Michael Cox

Michael Cox

The U.S. House is expected to vote on the Farm Labor Reform Bill and send it on to the Senate. Many anticipate it to be the cure-all for the farm labor challenges that face the U.S. agrarian community. I read a synopsis of the bill a couple of days ago. Some of it sounded familiar. One word kept coming to my mind. Bracero.

The Spanish word Bracero, translated to English means “one who works using his arms.” The word was part of the title of a program passed by congress in 1942, a few months after the U.S. was forced into world war by the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Bracero Program was essentially a way to get all the domestic work done in this country, while at the same time meet the labor demands of war factories and the military. Between 1942 and 1964, when the program was ended, more than four and half million Mexican citizens were welcomed into the country to work on farms and in factories.

Under the basic terms of the agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, temporary workers were allowed into the U.S. They moved about relatively freely. They were paid a minimum wage. Cringe worthy by today’s standards, $.30/hour was the going rate back then. They were also guaranteed sanitation, housing and food. They were not to be racially discriminated against — e.g. they could enter public facilities posted for “whites only.”

While most of us who knew the program and labored happily alongside the Mexican workers, the program was not without problems. It was also not without great benefit to the country at war and there after. I was a school-age ag employee in the Santa Clara Valley of California. Even though something like half of the kids with whom I grew up worked on the farms, there is no way that we could have provided the labor force for our neighbors. The Bracero families were a great help.

As the post war economy roared back to life, so did the farms and their need for labor. While the Bracero Program brought in legal Mexican workers, a lot of growers, as time went by, found it easier to circumvent the program and hire “illegals.” When the program ended in 1964, there were about five million legal Braceros in the country. Many of the Bracero families eventually became green card holders and residents, and citizens. However, at the same time about six million or more were here illegally.

And so, we face not a new problem, but the extension of one that goes back a hundred years to when the first labor agreement between the US and Mexico was signed in 1917, while the first world war was in its final year. That one lasted until 1921, when racial issues and wage discrimination killed it.

So after all the history, the answer is —another program? The Farm Labor Reform Act proposes to “stabilize the agriculture sector and preserve rural heritage by ensuring that farmers can meet their labor needs well into the future.”

Isn’t that nice? Pardon me if I don’t share everybody’s enthusiasm. But we did that already, twice in fact. Well, three times, if you count SAW (more on that in a bit).

Taking the teeth out of the H-2A visa program sounds a lot like inviting in a lot of “men who work using their arms.” We already have, who knows how many, illegal folks from all points south, most from Mexico. Why haven’t they alleviated our agriculture labor needs?

While HR 5038 literally skated through Congress with folks from both sides of the aisle blessing it like it was the cure for Alzheimer’s, Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican from Georgia, uncovered some serious piles of poop in his reading of the 224-page bill.

Collins said the law promotes fraudulent amnesty applications by short cutting the documentation requirements. Aliens with multiple criminal convictions will get amnesty and will be forgiven Social Security fraud. The law states a workday is only 5.75 hours long and an applicant only needs to work two hours a week in a year to gain a legal path to citizenship. Collins found that the law awards forgiveness for not showing up for deportation proceedings. There is forgiveness as well for those who were deported and reentered illegally. The act earmarks $10 million in tax money to pay legal fees. Plus amnesty seeking workers will not have to pay back taxes.

Basically, the above means we are simply renaming the Special Ag Workers (SAW) law. This is the one where Congress, in 1986, gave amnesty to illegal immigrants for saying they had worked here in the previous year. Proof was not demanded. Atlantic Magazine summed up SAW this way, “[The program] was expected to grant legal status to 350,000 illegal immigrants. Instead more than 1.3 million illegal immigrants — a number roughly equivalent at the time to a sixth of the adult male population of rural Mexico — applied for this amnesty, most of them using phony documents in what has been called one of the greatest immigration frauds in American history.”

Here is a thought. How about a redo on HB 5038. Clean up the glaring errors. Fixing our farm labor needs ought not include amnesty. Open the farm labor market only (no kitchens, landscaping, janitor jobs) to anyone who is already here. They are never going back, that is now a given. So put them to work without fear of an ICE raid. They will have to come in from the cold and register. As they work, the IRS collects taxes and health care premiums. If they keep their part of the bargain, they get a shot at a green card, and eventually, after classes and an oath, citizenship.

Too simple, I know.

Michael A. Cox is a Montrose-based content provider. He may be reached at michaelc@agwriter.us

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