New Era of Indentured Servitude in the USA
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Tue Nov 16 23:50:39 MST 1999
A New Bracero Program for the 21st Century
By Walter Ewing, Senior Research Fellow
Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA)
The Washington Report on the Hemisphere
Vol. 19, No.19, November 14, 1999
Under the guise of a generous amnesty program for undocumented
immigrants, U.S. agribusiness and its political allies on Capitol Hill have
fashioned an updated version of the infamous bracero program under which
millions of Mexican farm workers provided low-wage labor in U.S. fields for
than two decades after World War II. This push to resurrect a system that one
Labor Department official described as "legalized slavery" is led by
supporters of the restrictive immigration reform law of 1996. It also
comes at a time when the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is
increasingly being used by many employers to block unionization efforts
among their workers.
New Era of Indentured Servitude
The Agricultural Job Opportunity Benefits and Security Act of 1999 (S.
1814), introduced on October 27 by Senators Gordon H. Smith (R-Ore.) and
Graham (D-Fla.), provides legal status to about a half million currently
undocumented farmworkers, with the condition that they must labor in the
fields for five years before they can obtain their residency papers. To
eligible for this unique form of relief, they need only prove that they
worked in agriculture for 150 days during the past year. Senator Smith
joined in sponsoring the bill by other proponents of the 1996
measure such as Jesse Helms (R-NC). Although the 1996 law championed an
immigration approach which has been used to imprison asylum seekers
persecution, its backers apparently have now developed a scenario for a
ready supply of "illegal" immigrants as a source of cheap labor for
large-scale U.S agricultural corporations.
Not surprisingly, the Republican bill is supported by the California
Bureau Federation, the National Council of Agricultural Employers and
Republican governors of Arizona and New Mexico. But others less
with corporate agriculture's profit margins, such as the Farm Worker
Fund, Southwest Voter Registration Project and United Farm Workers,
it as little more than a thinly glossed form of "indentured servitude,"
to its more explicit predecessor.
Under the original bracero program of 1942-1964, farm hands were
from impoverished rural communities in Mexico to this countrys fields,
where they toiled for extremely low wages until their contracts (which
in English) expired and they were forced back across the border. Given
absolute power of employers under this system, workers were virtually
without rights, and served at the discretion of their overseers.
the number of undocumented Mexican immigrants to the U.S. grew over
there was a large enough pool of ultra-cheap labor available to
employers to render the bracero program redundant.
Since its demise, a smaller scale "H-2A guestworker" program has
its place, under which growers who certify that they cannot find U.S.
workers to pick their crops and weed their fields are permitted to look
southward. Despite double-digit unemployment in many agricultural areas
the U.S., the federal government approves almost all H-2A applications.
even the rather lean terms of this program are currently under attack.
instance, employers and their congressional representatives find H-2As
requirement that foreign workers actually be provided with housing quite
troublesome. They would rather merely supply housing "vouchers," leaving
workers to fend for themselves in areas notorious for their severe
of affordable housing.
The reformulated bracero legislation just introduced in the Senate is
ostensibly a response to such "complicated" H-2A regulations and would
creatively solve this problem by returning to a previous era in which
Mexican agricultural workers were afforded minimal guarantees. In
agribusiness interests claim that the post-1996 crackdown on
immigrants is rendering their current labor force too legally risky to
handle. Evidently, employers have suddenly become terrified of the small
fines that are occasionally levied against unscrupulous agricultural
operations that knowingly employ "illegals." A more likely explanation,
though, lies in the intersection between immigration policy and efforts
employers to maintain a low-cost and malleable workforce free of such
burdens as collective bargaining.
INS as union buster
Immigration reformers charge that the past two years have witnessed an
expansion in the use of INS agents as facilitators for anti-union
by employers. There are accounts of farm managers calling in the INS to
up undocumented worker leaders in the middle of union organizing drives.
Critics claim that the latest variation on this theme is Operation
an experiment in the control of immigrants in particular (and labor in
general) being conducted in meatpacking plants in Nebraska and parts of
Iowa. The INS cross-checks information on proof of immigration status
provided by workers to their employers against the Social Security
A list of workers with "discrepancies" in their personal data is
and then they receive letters from their employer inviting them in for
"interview." The small number of the undocumented among workers who
show up often are detained and deported, while far more
or otherwisenot only skip the interview but flee their jobs out of
The INS plans to expand this program to other locales in the Midwest and
Texas. Advocates of such tactics, perhaps disingenuously, claim that
are only seeking to eliminate the easy availability of jobs as a
for illegal immigration.
The so-called "amnesty" provision of neo-bracero legislation must be
the larger context of efforts by agribusiness to lessen the bargaining
of labor in industries such as meatpacking and agriculture, which rely
heavily on immigrants, particularly Mexican immigrants. "Guestworker"
programs and INS raids serve to remind workers that they can be easily
replaced if their demands for basic rights become too irksome.
"amnesty" is held out as a carrot to the most exploited subgroup of the
immigrant labor forcethe undocumentedunder the condition that they
almost as indentured labor by staying in their low-paying jobs for five
years and enduring a quasi-legal status that can be terminated at any
These practices, according to immigration monitors, are also indicative
the dehumanization of immigrants that critics say is inherent in the
law. Under its terms, a mother of U.S.-born children can be deported on
basis of a 30-year-old shoplifting conviction that resulted in no jail
A refugee fleeing torture can literally be turned back at the gate if he
she fails to explain why they left home without the proper documents to
prove identity and the merits of their case. In 1996, the Senate sent a
message to the American public that U.S. immigration policy is naturally
hostile to all categories of immigrants. This message was modified in
when the public was told that as long as they do what they are told,
migrants can work here under the most bitter of conditions.
This article is also available at COHAs website, http://www.coha.org
National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR)
310-8th St., Ste. 307
Oakland, CA 94607
Visit us at www.nnirr.org
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