by Lizette Acosta Committee on U.S. Latin American Relations
With immigration reform at the forefront of political debate in the United States, it is important to understand the motives of the would-be reformers. Immigrant-rights groups would do well to analyze the arguments not only of the opponents of immigration reform, but also their assumed allies.
One significant sector made up of business leaders lobbies in favor of reform because their industries depend on migrant labor, not because of a commitment to migrants’ rights. An example of this sector is the Partnership for a New American Economy. This organization aims to create awareness about the importance migrant labor has in the United States economy.
The Partnership for a New American Economy has brought together more than 500 Republican, Democrat and Independent mayors and business leaders who make an economic case for streamlining, modernizing and rationalizing the U.S. immigration system. Many of their principles are fundamentally based on migrant labor and its role in the American economy.
Their arguments generally mirror the proposals of s.744, the immigration reform bill now awaiting a vote in the House of Representatives. The Partnership seeks to: secure borders, develop a secure system for employers to verify employment eligibility, attract bright immigrants who will strengthen the economy, create a streamlined process by which employers can obtain the employees they need accordingly, establish a path to legal status with requirements, and strengthen federal, state, local, and employer-sponsored programs that offer educational opportunities to immigrants.
The Partnership accepts the role that migrants have in the American economy and the way that their labor benefits American businesses. The Partnership argues, “When immigrant workers fill the gaps left by Americans, jobs are created and we are able to keep businesses in the U.S rather than seeing them move overseas.” Their research claims that for 1,000 immigrants who live in a county, 46 U.S manufacturing jobs are created or preserved.
Their emphasis is not only on manufacturing labor, but also the importance of migrant workers in the agricultural sector. The Partnership argues that the agricultural sector has not been able to keep up with the U.S. population’s demand for fresh produce. As a result, the U.S has not been able to benefit from the substantial economic growth that this would have created. Stephen Bronars, a senior economist at Welch Consulting, determined that the biggest problem was labor, and that the lack of labor in the agricultural sector is what caused the U.S. to lose economic benefits.
In these ways, The Partnership for a New American Economy appears on the surface to be an ally in the struggle for comprehensive immigration reform. However, if we examine history, we will find other moments in which pro-immigration business leaders utilized migrant laborers only as long as this labor benefited them.
One example is the Bracero Program, first introduced to the U.S. informally during World War I and then formally during World War II. This was an agreement between the United States and Mexico that gave Mexican laborers temporary visas to work in the U.S. During World War I, Mexican migrants were accepted because they filled jobs the war had left available in the fields and factories. They were regarded as efficient and hardworking laborers. However, in 1924 the U.S. Border Patrol was created and the term “illegal alien” was coined. Undocumented workers were no longer accepted with open arms but rather labeled as fugitives.
PBS notes that the “Mexican work force was critical in developing the economy and prosperity of the United States.” However, during the Great Depression, the U.S. government prevented migrants from coming into the country legally by denying working visas to those who could not prove that they had a secure job.
During World War II, the U.S. reopened its doors to Mexican laborers. According to Ronald Mize and Alicia Swords in Consuming Mexican Labor, between 1942 and 1964, more than 2 million Mexicans were imported into the U.S. as braceros, or temporary workers. Many of these braceros left their own lands and businesses in order to pursue the rumored economic boom that was promised them in the United States. Although these workers made these sacrifices and came to the aid of the U.S. labor force, they were later ousted from their jobs and sent unceremoniously back to Mexico. Mize and Swords note that “The Bracero Program was highly successful in creating a readily exploitable workforce but rarely protected the paltry rights accorded to workers.”
When new labor programs are presented, it is important to question what will become of the migrants when their labor is no longer in high demand. The proposal of The Partnership for a New American Economy might seem promising, but its emphasis on the needs of employers begs comparisons to the Bracero Program.
This article is part of the CUSLAR Summer/Fall 2014 Newsletter. To access this and previous newsletters, go to https://cuslar.org/resources/cuslar-newsletter-since-1974/