alternatives are urgently needed. The Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations calls for respecting the community rights of immigrants rather than treating them as cheap labor. In 1999 the AFL-CIO floated a “freedom agenda” that included legalization, repeal of employer sanctions, increased availability of family reunification visas and enforcement of workplace rights. Community coalitions around the country, including the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Filipino Civil Rights Advocates and the American Friends Service Committee, have crafted proposals that advance immigrant rights without tying them to guest-worker or enforcement schemes. This past spring Sheila Jackson Lee introduced the Save America Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2005 (HR 2092), with support from the Congressional Black Caucus. The bill would legalize currently undocumented workers and enforce migrants’ rights in the workplace. It has no guest-worker program and doesn’t call for stronger enforcement of employer sanctions; instead, it would provide job creation and training in communities with high unemployment. The effort to find common ground between African-Americans and immigrants led the hotel workers union UNITE HERE to combine proposals for immigrant rights and affirmative action in recent contract negotiations, and to organize the 2003 Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride.

Finding common ground on immigration reform means fighting for jobs for everyone. Yet this basis for an alliance of mutual interest has largely fallen off the liberal agenda, replaced by the free-market “solution” of piling guest-worker programs and increased enforcement on top of unemployment and job competition. This is an explosive mixture that will produce insecurity and low wages. It will benefit employers, and no one else.

Congress will never consider pro-immigrant, pro-labor proposals if its current push for guest workers and increased enforcement isn’t defeated first. A strong coalition between immigrant rights groups, unions, civil rights organizations and working families can build a movement powerful enough to win legal status and rights for migrants–and better jobs and wages across the board. Not only can we stop the push for misguided reform–we can win something much better.

It’s time to fight for that.

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