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‘Guest’ worker wilderness

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Millions of people in Mexico need work. Americans have millions of jobs that we apparently won't do ourselves. Presto. The answer to illegal immigration is obviously a lawful guest-worker program.

That simple logic is behind various immigration reform bills under discussion before Congress. Most entail guest-worker provisions that bring set numbers of temporary workers in from Mexico, attached to particular employers who can "prove" they can't find Americans to work for them.

The problem is that we have unsuccessfully tried this approach before, from 1942 to 1964, with the so-called braceros -- the hired "arms" from Mexico.

Various programs to bring Mexican laborers across the border were initially small, supposedly temporary, and aimed only at alleviating wartime shortages of labor.

But some 4 million braceros later, the idea of guest workers had evolved into a huge labor exchange, delivering hardworking -- and very cheap -- farm workers to American employers, most of them large agribusiness concerns.

President Kennedy, under union pressure and shortly before his death, began to phase out the braceros. He worried that the system was "adversely affecting the wages, working conditions and employment opportunities of our own agricultural workers."

But when well-meaning legislators, conservative and liberal alike, now propose modern braceros for all sorts of hard-to-fill jobs, it is often with a weird sense of nostalgia.

Sometimes, though, the remedy is worse than the problem. Bringing back the braceros to work throughout the economy, and euphemistically calling them "guest workers," would be just such a case.

Growing up in the rural San Joaquin Valley in California in the early 1960s, I remember hardworking, but not happy, braceros. No one considered them "guests" at all, but rather more like helots -- a permanent class of serfs in the fields that the public neglected, the employer exploited and other workers resented.

To ensure that braceros went back home to Mexico after harvest, portions of their paychecks were often deposited with the Mexican government. Today thousands of aged and disabled farm workers are still in court trying to reclaim those stolen wages.

In fact, almost every bad immigration stereotype we have today of both Mexico and the United States -- corrupt Mexican officials, hard-nosed American contractors, labor camps and exploited workers -- crystallized during the bracero era.

Contrary to current popular mythology, most braceros, like most illegal aliens today, never wanted to go back to Mexico after living most of the year in the United States. But revisit newspapers of the time. The constant theme can be summed up as something like "good enough to work for us, not good enough to live among us."

Another constant, still with us today, was that cheap labor from Mexico -- at first braceros, later illegal aliens -- made it almost impossible for American farm workers to see their own wages rise much.

Aside from the moral considerations, there are plenty of practical difficulties with guest workers:

What will we do with the millions of unlawful workers who either cannot or will not participate in the program?

Has the Mexican government changed all that much to be trusted as an honest fiduciary to pay back the withheld wages of its returning citizens?

How will temporary workers bargain with employers over compensation when they are subject to deportation?

Who pays for the costs of their health care, housing, pensions and disability?

How can Americans talk of importing workers and yet worry about the scarcity of jobs?

Our seemingly intractable problem with labor is an existential one -- and can't be solved by allowing employers to ship in cheap workers from Mexico.

There are plenty of Americans in need of work. There are plenty of jobs begging to be filled. The rub is that permanently mowing lawns, picking strawberries and making beds do not pay enough to support a family.

And for those without command of the English language, without education and without legality, these quickly turn into dead-end jobs. They are rarely now seen as entry-level opportunities for students and beginning American workers to gain valuable experience without competition from cheaper alien workers.

So we are back to the one solution of measured and legal immigration that we all know will work but apparently dread:

Control our borders and enforce existing laws. Fine employers who hire illegal immigrants. Provide a mechanism of foolproof identification. Return to policies of English-language immersion and cultural assimilation. Pay more now in higher labor costs -- but save far more later by avoiding entitlement, law-enforcement and social chaos.

And, most controversially, work out a one-time-only citizenship plan for those who have resided for substantial time in the United States.

Americans are not Spartans, and their workers are not helots. So honor and remember the noble braceros, but please don't bring back that age of heartbreak.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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