US, Mexico Discuss Guest Worker Program

As thousands of farmworkers, janitors, and supporters prepared to march in North Carolina, Oregon, and California for farmworker rights and immigrant amnesty in mid-June, Mexican and U.S. negotiators were discussing a "guest worker" program as a way to solve the immigration crisis between the two countries.

Under a guest worker program-best known for the millions of Mexican braceros who worked in the United States during and after World War II--a specified number of workers are brought into the United States for a limited time at the request of a qualifying employer. Guest workers may only work for the employer that contracted them, and when the contract ends they must return home.

Such a program is an employer's dream. It provides docile, diligent workers who have no family obligations and never call in sick. By providing a cheap workforce that would be almost impossible to organize, a guest worker program could undermine existing wages and working conditions.

Mexican President Vicente Fox, who is overwhelmingly supported by Mexicans in the United States, has made "regularizing" undocumented immigrants and facilitating work permits for Mexicans in the United States a top policy priority. President Bush, for his part, has made clear in these discussions that a general amnesty for undocumented immigrants is not on the agenda. These two positions are driving the guest worker program forward.


Two different bills are currently in the Senate. A proposal by Senator Bob Graham of Florida is a rehash of previous guest worker bills that farmworker unions have defeated in the past. The bill focuses solely on agricultural laborers, allows undocumented farmworkers to "adjust their status," and sets up a mechanism whereby workers who qualify can become permanent residents after five to seven years in the program. In contrast to previous proposals, this one allows guest workers to join unions.

The other proposal, written by Texas Senator Phil Gramm, could impact all sectors of the economy. Although aimed at service and agricultural industries, it would apply to all employers. It would allow current undocumented immigrants to "adjust" as guest workers, with no mechanism for obtaining permanent residency. Wage and hour laws would be enforced.

The Mexican Press has reports that Fox favors the Gramm proposal because it would not allow Mexicans to become U.S. residents. Under the proposal, guest worker payroll taxes would be set aside into a medical and pension fund that would stay with the workers after they returned to Mexico. There is currently a class action lawsuit in California, filed by former braceros because in the past, the Mexican government misappropriated similar funds.

The biggest problem with the guest worker program is that it allows employers to ruthlessly exploit workers, who have no recourse but to accept or return home. Workers who complain about labor violations find themselves on the next bus home. Stories abound of farmworkers who escape in the middle of the night from the employers they are legally bound to. Under current law, guest workers are not allowed to form unions.

In part to appease labor, the latest round of bilateral discussions in June did touch on the possibility of guest worker mobility and the right to form unions. Jeff Hermanson, who heads the Solidarity Center in Mexico, has told La Jornada, a Mexican daily, that although the AFL-CIO seeks an amnesty for undocumented immigrants, it could support a guest worker bill if strong labor protections were ensured.

The Service Employees International Union will not "support programs for people working here without prospects for legalization," said SEIU spokesperson Matt Witt. "If you work here, pay taxes here, contribute to the community, then without delay you should be able to achieve legal status."


Besides hurting the labor movement, a guest worker program could divide the immigrant rights community.

The recent death of 14 undocumented immigrants trying to cross the Arizona desert has raised tremendous concern in the Mexican immigrant community and overshadowed the question of legalization. Without extensive education as to the effects of guest worker legislation, this is a potent political force for pro-guest worker forces. A Mexican American organization close to the Mexican consulate in New England is using the Arizona tragedy to create a sense of urgency around the issue, and Fox's extreme popularity sways the debate.



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"Our union members are overwhelmingly PANistas," explains United Farm Workers political director Rosalinda Guillen, referring to President Fox's political party. An internal survey showed that 95 percent of the UFW's members were loyal to the PAN. "We have our own concerns about Fox," Guillen said. "But when it comes to our membership, there is no question."

This support has allowed the UFW to reach out to Fox, who recently became the first Mexican President to visit farmworkers in the United States. At a rally, farmworkers--and Fox--proudly wore red and black UFW eagle buttons with the words "Viva Fox" emblazoned across them.

The UFW and SEIU have arranged a meeting between the AFL-CIO executive board and President Fox for this summer, and the guest worker program is expected to be high on the agenda.

Members of the National Coalition for Dignity and Amnesty met with Mexican legislators and others on June 13 to speak out against guest worker proposals and for general amnesty.


Last year farmworker unions were able to hammer out a compromise proposal that would have allowed a limited guest worker program and residency for current agricultural workers and their families. Gramm shot down the legislation because it allowed permanent residency after six years. The UFW, however, remains hopeful. "We haven't lost the support we had last year," said Guillen.

Support for a guest worker program in the Mexican community is growing, however. Regularization of undocumented immigrants as guest workers is applauded by many who aren't aware of the long-term consequences. Even immigrant union members, hearing that the Gramm legislation includes worker protections, are favorable without realizing that this might mean no more than the minimum wage.

"Yeah, we'll work as an indentured servant. This is a hard issue for poor people who are working so hard, trying to bring families across," explained Guillen. And people dying of heat-stroke aren't concerned about how long it will take to get a green card.

Gramm's proposals and the U.S.-Mexico discussions only affect Mexican workers, an issue that could further divide the immigrant and labor community. Even though President Bush is opposing a broad amnesty, Mexican negotiators are still pushing for an amnesty for three to four million Mexicans currently in the U.S. Such a measure would undercut mobilizations for a general amnesty, and push Central American countries to negotiate their own guest worker agreements. The specter of countries haggling away rights for preferential status does not loom too far in the background.


The immigrant movement today is divided between organizations that are pushing for a general amnesty and others lobbying for amnesties affecting certain nationalities or stop-gap immigration measures that benefit limited groups. The Mexican guest worker debate will exacerbate these tensions.

On the positive side, the sentiment for immigration reform is growing. Recently Tennessee and Texas joined the growing list of states allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for drivers licenses--a big step in de facto regularization. Cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh that saw their population drop in last year's census are setting aside funds to attract immigrants, many of them undocumented. In Congress, the bill introduced by Congressman Gutierrez offering a broad amnesty is slowly gaining co-sponsors. It had 38 signers from 15 states as of May 31. The bill is being aggressively pushed by the National Coalition for Dignity and Amnesty, the Labor Immigrant Organizers Network, SEIU, UFW, and others, but the AFL-CIO has yet to endorse it.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized that Republicans are now afraid to oppose bilingual education, and noted that many conservatives are in favor of a general amnesty. Guillen remains skeptical. "There is a chance of building with Republicans, but I think their support of amnesty is rhetoric," she said. "They are going to throw crumbs at us, but to get amnesty it will take a national movement."

Labor and the immigrant movement have the ingredients to build such a movement. To make it happen, however, will require more than waiting for the next Republican initiative.