David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Fast Track To The Past: Is A New Bracero Program In Our Future? (and what was life like under the old one?)
by David Bacon

BLYTHE, CA (8/8/02) - "I went as a bracero four times. Each time we got on the train in Empalme, went all the way to Mexicali [both cities in Mexico], and from there on busses to El Centro [in California's Imperial Valley]. Thousands of men came every day. Once we got there, they'd send us in groups of two hundred, as naked as we came into the world, into a big room about sixty feet square. Then men would come in masks, with tanks on their backs, and they'd fumigate us from top to bottom. Supposedly we were flea-bitten and germ-ridden.

"Then they'd send us into a huge bunk house, where the contractors would come from the growers associations in counties like San Joaquin, Yolo, Sacramento, and Fresno. The heads of the associations would line us up. When they saw someone they didn't like, they'd say, 'You, no.' Others, they'd say, 'You, stay.' They didn't want old people -- just young, strong ones. And I was young, so I never had problems getting chosen."

Rigoberto Garcia, whose memories of his bracero experience are still fresh, lives with his wife Amelia in a small trailer in the Palo Verde Valley, one of the lush agricultural basins carved out of the remorseless southwest desert by the great water projects flowing from the Colorado River. Although he's now 68 years old, he still works picking lemons and grapefruit. A few of the bracero camps he remembers still stand on the town's outskirts, but no one has lived in them for at least twenty years.

Relics and memories of a long-gone exploitative past? Not necessarily.

The United States still has a program for guest workers in agriculture, called the H2-A program, much like the bracero program Garcia remembers. Although not widely used in California, every day immigrant farm workers in North Carolina pass through the kind of mass shapeup he describes. While the delousing (probably with DDT, given the era), is no longer a feature, Bruce Goldstein, co-director of the Farmworker Justice Fund in Washington DC, says 10,000 workers pass through the state's centers every year. "It's a similar process," he says, "where workers are parceled out among growers in a huge barn."

And while the H2-A program only brings in about 40,000 people a year, out of an estimated 2,500,000 workers in US agriculture, it may become the centerpiece of a vastly expanded scheme, involving not just farm labor, but other industries as well.

In the period before the September 11 attacks led to vastly increased anti-immigrant hysteria, a new program for temporary, contract workers from Mexico was one element of immigration reform being negotiated by the governments on both sides of the US/Mexico border. The administrations of US President George Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox, trying to find a compromise that could pass through the legislatures of both countries, were contemplating a tradeoff in which undocumented workers in the US would get some means to gain legal status, while US employers would get an expanded temporary worker program.

The Mexican government would still like to see both elements, but in the wake of September 11 the Bush administration and its Congressional allies made it plain that legalizing undocumented workers was not on the table. At a March press conference, just before meeting with Fox in Monterrey, Mexico, Bush said he was opposed to any kind of amnesty. "Here's my attitude," he said. "I think what our country ought to do is help match any willing employer with any willing employee." That's White House shorthand for a contract labor program, seemingly the only element of immigration reform on which Bush and Fox could then agree.

Negotiations between farmworkers and growers over amnesty and H2-A expansion were deadlocked for months as a result. But in preparation for another meeting with Fox on August 26 and 27, growers initiated a letter-writing campaign to the White House, underscoring their need and desire for more guestworkers, and asking the President to get personally involved. In preparation for meeting Fox, the Bush administration is looking at the political gains and fallout from supporting the growers, and for relaxing its oppostion to amnesty for undocumented workers.

Some legalization would not just be a tradeoff to win Congressional votes. It would also be supported by some growers.

Pressure mounted in late July, when Congressman Richard Gephardt announced to the annual meeting of the National Council of La Raza in Miami that he intended to introduce amnesty legislation, allowing workers who have lived a few years in the US to apply. The proposal is short on details, and will be introduced when Congress reconvenes after its summer recess, in time to become an important factor in appealing for the Latino vote in November's Congressional elections.

