Coalition of Immokalee Workers calls guestworker proposal
“damaging to the very people it purports to help”

[Immokalee, FL—The Coalition of Immokalee Workers offered this reaction today to President Bush’s proposal for a new guestworker program. Three CIW members — Lucas Benitez, Romeo Ramirez, and Julia Gabriel — received the 2003 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for their work fighting modern-day slavery.]


On Wednesday, January 7, President Bush invited Latino immigration activists to the White House for a press event unveiling an important new policy initiative. The President told those assembled that US immigration policy “is not working” and proposed an ambitious new policy he said would better “reflect the American Dream.”

Following the President’s speech, John Alger, an agricultural employer in Homestead, Florida, told the USA Today that he welcomed the new initiative, saying, “To have a sustainable, low-cost labor force is crucial to us.”

Why was Mr. Alger talking about labor and securing a “low-wage labor force,” while the President talked of immigration and of realizing the American Dream?

Because Mr. Alger was being honest about the true objectives of the President’s initiative.

What President Bush in fact unveiled Wednesday is nothing less than a massive new guestworker program, designed to give US industries legal, taxpayer-assisted access to millions of desperately poor workers outside this country’s borders.

Why, when there are 9 million workers—US-born and immigrant alike—unemployed in this country today, do US industries need to look to guest workers to fill their jobs? For several years, dozens of industries, from meatpacking to fast-food, have complained of labor shortages, while stubbornly offering sub-poverty wages and little or no benefits to potential new hires. Yet rather than raise wages and improve conditions to attract and maintain a stable workforce, as the market would have it, these employers have lobbied their friends in the Bush Administration for the right to circumvent the US labor market altogether and import low-wage workers directly from countries far poorer than the United States.

The President’s proposal would grant their wish, while cloaking this thinly-veiled subsidy to low-wage industry in the compassionate clothing of immigration reform. Yet it is difficult to imagine a policy more damaging to the very people it purports to help than a guestworker program.

The President’s proposal would effectively create a new basement in the US labor market, a basement, according to the specifics of the President’s plan, with no door out. Under the President’s plan, undocumented workers and foreign workers living abroad could apply for a temporary, non-immigrant work visa for three years at the request of a specific US employer. They would remain in the country at the pleasure of their employer, they could not change jobs, and would be obliged to return to their home country once their employer is finished with them, or face deportation.

The President’s plan makes no provision for guestworkers to become members of US society. Under his proposal, guestworkers have no hopes of earning immigrant status or citizenship in exchange for their labor. Instead, once they have finished picking the country’s crops, sweeping its floors, emptying its bedpans, and building its skyscrapers, they are to be sent home to the same poverty and desperation they, like so many Americans before them, had hoped to escape.

This new “American Dream” would create a permanent underclass of millions of guestworkers, a huge, disenfranchised sector of US labor with no power on the job, no hopes of upward mobility, and no political voice, as guestworkers would not have the right to vote. In short, it would provide the legal framework for a sort of 21st century American peasantry, a class of workers consigned to manual labor and yet excluded, by law, from American society.

Not surprisingly, guestworker programs have been tried before, and they have failed miserably, often with tragic consequences. Between 1942 and 1964, for example, millions of Mexican workers were imported under an agricultural guestworker program (known as the ”Bracero” program) to work temporarily under contract to US growers and ranchers. The program was scuttled in 1964 after years of scandalous labor abuses. Europe, too, experimented with guestworker programs, which also ended in failure years ago.

Abuses such as those that eventually killed the Bracero program are inevitable, as the guestworker relationship is an extremely coercive form of labor relations. As a guestworker, not only does your employer hold your livelihood in his hands, but he also holds your visa, your very right to be in this country. With so much power concentrated under the employers’ control, it is hardly surprising that an inordinate number of recent prosecutions for modern-day slavery and forced labor have involved guestworkers, with cases ranging from New Hampshire to American Samoa. Indeed, the President’s proposal could well undermine efforts to fight slavery more broadly, as giving employers such wide control over their workers’ lives is a proven recipe for exploitation.

In short, the President’s proposal is the wrong policy for the wrong reasons, and should be rejected. President Bush is attempting to aid the efforts of this country’s low-wage industries to avoid paying competitive wages by granting them access to foreign workers, workers who will end up locked in second-class, dead-end jobs with no hopes of advancement or of ever becoming part of the very country that demands their labor. The proposal will hurt workers already in this country today, it will hurt guestworkers it proposes to import tomorrow, and it will hurt the Latino community whose vote it was designed to win in this election year.

Though the Administration timed the announcement of its new initiative in an effort to win Latino votes, most Latino and immigrant rights organizations immediately dismissed the President’s proposal as a cynical effort to play on the hopes of their long-suffering members. But if President Bush is really interested in winning Latino and immigrant labor support, he should consider returning to one of the principles that made this country great in the first place:

Reward work. Raise the minimum wage, restore workers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain, and help win legal status for undocumented workers who are contributing to this country’s wealth. Reward work, not those who would seek government support to exploit already poor workers yet more.