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New guest worker program no substitute for cracking down
By Mike Harpold


May 19 2006

In 1962, when I reported for my first assignment in the U.S. Border Patrol at Calexico, California, a small border town at the foot of the Imperial Valley, our borders were secure. I, and my fellow officers, patrolled alone in a jeep at night through miles of open desert, often not cutting sign on another human in our assigned area of patrol for weeks at a time. We complained about the boredom, but the quiet didn't last.

We had control over the border in those days because of the Bracero Program, which allowed 450,000 Mexican laborers to enter the U.S. each year to work on farms in the southwest that had contracted for them. But in 1964,Congress, pressured by labor and church groups, did not renew the Bracero Program. It was not replaced by any new immigration enforcement measures, nor was our force of 1,400 Border Patrol officers increased. Within two years our border apprehensions grew from under 60,000 a year to over a million. With the invasion of illegal workers, who often muled drug loads, came drug smugglers and criminals. We were overwhelmed. Through succeeding Republican and Democratic administrations, we never regained control of the border.

At first glance, a new guest worker program as proposed by President Bush on Monday night would seem to make sense. But if we are serious about regaining control over our borders, we need to look deeper. The old Bracero program was effective not because it made previously illegal workers legal, but because of the severe sanctions imposed on employers participating in the program who hired an illegal alien.

In the early years of its existence, the Bracero Program was little used because employers could and did hire illegal aliens at a pittance instead of hiring Bracers who had to be paid a wage established by law. Then, in 1954, four hundred Border Patrol officers worked their way along the Mexican border from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, over the course of a year repatriating over 800,000 Mexican citizens to Mexico. An estimated 500,000 more left in advance of the Border Patrol operation.

Having lost their illegal workforce, growers were forced to hire often the same workers back as legal Bracers, but there was a caveat. If Border Patrol officers found even one illegal alien employed by a grower, the grower lost not only the illegal alien, but all of his Bracers, on the spot. As a consequence, no grower dared hire an illegal alien. Without a job prospect, Mexicans stopped coming across the border illegally.

The scope of the problem today far exceeds the problem that existed fifty years ago, both in numbers of illegal aliens, area and occupations impacted, and it is not likely that anything like the Bracero program could be duplicated today. Further, whether or not guest workers are a valid alternative to illegal aliens is debatable. Fifty years ago the presence of both groups worked to the disadvantage of American farm workers, mostly hispanic, who lived along the border in squalor, differing little from living conditions on the Mexican side of the border. On the plus side, we would know who the guest worker is and have some control over his stay. However, a new guest worker program cannot work as long as employers are able to continue to hire an illegal worker for less.

President Bush was careful to propose a secure identity card, but only for guest workers. Equipping guest workers with a secure ID does nothing to prevent an illegal alien using counterfeit immigration and social security documents from seeking the same job occupied by a guest worker. And an employer with his eyes only on the bottom line is most likely to continue to prefer the illegal worker. Establishing a new guest worker program will not substitute for cracking down on document fraud and businesses that hire illegal aliens.

Mike Harpold
Ketchikan, AK - USA

About: The author retired after a 35 year career with the U.S. I&NS.



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