If growers win Bush backing, and legislation is introduced, it's shape may influence the Congressional negotiations over proposals like Gephardt's. A amnesty/guestworker compromise for farmworkers suggests that a similar proposal of larger scope might then be possible. If the Bush administration concludes that such a compromise might produce Latino votes and yet be palatable to the Republican rightwing, it could move through Congress swiftly, in time for November.

So Garcia's memories don't just describe a distant past, but a rapidly approaching future.

"We slept in big bunkhouses," he remembers. "It was like being in the army. We woke up when they sounded a horn or turned on the lights. We'd make our beds and go to the bathroom, eat breakfast, and they'd give us our lunch -- some tacos or a couple of sandwiches, an apple and a soda. When we got back to camp, we'd wash up and eat.. Picking tomatoes, you really get dirty, like a dog. If we wanted to go into town, in Stockton there was a Spaniard who would send busses out to the camps to give people a ride. He was making a business out of selling us shirts, clothes, and medicine."

Since Garcia's bracero days, that situation has deteriorated, rather than improved. Today, in most parts of California, and increasingly in other states as well, growers no longer want to house the workers who come to harvest their crops. "They want to force workers to be on their own," Goldstein says. It's common now across the country to see parked cars on the outskirts of farm worker towns with whole families sleeping inside.

The current H2-A program, however, still contains a requirement that growers provide housing to the contract laborers they bring into the country. And the barracks or trailers they provide to workers are inspected -- in theory. But in the fall of 2000, in negotiations over a possible expansion of the program, agribusiness associations proposed scrapping this.

"With a big expansion of the program, it's unlikely there would be the resources to inspect housing. But what they sought in negotiations," Goldstein recounts, "was a change in H2-A, in which they would no longer actually have to provide it. Instead, they could give workers a housing allowance, if the government certified that there was no housing shortage."

The barracks of Garcia's memory might be preferable to what such an allowance could buy today, given that the housing supply is more limited in farm worker communities (especially during harvest) than in almost any urban area, and that the condition of that housing ranks at the bottom. In fact, grower insistence on eliminating the requirement might even backfire, according to Goldstein. "You can imagine that a lot of people in rural communities would freak out if growers simply dumped a contract workforce on the local housing market, even right wing people," he speculates.

But housing is only one element of living conditions. Another is food. Garcia remembers that the food in the camps was often bad, and that one year, one of the workers in his crew died of food poisoning. "Something he ate at dinner in the camp wasn't any good," he recalls, "but what could we do? We were all worried because what happened to him could happen to any of us. They said they'd left soap on the plates, because lots of others got diarrhea. I got it too. But this boy died."

According to Goldstein, for current H2-A workers "things have improved here a little. Today workers complain that the food often isn't culturally appropriate, but no one's dying of food poisoning. But if a much larger guest worker system is reestablished, it really would look like what we had during the bracero program. How else could they manage such a workforce? And for the H2-A's, it already exists.""

US farm workers and their unions fear guest workers because of the way braceros were used to replace resident workers in during the program's 22 year history, from 1942-1964. "The growers are lobbying for a new guest worker law on the grounds that there is not enough labor available," says Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a community-based project organizing farm workers in south Florida. "But it's a lie. Everyday in the papers you read about the high numbers of unemployed workers. The problem is that most workers in this country do not want to do the work we do for wages we're paid. We average seven thousand five hundred dollars a year and the conditions of exploitation are such that any reasonable person would prefer receiving unemployment benefits. The answer to the guest worker lobbying effort is to raise wages and improve working conditions."

During the 1950s, growers brought in braceros when their existing workforce struck, or threatened to do so. That threat allowed them to undermine the ability of the farm workers of that era to demand higher wages. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Cesar Chavez, then an organizer for the Community Service Organization in Oxnard, California, mounted farm worker protests over the program. He later said that organizing the United Farm Workers would have been impossible had it not been halted in 1964. In fact, the great grape strike in which the union was born began the following year.

