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Commentary: Say No to Guest-workers

Michael Lind*
United Press International, July 6, 2001

With the election of Mexico's president Vicente Fox, a dynamic and charismatic reformer, a new era in U.S.-Mexican relations has begun.

To reinforce his effort to bring Mexico into the 21st century, Fox is seeking closer ties with the United States. Many of his ideas for promoting closer collaboration across the border are excellent.

One of his ideas, though, is terrible. Fox has proposed to alleviate the poverty problem in Mexico by dramatically increasing the number of Mexican nationals who labor in the United States as temporary guest workers.

The Bush administration has said that it is open to the possibility of admitting many new guest workers from Mexico on temporary visas. On the American side, the guest-worker idea is being pushed hardest by politicians on the right of the Republican Party, like Sen. Phil Gramm and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, both from Texas.

Behind Gramm and DeLay are powerful agribusiness interests, which claim that the United States is suffering from a shortage of agricultural workers. This is a myth. The truth is that there is only a shortage of American workers willing to accept miserable conditions and wages that are low and steadily declining. According to the Labor Department, the real wages of agricultural workers have dropped from $6.89 an hour to $6.18 an hour between 1989 and 1998. If the farm labor market is so tight, then why are wages going down?

If there really were a labor shortage in agriculture, then the proper solution would be to let market forces solve the problem. Agribusiness firms should be forced to choose between attracting more workers by paying higher wages, investing in labor-saving machinery, or both.

Consumers worried about higher prices for their produce should favor importing agricultural products -- not poor, exploited agricultural workers -- from low-wage countries like Mexico.

A combination of higher wages for citizen workers, mechanization and freer trade in agriculture can eliminate the need to import desperate foreigners to work in American fields in conditions of virtual slavery for starvation wages. (Ironically, many of the agribusiness firms that claim that they cannot afford to hire American workers at American wages are already subsidized by the taxpayers through federal government programs.)

Even without a guest-worker program, mass immigration of unskilled workers from Mexico and other countries is hurting low-income Americans. According to numerous studies, including one by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, the American working poor suffer the most as a result of competition with unskilled immigrants -- most of whom are legal immigrants, not illegal aliens.

Competition with a new category of underpaid guest-workers would further reduce the job opportunities and wages of America's least fortunate workers, as they struggle to keep their families out of poverty.

Ominously, Gramm -- perhaps the biggest fan of the idea of replacing American workers with underpaid Mexican guest workers -- has proposed introducing foreign guest workers into the construction, restaurant and hotel industries and many other sectors where they inevitably would squeeze Americans out of jobs. If the guest-worker program in agriculture is expanded, then what is to prevent employers in every sector of the American economy from claiming that imaginary or exaggerated "labor shortages" should entitle them to use foreign workers as well?

If Gramm gets his way, then before long business lobbyists on Capitol Hill might demand that Congress allow guest-workers to work as hospital orderlies, taxi drivers, janitors, security guards, truckers, hair stylists. Under the terms of their contracts, the guest-workers would not be able to strike, to sue, or to work for another employer.

Since enforcement of the rules would be all but impossible, some unscrupulous businesses no doubt would fire Americans in order to hire foreigners at lower wages. Why not fire unionized workers and replace them with helpless, powerless foreigners? Why hire any American citizen at all, if it is cheaper to get a foreign guest-worker to toil as a virtual slave?

And why stop with impoverished Mexicans? Almost all of the population growth in the 21st century will take place in the poorest regions -- Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab world, Central Asia, South Asia. Surely it is only a matter of time before someone like Gramm suggests extending the guest-worker program to bring in unfree contract labor from poor countries other than Mexico.

Advocates of a huge guest-worker program claim that it will solve the problem of illegal immigration. In reality, it is likely to make it worse. The history of guest-worker programs both in the United States and Europe suggests that many of the "guests" do not go home when their contracts are up. Instead, they stay on in the host nations as illegal immigrants, swelling the resident population that uses public goods like emergency health care without paying income or payroll taxes.

As a result, any money that American consumers saved from the use of guest-workers to pick lettuce or spread asphalt might well be lost by higher taxes for public services, once guest-workers join the expanding illegal immigrant population.

Already both legal and illegal immigration from Mexico are exacerbating America's social problems, because so many Mexican immigrants are uneducated and poor. Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies -- a non-profit which advocates tightening immigration laws -- claims that 31 percent of immigrants from Mexico are dependent on at least one major federal welfare program.

Like poor people in general, poor immigrants from Mexico are also disproportionately likely to commit crimes. Because many of the guest-workers who overstay their visas will go on welfare or end up in jail, a guest-worker program will only make the situation worse.

Of course, to prevent guest-workers from deserting their jobs and blending into the illegal alien populations of major American cities like Los Angeles and Houston, they could be confined to remote rural agricultural and manufacturing compounds. Maybe they could be fenced in with barbed wire and patrolled with German shepherds, to prevent them from running away to San Diego or San Antonio.

Are we now, in the 21st century, going to recreate the slave plantation in the form of guest-worker labor camps on American soil?

It is ironic that the sinister policy of replacing American citizen workers with foreign indentured servants is being promoted by the leadership of the Republican Party, which was founded in the 1850s by reformers like Abraham Lincoln, who championed free citizen labor. The United States fought a Civil War to replace two rival labor systems on American soil with a single system of free wage labor by citizens with equal rights.

In the generations that followed, Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt continued the fight by seeking to outlaw coolie labor from Asia, the use of prison gangs by industry, and other forms of unfree labor that undercut the wages and the rights of American workers.

It is no coincidence, however, that Gramm and DeLay -- the strongest champions of the guest-worker program -- come from the Deep South, the region of the country where wealthy, ruthless elites have been most hostile to the interests of ordinary working people in both the 19th and 20th centuries. The disturbing plan of today's Southern Republicans to create new plantations, manned by Mexican guest workers rather than black slaves, is more Southern than Republican.

Today as in the past it is unfair to force struggling American workers to compete on American soil with foreign workers lacking benefits and civil rights and tied to a single employer -- just as it was wrong to force free American workers in the past to compete with African slave labor and Asian coolie labor.

Mexico, a nation with a hard-working population and rich natural resources, remains poor because of centuries of misgovernment and corruption. We Americans should do all that we can to help our neighbors in there to democratize and modernize their society -- but not by sacrificing the interests of American workers in having good jobs at decent wages in reasonable conditions with adequate benefits.

The proposal to unload Mexico's surplus poor on the United States may seem like a good idea both to idealistic Mexican politicians like Fox and to cynical American business elites and their political servants like Gramm and DeLay. But a guest-worker program large enough to have more than a minor effect on Mexico's poverty would be a clear and present danger to the jobs, wages and rights of the working men and women of the United States.

*(Michael Lind is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, an independent, non-partisan, non-profit public policy institute. He has written for many major magazines and newspapers, and has published three books of political journalism and history: The Next American Nation (1995), Up From Conservatism (1996) and Vietnam (1999).)

From NPG Population-News Listserve (www.npg.org)


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