U.S. immigration laws and policies are in a state of chaos. That’s a given. What the nation needs is a guest-worker program for the 21st century.
During his recent trip to El Salvador, President Barack Obama promised resolution of the immigration chaos. In 2008, candidate Obama called for “comprehensive immigration reform” that would offer undocumented immigrants residing in the United States the opportunity to gain legal permanent resident status and a pathway to citizenship.
How extensive is the problem? The U.S. government estimate of undocumented foreign nationals residing in the United States hovers around 11 million, while the actual number may be two to three times that.
Although no valid measures exist to establish the actual number of illegal aliens in the country, methods do exist to estimate illegal border crossers. Take, for example, the number of U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions recorded each year, and then factor in the assertion that three to seven illegal aliens enter for each alien caught.
Guest-worker programs are not a new idea. They began as early as World War I to provide needed workers for the war effort. The next move by Congress was the Immigration Act of 1924 (also known as the National Origins Act) that favored European immigrants.
This law led to the creation on May 28, 1924, of the U.S. Border Patrol in the U.S. Department of Labor. Because the act stated that “undocumented workers” were to be considered “fugitives,” the term “illegal alien” was added to the American lexicon.
The Great Depression of the 1930s saw a rise in deportations of foreign workers, especially Mexicans. The outbreak of World War II, however, created a new need for farm workers.
In 1942, the United States and Mexico enacted the Emergency Farm Labor Importation Program, a federal effort better known as the Bracero Program. This informal agreement between the two nations created a legal guest-worker program that allowed Mexicans to do agricultural work in the United States as part of the war effort.
The Bracero Program was formalized in 1951 in federal law (P.L. 78), as an amendment to the Agriculture Act of 1949. The amendment stated that no Bracero worker could fill a job sought by a U.S. citizen, and employers had to certify that this was the case. By 1954, however, large numbers of Bracero workers were taking jobs from U.S. citizens on railroads and in construction and factories. In response, President Dwight Eisenhower ordered the deportation of these workers.
In 1956, farm labor unions began to organize Bracero workers, with Ernesto Galarza leading the way. In 1962, Arizona-born Cesar Chavez co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW) union. Farm worker unions owe their creation and growth to the Bracero program.
In addition to legal Bracero workers, millions of undocumented Mexican workers were crossing the border illegally to take jobs with low wages and no benefits. As a result, President John F. Kennedy terminated the Bracero Program in 1964, because it was holding down wages, impacting working conditions, and denying jobs to U.S. citizens.
In its place, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (INA) opened wider the door to legal immigrants from developing countries. An unintended consequence was a new wave of undocumented immigrants. They preceded the mass illegal migrations that resulted from Ronald Reagan’s amnesty provisions in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) and that continue today.
Despite the problems related to the Bracero Program, a 21st century guest-worker program might alleviate the current immigration crisis. Such a program might function like this:
- Workers in other countries would be able to apply for a guest-worker visa through the U.S. Consulate offices in their homeland. Workers residing in the United States illegally would be allowed to apply to the U.S. Department of State for a guest-worker visa, after paying a fine for their previous illegal entry, which would not be held against them. Background checks and health screening would be part of the application process.
- A guest-worker application would be matched with an employer application of need. The employer would state that guest workers were needed in positions left empty by U.S. citizens. Guest-worker visa holders who were laid off would be required to return to their homelands to await further work assignments. Seasonal farm workers with a visa could divide their time between their homeland and the United States.
- The U.S. employer would pay at least a minimum wage, maintain required health insurance for the job, pay worker compensation premiums, and deduct appropriate taxes. Guest workers would have the same work-place legal remedies as domestic workers.
- Guest-worker visas would be renewable, and the renewal process would be streamlined. Criminal activity by a guest worker would result in cancellation of the visa.
A new-guest worker program would be humanitarian, as it would eliminate the risks of illegal border crossings, including inhumane treatment at the hands of the drug and alien smugglers known as “coyotes.” It would not offer blanket amnesty or a “pathway to citizenship.”
Guest workers wishing to apply for legal permanent resident status would begin by learning English and taking their place in line.
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