But braceros did not always willingly acquiesce in their exploitation. California's legendary immigrant rights campaigner, Bert Corona, recalls in his autobiography not only that braceros sometimes went on strike, but that local Latino communities would bring them food and try to prevent their deportation.

Garcia also remembers strikes. "The foremen really abused people," he says. "A lot was expected of you, and they always demanded even more. But there were places where braceros stopped work. One of my brothers went on strike in Phoenix because they were picking cotton and the crop was bad. They threatened to send them back to Mexico, and put them on a bus to El Centro. My brother, one of the leaders, got strikes into his blood, and later worked with Cesar Chavez for many years. Me too. When the farm workers' movement came along, we already knew how to organize from people who'd participated in those conflicts."

But while some braceros may have fought to change conditions, and small rebellions may have raised the wages temporarily, the threat of deportation was enough to stop any larger strike and union effort until 1965.

Rebellions among H2-A workers aren't unknown either. In 1986, Jamaican sugar cane workers in Florida stopped work to try to raise the piece rate. Growers called in the sheriffs, who sicced dogs on the strikers, and the dispute became known as the Dog Wars. The workers were loaded onto planes back home.

More recently, in 2000 in Leamington, Ontario, a group of Mexicans brought in under the Canadian guest worker program stopped work, protesting abuse by a foreman on a local farm. Sixteen workers were deported as a result.

The H2-A program establishes a wage rate, which is supposed to be a minimum, currently a little over $7/hour in most areas. "But if workers demand more," Goldstein says, "the employer can say, 'I'm offering all that the Department of Labor requires. If you don't like it, I can get more workers.' In effect, the minimum standard becomes the maximum standard. You could even have a union for braceros, but in this system, it would have no bargaining power. The Department says you can't fill a vacancy created by a strike with a guest worker, but they define this so narrowly that it's virtually impossible to enforce."

Despite the low wages and bad conditions, however, Garcia did eventually manage to find an employer who was different. And because of that, he was able to become a permanent legal resident.

"In San Diego I worked for a Japanese grower named Suzuki, a good man," he remembers. "During the war they had put him into one of the camps. He told us, 'I know what your life is like, because we lived that way too, in concentration camps, watched over with rifles.' So he got papers for all of us, and told us to come work with him. That was the last contract I worked."

Some growers in Canada, Goldstein says, even go to the Mexican towns from which their workers come to attend the local fiesta. One New Hampshire apple grower attempted to take over the local growers' association to raise the wages for H2-A workers, only to wind up losing his own seat on the group's board. "Occasionally there is a person who wants to be fair," he says, "but the economic forces at work are too powerful. You can't really go against them."

And why should workers have to rely on the benevolence of their employers anyway?

The answer unions give to the vulnerable state of immigrant farm workers is amnesty -- a legalization program which would allow those who are undocumented to gain legal status. According to a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center, 47% of all farm workers lack papers -- about 1.25 million people. Counting their families, that number is even higher. The same study says there are about 7.8 million undocumented immigrants in the country as a whole, and in urban areas, they make up almost 4% of the entire workforce.

In 1986, after the amnesty program of the Immigration Reform and Control Act took effect, over 3 million people gained legal status. The act, with its special provision for farm workers, had a big effect on union organizing among immigrants. As people lost their fear of deportation, and employers lost their ability to threaten workers with it, an upsurge in strikes and organizing drives swept through Los Angeles and areas of the country where immigrants are concentrated. One strike alone, among the workers who hang drywall in new homes, shut down home construction throughout southern California for most of 1992. The 1986 amnesty set the stage for the war to regain contracts among Los Angeles janitors, chronicled in the movie Bread and Roses.

The strategy of farm worker unions, therefore, has been to get a new amnesty, which would aid those workers presently in the fields to organize and win better conditions. Even if the present H2-A program was relaxed slightly, they argue, it would be an acceptable price to pay under certain conditions. After all, the program already exists, and in a Republican Congress there's no likelihood of abolishing it.

