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Ex-braceros leery of guest worker plan
San Francisco Chronicle


May 30, 2006

Picking beets, cherries and cotton and shoveling manure on farms across the United States as a Mexican guest worker in the 1940s and 1950s, Cecilio Santillana was glad to earn a few dollars a day.

He didn't complain about living in horse stalls without bathrooms or doing stoop work for 12 hours a day without breaks for fear he would be sent back to Chihuahua and lose the steady work that allowed him to support his family in Mexico.

But the 78-year-old San Jose man opposes a temporary worker proposal in the immigration bill the Senate passed last week.




"I'm against it, because they may do to the new workers what they did to us," he said. "We suffered a lot."

Some immigrant advocates say the new plan remedies shortcomings of the old Bracero Program, through which the United States recruited Mexican workers to toil at 4.5 million mostly agricultural jobs from 1942 to 1964. And they say it's a crucial alternative to the current state of affairs where migrant workers risk their lives crossing the border illegally.

But others say the new arrangement probably will replicate the pitfalls of the Bracero Program and two present-day guest worker programs. They also fear new worker protections in the Senate bill will vanish when lawmakers seek to reconcile the legislation with the enforcement-only bill the House passed in December.

Immigration foes, meanwhile, criticize the guest worker plan more broadly. They say the United States already has enough people to fill its low-skilled jobs and warn that a guest worker program will only draw new waves of immigration.

The Bracero Program - named for men who work with their arms, brazos in Spanish - was this country's first large-scale guest worker arrangement and is the prototype to which others are compared.

In spite of the low pay, poor living conditions and often bullying crew bosses, Santillana said the Bracero Program was good for him. He's proud, too, that after 15 years he became a permanent U.S. resident with the help of an employer who agreed to fill out the papers. He has since become a citizen.

But he shakes his head in consternation when he talks about the long struggle waged by aging braceros like him to recoup wages the government withheld more than half a century ago. In the early years of the Bracero Program, 10 percent of workers' wages was withheld to be deposited in savings accounts they could claim when they returned to Mexico.

Somewhere between the payroll deductions and bank transfers, the money vanished. In the United States, a class-action lawsuit filed four years ago on behalf of defrauded braceros is inching through the federal courts; last year, the Mexican government announced it would pay roughly $3,800 to former braceros who could prove their claim to the deducted pay. Former braceros dismiss the one-time payments as inadequate.

From the standpoint of growers and consumers, the program was a success, said Philip Martin, an agricultural economist at UC Davis.

"It's how California got to replace New Jersey as the 'Garden State,' " said Martin. "Crops got picked. Wages didn't rise and choke off expansion. It helped parts of the California economy to expand without costs and prices rising rapidly."

But Martin and others said a surplus of braceros depressed wages for everyone, and braceros were sometimes used to break strikes by U.S. laborers. On paper, the program protected both Mexican and U.S. workers, requiring employers to certify that domestic labor could not be found and assuring that guest workers be paid the prevailing wage. In reality, immigration and labor analysts said, enforcement was minimal and the guest workers became dependent on sometimes abusive employers.

"It's important to have protections written into the law, but ... having them in law is not a guarantee that they will be implemented and enforced," said Deborah Meyers, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute who has studied temporary worker programs. "Historically, enforcement has been very weak."

The temporary worker program the Senate approved Thursday would admit up to 200,000 foreign workers a year to take low-skilled jobs for up to six years that U.S. employers attest they cannot fill. Unlike the existing "H2A" and "H2B" programs for low-skilled workers, the new bill would allow temporary workers to change jobs and apply to become legal permanent U.S. residents, two provisions labor advocates said were key.


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