Debunking guest worker myths

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)


  1. Chis

    How interesting that the author neglected to cite the fact that there were far fewer entitlements during a vast majority of the last waves of illegal immigrant importation. If illegal aliens entered our country in the past, the main threats would be specific to disease, national security, or crime. Now there are MAJOR economic factors at stake as employers shift the cost of benefits onto the taxpayer by burdening our healthcare, education, school, legal, and prison systems with people who ARE NOT pulling their own weight.

    In order to save our country and preserve our soveriegnty, we need to force attrition upon illegals in our country (regardless of their ethnicity) and amend the constitution to ensure that having a child on U.S. soil will not make them immune to tougher immigration law.

    Truthfully, Tancredo is our only hope to truthfully represent this issue on the national stage where it belongs.

  2. jmac


    The only problem is of the twenty political cockroaches running for president, only one democrat and two republicans are supporting the constitution the rest are on their knees to big business pro illegal BS

  3. california rick

    In November 2006, ICE raided a Swift Meat Packing plant near Denver, Colorado collecting over 200 illegal workers. Two days later, newspapers screamed, “Lines out the door” of Americans seeking those jobs. (Story links and comment on CHB’s Reader Rant).

    OSE de la Isla’s piece is nothing more than agendized propaganda.

  4. Joel E. Wischkaemper

    Any ‘union’ with Mexico at this point will involve the United States sinking to the corruption level of the Mexican Government. We are told it is racist to appose this incredible affair, but it will be the Mexican American Community that will pay more than any other. They will have their wage level destroyed. I believe the ‘elite’ nature of Mexican Politics will assume it position in this country. And it boils down to the point that if the American People don’t speak in this next presidential election, the die will be cast and there won’t be a going back. Our fate will have been decided by the lobbyist.

  5. Ed Davis

    In my view,every reply to this somewhat repugnant article have been very good at refuting the author by citing a myriad of misrepresented facts and deceitful insinuations by the author,as a way of making his racist viewpoint seem plausible.Bravo.

    But I have a(somewhat obvious)question:If our current administration is so concerned about peventing another 9-11 type terrorist attack,why is our government leaving our southern border wide open? And don’t tell me that they can’t control the border,’cause that’s bullshit.And why,all of a sudden,do American citizens need a national i.d.?.In 2008 all states must comply with a federal driver’s license regulation,including rfid technology that will contain all of your vital statistics,but our southern borders will still be wide open.And why is our federal government prosecuting and incarcerating our border patrol officers for minor paperwork omissions,while giving immunity to illegal alien drug smugglers?

    Republicans hate democrats,right?Then why has Bill Clinton’s NAFTA been totally embraced by the baby Bush administration?What about CAFTA,FTAA and GATT?Could there be a hidden agenda?Could there be anything more important than their sworn allegiance to the Constitution of the United States?Unfortunately,the answer seems to be a resounding yes.

    While being a worthy cause,I sense that the illegal immigration issue is primarily a diversionary tactic employed by the “New World Order”to assist in keeping all of us busy while they complete their task of destroying the American middle class,and turning all of us into slaves.If you don’t believe me,ask Ben Bernanke.

  6. Andres Fimbres

    So many of the comments here reflect exactly the problem I have with the entire debate: everyone has an opinion, but no one bothers to allow the facts speak for themselves. The fact is that Mexico (and the rest of Latin America) have industries in most areas. However, heavy-handed tactics in the last 50 years by US interests in the region have, in fact, caused much of the political and socio-economic trumoil today. More and more countries in Latin America are, to my dismay, swinging towards a Hugo Chavez-style of governing, which is a direct consequence of the policies that WE instigated in the area.

    I also would like to point out that I never claimed all of the problems are a result of US policies. But from an American’s perspective, I can only comment on those actions which we took that helped promulgate the problems we have today. To not look at the consequences of our actions is not only immoral, but done right imbecilic. It’s time we cut the nonsense out of our discourse and take a serious look at what we have done (and continue to do) that is flaming the problem.

    If you wonder what policies Mexico (and other Latin American countries) have done, all you would have had to do is do a simple search through international news papers to see that Fox and others have implemented MANY reforms that are very business friendly (a Republican’s Dream in many cases), only to find that policies in the US having a negative impact such that in certain key areas (i.e, Agriculture, etc) completely undermine whatever prescribed reform was attempted.

    Latin American countries are now starting to sway away from the US precisely because of the instability caused by following US-beneficial policies that in turn are creating civil unrest among millions. This is also disconcerting not simply because of it’s impact on illegal immigration, but because in order for the US to maintain the position we have had in international circles, we have relied heavily on continental-American acquiescence to our needs. As China is becoming a larger player in the world arena, they have begun a concerted attempt to sway many countries (including Mexico) to change their trading habits to something more comparable and mutually beneficial with them. Leaving, as a result, an America that will increasingly feel isolated and with a quickly-evaporating influence in our own backyard.

    I bring this up because by-and-large, the discussions on immigration tend to exclude key factors that will have a dramatic impact on us domestically, as well as the world at large. Those who generally argue in “favor” of illegal immmigrants tend to ignore the serious peril that the journey to the US, as well as what happens afterwards, entails. The security concerns cannot be ignored. Likewise, those “against” illegal immigrants tend to ignore our own role in creating the conditions by which illegal immigration is both desired and necessary. Our responsibility is great, and cannot be dismissed lightly. In the end, if we do not set aside our political and biased squabbles and come to some difficult (and practical) decisions, we will see not only a repetition of this issue, but find ourselves in a much dire situation.