Pursuing that logic, Los Angeles Congressman Howard Berman crafted a compromise two years ago, in cooperation with the UFW and other farm worker unions. It would allow growers to pay a housing allowance instead of providing housing, and would freeze the minimum required wage for a number of years. In return, workers who performed 100 days worth of farm labor in 18 months could apply for temporary legal status, and if they did another 360 days of that work in six years, they could gain permanent residency.

In addition, guest workers would become covered under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, which covers all other farm workers. The act, amended to formally include the right to organize, would then allow all farm workers, including guest workers, to sue their employers in Federal courts over violations.

That compromise almost became law. But after seeing the 2000 election results, growers decided they could get a better deal under President George Bush, and backed out. Congressman Larry Craig (R-ID) introduced a new bill, which looks much more like the traditional bracero program. Guest workers would have no right to go to court or recognition of union rights. Minimum wage rates would be slashed -- the bill requires only the minimum wage -- and the government would no longer have to certify a labor shortage to permit importing workers. The grower's word would do. And workers would have to labor 150 days per year, just in agriculture, to qualify for legalization. That bar would disqualify most seasonal workers, while at the same time, the disincentives for bringing in guest workers would be reduced drastically. For workers the message would be clear -- if you want to work legally, sign up as a bracero.

"Growers always want to scream'shortage,'" Berman commented bitterly, "but in reality what they want is an oversupply of labor to keep wages down and discourage unionization."

Other industries now want guest workers too. In Congress, the push comes from the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, which includes the American Health Care Association, the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Increasingly, the enforcement of employer sanctions, the law which makes it illegal for an undocumented worker to hold a job, is directed toward building political support for guest worker programs.

"It's time for a gut check," declared Mark Reed in 1999, who at the time was INS regional director based in Dallas. "We depend on foreign labor, and we have to face the question -- are we prepared to bring in workers lawfully? ... If we don't have illegal immigration anymore, we'll have the political support for guest workers."

That year, in Nebraska meatpacking plants, the INS mounted the largest workplace enforcement action in its history, Operation Vanguard. The operation was later suspended in controversy, but in the changed atmosphere surrounding immigration after September 11, it has been restarted in Missouri and Kansas. Meanwhile, the INS has initiated a wave of other worksite raids and enforcement actions, especially the high-profile Operation Tarmac at airports around the country.

Critics of U.S. immigration policy have said for decades that its purpose is not really "welcoming your tired, huddled masses, yearning to breathe free," but providing an ample labor supply. "It's all become an issue of the price of labor -- how it will be regulated, and how much it will cost employers," says Lourdes Gouveia, who studies immigration at the University of Nebraska in Omaha.

There's no reason to believe that the flow of people across the border will stop, or can be stopped by draconian enforcement. According to Geneva-based Migrant Watch, migration is not just a US/Mexico phenomenon. Worldwide, over 130 million people live outside the countries in which they were born. And for the US and Mexico, immigration is a permanent fact of life, according to Mexico's National Population Council, which concludes that by 2030 the Mexican-born U.S. population will at least double to 16 million to 18 million. "Migration between Mexico and the United States is a permanent, structural phenomenon," it reports. "It is built on real factors, ranging from geography, economic inequality and integration, and the intense relationship between the two countries, that make it inevitable."

Immigration policy doesn't affect the number of people coming across so much as their status once they're here. And key to that status is the ability of immigrant workers to organize. The difficulties faced by guest workers who want to do that is the basis for AFL-CIO opposition to the expansion of existing programs. The federation calls instead for labor protections within those programs that already exist.

