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PERSPECTIVE ON IMMIGRATION : Hold Off on Guest Worker Welcome : Congress is being rushed into a 'reform' that serves the farm lobby but works against the nation's interests.

February 18, 1996|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

I've written before, and still believe, that we won't ever stop all illegal immigration to this country. Too many people want to come. Getting here is too easy. And American society is too open for U.S. citizens to accept the draconian methods that might stop it, like making everyone carry a national identity card.

I'm equally convinced that the entry of foreigners to the United States can be regulated so that whatever illegal flow remains is a trickle. A key component of that regulatory scheme will be a guest worker program that allows employers--particularly in agriculture--who need foreign workers on a temporary or seasonal basis to hire them legally. Once the work is done, workers would return home, having earned enough dollars in weeks to support their families for a year.

But crafting a guest worker program is not going to be easy, as Congress is finding out.

Both the House and Senate are moving forward with legislation that aims to shut the gates tighter against both legal and illegal immigrants. Those bills are being pushed most ardently by members of the House, like California's Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who want U.S. immigration laws to reflect "the spirit of Proposition 187," the California initiative passed in 1994 (and still under review by the courts) to cut off publicly funded education and social services to illegal immigrants.

But, in an ironic (not to say hypocritical) twist that could only happen on the immigration issue, Gallegly is also helping colleagues who represent agricultural areas design a guest worker program that could bring up to half a million Mexican workers into California and other states. They hope to attach this guest worker proposal to whatever immigration reform law is finally passed, as a last-minute amendment. They assume, probably correctly, that Congress is so eager to "do something" about illegal immigration in an election year that most members won't pay much attention to the details.

The estimate of half a million guest workers comes from critics of the proposal, but it may not be far off the mark. Between 300,000 and 400,000 Mexicans a year entered the United States as temporary workers during the bracero program of the 1950s. And Mexico's population has grown dramatically since then. So has U.S. agriculture's need for temporary seasonal labor, if you listen to farmers.

There are reputable agricultural economists who argue both for and against guest workers. I personally favor guest workers, not because I'm convinced that farmers truly need them but because I'm sure few U.S. citizens will take hard, dirty, temporary jobs picking fruit or vegetables.

A plausible case can also be made that a regulated flow of Mexican workers to the United States is in our national interest if it helps provide social stability in Mexico as that nation makes the difficult transition from a state-run to a free-market economy.

But while the potential benefits of admitting guest workers are evident, history suggests that Congress is going about it the wrong way. Gallegly and his cohorts are creating a labor program that meets only the needs of farmers (however legitimate) without taking into account the rights of workers or the interests of the nation that will be sending us some of its most energetic young people to help harvest our crops.

One of the reasons the bracero program was discredited is that it was heavily slanted in favor of farmers. The resulting abuse and exploitation of many Mexican workers has been amply documented on both sides of the border. The farmers had the upper hand because the bracero pact was negotiated during World War II, when the power relationship between Mexico and the United States was one-sided.

The last time Congress acted unilaterally on agricultural labor, it botched the job badly. In the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, a special amnesty category was created, again at the behest of agribusiness lobbyists, just for farm workers. More than 1 million people who were in this country illegally were granted this "special agricultural worker" amnesty. Quite understandably, most of the newly legalized farm workers soon decamped for better-paying jobs in cities.

A more effective way to create a nonexploitive guest worker program is to negotiate one with Mexico. The staff of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform has been comparing research notes with migration experts in Mexico preparatory to possible negotiations. But someone who took part in the meetings cautioned, off the record, "We're talking about a labor agreement similar to NAFTA, and you know how long that took to achieve."

Congress, in its collective wisdom, must be patient this time. A jerry-built guest worker program may suit the farm lobby, but as an immigration control, it won't work. And when it fails, it will feed public frustration not just with illegal immigrants but with hypocritical politicians who try have it both ways on the immigration issue--bashing immigrants when it plays well with voters, but letting them in when it plays well with business.

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