  7. Equating attitudes from the 1950’s to today ignores one fundamental reality: When Eisenhower repatriated over a million Mexicans, there were not that many here relative to our population, and those that were here overwhelmingly shared our values: God, (Country, not applicable since they were guests) Family, and hard work. Now the media, this fellow included, try to paint the illegal alien invasion as if it is harmless, as if the illegals themselves ALL have these 1950’s utopian values, and the Americans are lazy and bigoted. What is funny about this is that just like the business interests (read slavemasters), who want to exploit this seemingly infinite supply of cheap labor subsidized by the hard-working, law-abiding taxpayer who just got replaced down at the local manufacturer by an illegal worker, the defenders of this enslavement include those who claim to be fighting for the “rights” of the slaves themselves.

    The group who opposes having their communities invaded by an illegal, law-breaking culture that brings poverty, disease, and gangs along with it, is that while the “American” government might be destroying Latin America with ITS policies, it has done so by ignoring the wishes of the vast majority of American citizens, and IT has done so at the expense of those same long-suffering, hard-working, beleguered people, who have no voice, but pay all the bills for this insanity.

    What that ordinary citizen wants is a cease-fire. Stop exporting our manufacturing jobs, and then demanding that we compete with illegal, replacement workers, who are so desperate that they allow themselves to be exploited by unscrupulous employers, and are forced to live in the most inhumane conditions, a fact this author ignores.

    The aforementioned citizenry are not largely anti-immigrant nor racist, nor xenophobic (most can’t even spell that word), but they are tired. Tired of being lectured by people like the author here, who profits off this whole mess. Tired of paying for services such as hospitals only to watch illegal aliens with the Fed gov’ts permission, bankrupt the only healthcare provider for miles around. Tired of watching the Fed gov’t paying off the local school to teach students from a foreign country in their own language at the expense of their own kids education. Tired of being told that there are jobs he won’t do, tired of being called lazy by his own gov’t when he gets home from working three jobs just to make ends meet since wages have stagnated due to the massive OVERSUPPLY of labor. Supply and demand are still the most powerful forces in a market economy. Tired of being told what saints the hardworking immigrant is, when in fact the author is not talking about immigrants, but illegal aliens. And lastly, tired of advocates of open borders who never mention the 12 American citizens killed every day by illegal alien gang bangers (2/3s’ are illegal), drunk drivers, rapes followed by murder, etc. That is over 4300 people per year, far more than have died in the WAR in three years…

    It is time we stop letting those with an agenda, whether it be to promulgate their race like La Raza (which translated means “the race”) whose creed is: “For anyone in the race, everything; for anyone outside it, nothing (nada).” Or the corrupt politicians who pander to “Hispanics” as if they cannot think for themselves just as politicians did to Blacks for years, only to take them for granted in the end. Or the businesses who profit at the expense of their law-abiding competitors, who they regard as stupid for obeying the law.

    Americans must demand that the government represent “we the people”, we the citizens of today, not the mythical maybe citizens who may come here someday. As long as we allow our government to sell out our citizenship, our votes, and our sovereignty, we have no one to blame but ourselves. This is not about the millions of illegals who are alternately used as slaves, pawns and scapegoats, this is about what kind of America we will leave our children and grandchildren.

  8. Unicorn

    Why do we never hear anything about any Mexican Government effort (is there one?) to bring industry and many ofther kinds of opportunities to Mexico in order to give their own people jobs? There are a good many more things they could do than service jobs at resorts and work in tequila factories. I would wager a considerable sum that most Mexicans would rather stay home and work and have a reasonably good life than having to go through the desert and God-knows-where to find a job and send money home.

    Vincente Fox had this opportunity but if he did anything I, for one, never heard anything about it.

    Was there anything concrete in the platform of his successor about this problem? If so, what is it? What is he doing? Is he trying to rid his country of it’s own people?

  9. TashaTchin

    There is an elephant in the room and no one dares mention it. Mexico and most Third World nations have one glaring problem that has absolutely nothing to do with the USA or our foreign policy, past or present.

    What is this all pervasive problem that spans the globe? Over-population: If you can’t feed’em, don’t breed’em!

    Mexico’s biggest problem is that it makes more Mexicans than the country can employ and feed. There are more than one million Mexicans entering their labor market every year than there are jobs for them to do. That is not a US problem, our people have achieved Zero Population Growth, Mexico needs to do the same — as does the rest of Latin America.

    This is not our problem, therefore, we cannot solve it for Mexico. Mexico needs to decide whether they will increase opportunities for average Mexicans at the expense of the Mexican elites, or force average Mexicans to limit their family size.

    It is not the US’ responsibility to take this burder off the Mexican government’s hands. It is not the wish of our citizens for the US to be Mexico’s dumping ground for its excess population. Until Mexico decides to tackle their own problem of over-breeding, nothing can or will help them enter the 21st century.

  10. Ali

    Andres claims that much of the problems in Latin America are attributable to US policies toward the region, totally ignoring that immigrants/refugees from those countries have played key roles in establishing those policies. That’s precisely the reason that heavy immigration from any one area IS so damaging to the US–they put THEIR interests ahead of those of the US as a whole and influence policy. Else why would CUBA have its wet foot/dry foot policy?