But John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees International Union, who also heads the AFL-CIO's immigration committee, says "I don't think it's possible to have labor protections for contract workers." Pointing to the fact that even among US citizen workers, one in twenty lose their job in the course of union organizing campaigns, he concludes that "to think the law will protect people whose right to stay in the country ends with their job is not living in the real world." If guest worker programs expand, "tens of thousands of workers would be [made] hostage, and ultimately destroy wage and working conditions in the hospitality industry," he adds. Last year, the union's convention called instead for a broad legalization and citizenship program, and for repealing employer sanctions. That reflects the position the AFL-CIO itself adopted in 1998 in an historic shift towards a new pro-immigrant policy.

The debate in Washington, however, revolves not around what workers want, but over what is possible under a Republican administration, with Republican control of the House of Representatives. Despite recent efforts by Bush to reach out to more conservative unions in the AFL-CIO, labor has little to no traction with the administration around guest workers and amnesty.

Last year, unions interested in amnesty tried to convince the Mexican government to advocate that position in negotiations with Bush. In June, Wilhelm, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez and other labor leaders went to Mexico City to talk to Fox. "We said we were inalterably opposed to guest worker programs," Wilhelm recalled. "We don't want any program in which a worker's immigration status is attached to their job, and where there is no realistic path to legalization." After the talks were over, Rodriguez told the press that "we've made it clear that without legalization there will be no new guest worker program or revision of the current guest worker program."

There's no doubt that Fox supports amnesty, but his position on guest workers is much closer to Bush. While unpopular among Mexicans already here, a larger guest worker program might be more acceptable to people in Mexico considering the dangerous journey north, in which hundreds die on the border every year. Fox might claim, for instance, that he was opening the door to jobs and legal migration north by allowing greater recruitment of guest workers in Mexico.

In Congress, the situation is at impasse for the moment. Neither Berman nor Craig can muster the votes needed for passage, and negotiations for a compromise seem deadlocked. But the attitude of the Bush administration may turn the tide, especially after the November election. His clear preference for guest workers, and reluctance to challenge Republicans like Phil Gramm and Tom Delay, to whom amnesty is anathema, may outline the terrain for the big immigration battle of 2003.

Some advocates, like Goldstein, however, are more optimistic. "I think Bush will do the right thing," he predicts.

In the end, demographic and economic shifts may also change the terms of the debate. US agriculture has historically been addicted to a vast reservoir of cheap labor. Outside of the brief years of the Dust Bowl, it has been the labor of people of color. African Americans made up the rural labor force of the south for centuries, first as slaves, then as sharecroppers, tenant farmers and finally wage laborers at the bottom of the scale. In the highly-developed, corporate agriculture of the west and southwest, immigrant workers from Mexico, Latin America and Asia constituted a rural labor force with wages at the bottom. In fact, everywhere in the world, rural standards of living are far below those of even poor urban workers.

But dependence on abundant cheap labor may no longer be possible, or even necessary. "The oversupply of farm workers has always meant that growers weren't forced to raise wages and improve working conditions. But what would happen," Goldstein speculates, "if workers had legal status and greater political power, and if that helped them to organize strong unions? As the cost of the labor rises, there's a greater incentive for growers to mechanize and use fewer workers. That's already happened in picking cotton, wine grapes, and tomatoes for canning. That's going to happen elsewhere, no matter what. And as it does, it reduces the pressure for guest worker and bracero programs."

For Garcia, the old bracero program was the route to establishing a life in the US, but it was a hard one, and he's glad his children won't face it. "When I fixed my immigration status, I decided I wouldn't go back, and I would bring my wife here instead. I was tired of being alone. That was the hardest thing -- the loneliness, even though you have the security of three meals, a place to stay, your job.

"I missed my land and my wife, but it was important to send my kids to school. That's what I was trying to do as a bracero. I wanted a real future, and we knew that we were just casual workers - we would never be able to stay. So I had to look for another way. Eventually I got my papers and now I live like anyone else. Those experience were the beginning of the life I'm leading now. We survived, and here I am. But I always remember how I got here. Illegal, a bracero."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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