March 31, 2000
By Domenico Maceri, PhD
Imagine risking your life to have a chance for a minimum wage job. That's what Mexicans who illegally cross the border in search of employment do. In the last five years 450 lost their lives. And those who survive and get jobs, face intimidation, abuses, and constant fear of immigration authorities. Occasionally some of these problems are reported by the media, but often no one hears about them.
Hardly anyone advocates for these people. Certainly not the Democratic Party and the left in general. Anytime a proposal is made to legalize these workers' status through some kind of guest worker program, the left is adamantly opposed.
Although estimates suggest that there are more than 2 million undocumented workers in the US, primarily in agriculture, the left argues that we don't need to import new people because no shortages of workers exists. And it is true that some farm regions have high unemployment rates. However, in other areas workers are temporarily needed. Last year Manuel Cunha of the Nisei Farmers League stated that in September of 1998, California's San Joaquin Valley was short 80,000 of their usual 230,000 workers.
The left also opposes any guest worker programs because the mention of Bracero program conjures images of the thousands of Mexican workers who participated in such a project in the fifties and sixties. Even Republicans such as Sen. Gordon Smith (OR), who support some kind of guest worker program, agree that the Bracero program was a disaster from the point of view of the workers. They were treated as indentured servants, abused, and cheated. It was recently discovered, for instance, that workers were not paid the 10% in forced savings which was deposited in a Mexican bank. Estimates are that about 150 million dollars somehow vanished.
Democrats and the left in general oppose any guest worker program since, as Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) believes, they are be detrimental to US workers. Bringing in other people who will work for low wages will reduce the likelihood that salaries will go up. The left hopes that shortages of workers will increase the value of workers already here and make them indispensable to employees.
That is not happening. In Washington State agricultural workers still make 1960 and 1970's salaries for picking apples. They get $10.00 for picking a one-ton bin of apples. Salaries will not go up as long as undocumented workers keep coming in.
The left also claims that Americans will in fact do menial work, pointing to garbage collection, masonry, roofing, etc. as evidence. The difference is that in these jobs salaries are "high" when compared to the "unskilled" work in agriculture. If salaries were to rise, Americans might accept jobs in agriculture, but that's unlikely to happen as long as undocumented workers are available because the border remains porous.
The left hopes that if the situation becomes really bad workers will be allowed to come in as immigrants did in the past-the legal way- with the opportunity to become citizens. That is unrealistic in the current political climate. The most one can hope for is to make temporary work legal and preferable to risking one's life to get minimum wage jobs. But the process needs to have the support of both the left and the right.
Canada, which has a much more socialized form of government, can point the way. For the past several years workers from Mexico and several Caribbean countries have been going to Canada to do seasonal work legally. The numbers are small, but they are growing.
NAFTA allows companies to sell their products across American, Mexican, and Canadian borders. What about a similar program to allow workers to sell their services across borders without having to risk one's life?
Domenico Maceri (email@example.com), PhD, UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA.