Anyone familiar with the recent history of farm labor in the US surely must be skeptical at best, if not downright cynical, with the recent announcement of President Bush's plan to give illegal immigrants temporary legal status
While Bush's plan would give legal status for at least three years to millions of illegal immigrants working in the US and allow for more foreign workers to come when employers show a need, it would also purportedly encourage most of the workers to return home permanently when their job is done. As a motivator, Bush proposes that part of their pay would be collectible only after they go back to Mexico
His plan would divert a portion of the workers' pay to "tax-preferred savings accounts" collectible only in Mexico, but a similar plan during World War II and for 18 years after the war had a similar provision that sent 10% of workers' wages to Mexico. Few of those workers ever saw that money, and their demands for those wages were forgotten until recent years.
Between 1942 and 1964 nearly five million Mexicans harvested US crops mostly in California, Texas and other Southwestern states.
It was immediately after the beginning of World War II that California agribusiness interests, pleading a domestic labor shortage, sought to make it possible for more Mexican farm laborers to enter the US. After Mexico declared war on the Axis powers the US and Mexico entered into such an "executive agreement" which was ratified by only an exchange of diplomatic notes in August 1942.
The provisions of the agreement included: Mexican workers were not to be used to displace domestic workers but only fill proved shortages; recruits were to be exempted from military service and discrimination against them was not to be permitted; the round trip expenses of the worker were guaranteed, as well as living expenses en route; hiring was to be done on the basis of a written contract between the worker and his employer and the work was to be exclusively in agriculture.
These braceros (literally "arms," the Hispanic equivalent of the Anglo word "hand," meaning a laborer available for hire), were free to buy merchandise in places of their own choosing. Housing and sanitary conditions were to be adequate. Work was guaranteed for three-quarters of the duration of the contract and wages were to be equal to those prevailing in the area of employment, but in any case not less than 30 cents per hour. Deductions amounting to 10% of earnings were authorized for deposit in a savings fund payable to the worker on his return to Mexico.
As Ernesto Galarza recounts in his epic book, Merchants of Labor: The Mexican Bracero Story, what followed in the some 21 years of the bracero program is one of the more shameful chapters of American agriculture and US history where laws were blatantly abused and the program was extended far beyond the purpose for which it was created by corporate agribusiness interests interested solely in maintaining a cheap labor market.
The legacy of that shame in recent years has again come to public attention with the announcement of a Mexican government investigation into the alleged disappearance of millions of dollars earned by the braceros used in the US during the war and after.
Public records reviewed by the Los Angeles Times' Rich Connell and Robert J. Lopez. show problems soon developed on both sides of the border with oversight of the contracts and the savings program. Part of the oversight problems stemmed from the limited number of Mexican government officials in the US to monitor contracts and work sites. "It is impossible for these officials to meet the demands for their services," concluded a 1945 analysis by the Pan American Union, now the Organization of American States.
Scholars who have examined the issue, Connell and Lopez report, say it is not clear that all of the workers' money made it to Mexico.
"Under the agreement, employers were to deduct the funds and forward them to the US government, along with records showing how much each worker was owed. The monies were then to be credited to Mexico's Central Bank and sent to two other financial institutions. But Mexican banking officials complained that the United States was lagging in forwarding the documentation needed to promptly disburse the savings to workers, according to Mexican news accounts from the period.
"How can they create another program, when they still haven't paid the debt to the braceros?" Delia Reynosa, whose father was a bracero between 1942 and 1962, recently asked the Associated Press's Juliana Barbassa.
Barbassa also reports that "sons and daughters of braceros who still work in the fields also fear a new guest-worker program could depress their wages in the same way that the bracero program kept farm wages low in the 1950s."
It was Galarza who pointed out that a Presidential Commission on Migratory Labor in 1951 noted that "in effect the negotiation of the Mexican International Agreement is collective bargaining in which the Mexican Government is the representative of the workers and the [US] Department of State is the representative of our farm employers."
Finally, weary of such informal agreements during the war years the Mexican government insisted in the early 1950s that any further contracting of Mexican labor must be done under the supervision of the US government. Such action was taken under what was known as Public Law 78. The declared purpose of the law, enacted on July 12, 1951, was to assist "in such production of agricultural commodities and the products as the Secretary of Agriculture deems necessary, by supplying agricultural workers from the Republic of Mexico."
But, as Galarza showed, Public Law 78 simply allowed agribusiness to mold the law to its own purpose, controlling how many braceros it used, how it distributed them geographically and by crops, the economic uses to which they were put, the ways in which the contract labor pool was manipulated, and the administrative procedures that were devise to insure, from the industry's point of view, an almost ideal cheap, subservient and government sponsored labor market.
President John F. Kennedy finally ended the program by the end of 1964, saying the program was "adversely affecting the wages, working conditions and employment opportunities of our own agricultural workers."
A.V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project which publishes the online newsletter The Agribusiness Examiner, available by emailing email@example.com.