By JOSE de la ISLA
It’s stunning how little we learn from the events closest to us. Take, for instance, how we got into this situation about guest workers and how leadership avoids the obvious.
A century ago, Mexican workers came across the virtually unknown border to work in this country’s agriculture and on the railroads. Then, as now, we had labor shortages. Then, as now, some U.S. companies were doing land-office business south of the border.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service was created in 1924 — to halt Chinese entry, I might add. The history and tradition of a U.S.-Mexico trans-border movement already was well-established. The fluid comings and goings were influenced by market forces.
At the time of the Great Depression, unknown tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of Mexicans with and without documentation were “repatriated.” Then, as now, many families were broken up.
The rationalization for such inhumane actions then was similar to today’s. The Mexicans were said to keep jobs and relief from unemployed Americans. The policy imposed by local authorities was to simply throw them out.
Niceties back then weren’t observed. All people of Mexican descent, including those with papers, were painted the same way. This further marginalized them, leading to a public presumption that all were less than full citizens. That was exploited politically through denials of civil and voting rights. Hence, another chapter of this infamous history.
Then came World War II. Mexico declared war against the Axis powers. Some of its own ships were sunk in the Gulf by Germany. Mexican citizens were encouraged to volunteer for U.S. military service. Our friendly neighbor sent the 201st Expeditionary Air Squadron to fight with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. And Mexico helped guard the Pacific Coast and sent labor to U.S. farms.
The “bracero” farmworker program of 1942 provided Mexican labor to farms and railroads during the war years. It was discontinued in the 1960s. No longer could market forces regulate how much Mexican labor could come in because the borders had to be secured and people protected from potential troublemakers and Fifth Columnists in the labor movement.
Does this sound familiar?
Yet more important was the fact that the Mexican government had to accept that so many of their laborers were available because its economic development policies had failed. “Yet, the nation needed dollars to balance its population pressures, and to create new jobs,” wrote Leon C. Metz in his authoritative book, “Border: The U.S.-Mexico Line.”
Well, it’s now 43 years since the last “guest”-worker program ended in 1964. The issue today should be: Why wasn’t the surplus labor problem solved long ago?
In the intervening years, Europe and Japan were destroyed, and then rebuilt with our foresight and dollars. They became model democracies. The European Union found a way to form a common market. By “harmonizing,” no member nation was allowed to remain underdeveloped. Today, Ireland and the Mediterranean countries (slackers before) are economic powerhouses.
Meanwhile, the last time the United States had an opportunity to help Mexico correct its surplus labor problem was through the North American Free Trade Agreement. However, labor issues were specifically taken off the negotiating table in 1993.
Embarrassingly, the leaders involved in creating NAFTA took pains to tell the public that the treaty would solve the immigration issue between Mexico and the United States.
On Feb. 11, Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, wrote in The Washington Post that the guest-worker problem, as part of immigration reform, won’t be fixed “unless we do what previous reforms did not.” But she chose to ignore the past.
George Santayana famously warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The issue is not one for the political class to ignore. And it’s not enough for Hispanic leaders just to cheer for the previously passed Senate bill as a “strong start.”
In fact, isn’t it time to start looking at the endgame, such as a new round of talks and agreements on North American rights of trans-border movement, goals for reaching a new standard of living through North American wage equity, education, investment and technology transfer.
Unless it’s looked at this way, the guest-worker program is just another Washington shell game.
(Jose de la Isla, author of “The Rise of Hispanic Political Power” (Archer Books, 2003), writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail him at joseisla3(at)yahoo.com.)