David Bacon Stories & Photographs


By David Bacon
New America Media, 3/30/07

For the last several months, agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have carried out well-publicized immigration raids in factories, meatpacking plants, janitorial services, and other workplaces employing immigrants. ICE calls the workers criminals, because immigration law forbids employers to hire them.

But while workers get deported, and often must leave their children with relatives, or even strangers, don’t expect to see their employers to go to jail. Further, ICE can’t, and won’t, deport all 12 million undocumented workers in the country. This would quickly halt many industries. Instead, these raids have a political purpose.

Last fall, after agents raided Swift & Co. meatpacking plants, Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff told the media the deportations would show Congress the need for "stronger border security, effective interior enforcement and a temporary-worker program.'' Bush wants, he said, “a program that would allow businesses that need foreign workers, because they can't otherwise satisfy their labor needs, to be able to get those workers in a regulated program.”

In his recent visit to Mexico, President Bush again proposed new guest worker programs. He proposed to allow corporations and contractors to recruit hundreds of thousands of workers a year outside of the US, and put them to work here on temporary, employment-based visas.

Two weeks ago, Congressmen Luis Gutierrez and Jeff Flake introduced a bill into Congress which would set up the kind of guest worker program the President called for. Corporations could bring in 400,000 guest workers annually, while the kind of sanctions that have led to the wave of workplace raids would be put on steroids.

Then last week, the administration and Republican Senator Jon Cornyn proposed to eliminate all family-based immigration visas, and allow people to come to the U.S. only as a result of recruitment by corporate employers. All immigrants would become guest workers.

Labor schemes like this have a long history. From 1942 to 1964 the bracero program recruited temporary immigrants, who were exploited, cheated, and deported if they tried to go on strike. Growers pitted them against workers already in the country to drive down wages. Cesar Chavez and other Latino leaders campaigned to get the program repealed.

Advocates of today’s programs avoid the bitter “bracero” label, and call them “guest worker,” “essential worker,” or just “new worker” schemes. You can’t clean up an unpleasant reality, however, by renaming it.

Guest worker programs are low-wage schemes, intended to supply plentiful labor to corporate employers, at a price they want to pay. Companies don’t recruit guest workers so they can pay them more, but to pay them less. According to Rob Rosado, director of legislative affairs for the American Meat Institute, meatpackers want a guest worker program, but not a basic wage guarantee for those workers. “We don’t want the government setting wages,” he says. “The market determines wages.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s recent report, Close to Slavery, shows that current guest worker programs allow labor contractors to maintain blacklists of workers who work slowly or demand their rights. Public interest lawyers spend years in court, trying just to get back wages for cheated immigrants. Meanwhile, the Department of Labor almost never decertifies contractors who abuse workers.

The AFL-CIO opposes guest worker programs, and says immigrants should be given permanent residence visas, so they have labor rights and can become normal members of the communities they live in. Since 1999, the AFL-CIO has called for legalization of the 12 million people living in the US without documents. Most unions oppose employer sanctions and the recent immigration raids, because they’re often used used to threaten and punish workers when they speak out for better wages and conditions.

Today over 180 million people in the world already live outside the countries where they were born. In the countries that are the main sources of migration to the US, trade agreements like NAFTA, and market-based economic reforms, have uprooted hundreds of thousands of farmers and workers, leaving them little option other than coming north.

A rational immigration policy should end trade and investment policies abroad that produce poverty and displace people. In the US, immigration policy should emphasize rights and equality, and protect all families and communities, of immigrants and native-born alike.

Using immigration raids instead as a pressure tactic to get Congress to approve guest worker programs is not a legitimate use of enforcement. It undermines the family and community values for which this country stands.


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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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