Crossing the Line

Former migrant workers support reinstatement of a Mexican guest worker program.

Even though more than half a century has passed since Eduardo Cardenas worked in Nebraska and California fields as a migrant worker, he still remembers the time as if it were yesterday.

He remembers the discrimination, the verbal abuse and the second-class status he and his fellow Mexicans were given by his employers.

He remembers waking up in a field just as darkness was falling, after having fainted from exhaustion hours before, surprised no one had taken notice of him.

But still, Cardenas, an 83-year-old Tucson resident, says he is thankful for everything the United States has given him--above all, the opportunity to pursue a better life for himself and his children.

At a time when talks between United States and Mexico about a potential guest worker program have stalled indefinitely, many Tucsonans continue to support the program, arguing that the benefits far outweigh the shortcomings.

Many of them are ex-braceros, migrant workers from Mexico, who, like Cardenas, entered the country under the biggest guest worker program in U.S. history, from 1942-1964.

Tony Lopez, 64, a retired caseworker for the Arizona state prison system, spent his first years in the country picking cherries and lettuce in Michigan, and beans and apples in Texas, as a migrant worker.

Conditions were tough and the workers had no medical attention. If anyone got sick, the only thing they could do was lie around the camps until they got better.

"It was an isolated life and you stuck out like a sore thumb," he said, recalling that Mexican workers were not allowed to use "white" facilities and lived in a separate part of town.

Despite that, he said that a guest worker program that would allow a certain number of Mexicans to cross the border legally would be a step in the right direction.

"If the U.S. government establishes a similar policy, it would eliminate a lot of deaths in the desert," he said.

But at the same time, it would have to be closely monitored to make sure that the conditions were safe and workers offered the same protections as other American workers, he said.

"There are a lot of jobs out there that people don't want at all, especially janitorial and in the agricultural sector," he said. "These are the jobs that could be given to Mexicans."

Former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm has been one of the strongest supporters of renewing a bracero-type guest worker program, arguing that it would "recognize that millions of Mexican citizens go to work everyday in America in violation of our immigration law and outside the protection of our labor law."

Such a program would "encourage them to come out of the shadows, to work with dignity and then return to their families in Mexico with the capital and skills they acquire as guest worker in the United States," he said in a written prospectus.

Under the plan, workers from Mexico could enroll in the program through their own government and be eligible to accept work on an annual or seasonal basis. After returning to Mexico in the off-season, they could receive permits indefinitely, while those who had worked the entire year could receive three consecutive permits by reapplying.

While the bracero program was limited to the agricultural sector, Gramm's plan would not restrict the type of work participants would be able to obtain.

An estimated 2.3 million Mexicans are living in the country illegally, while another 4.8 million have legal status, according to statistics provided by the National Center for Policy Analysis, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization based in Dallas.

The AFL-CIO, traditionally wary of immigrants because of the competition for jobs, today strongly supports a guest worker program, as well as amnesty for immigrants who have resided in the country for a certain amount of years. Their main concern is that the immigrants have on-the-job protection and the same rights--such as worker's compensation--given to their American counterparts.

"We need to treat foreign workers the same [way] we treat all other workers and that includes making sure the conditions in which they work meet OSHA and work hour regulations," said Jim Watson, community service liaison for the Southern Arizona chapter of the AFL-CIO.

The Bracero Program, also called the U.S. Emergency Farm Labor Program, was instigated to fill the vacuum created by farmers who enlisted in the Army at the start of World War II or working in the defense industry sector. Today, only the H2A visa program gives Mexicans seeking work in the fields the same opportunity, although the number actually permitted entry have been greatly reduced. Under the program, growers who anticipate a shortage can bring in so-called non-immigrant labor after they have demonstrated that the job cannot be filled locally.

But with slightly more than 100,000 workers permitted legal entry into the country, many others are left out, and enter the country illegally so that they may support their families. And while today's economy shows there is no shortage of help, but rather a deficit of jobs, some say the type of work Mexicans traditionally take will not increase unemployment rates.

"This is work that no one else wants," said Noel Curry, who owns a ranch near Cochise and used to hire many braceros for his chile harvest in the 1950s and still relies on migrant workers today.

"I need up to 200 people during the harvest ... and if we want to be successful, we have to be dependable and that means having workers," he said.

So far, the pleas of ranchers, human rights and labor activists have gone unheard. In several states, including California, ex-braceros have launched a lawsuit protesting the disappearance of more than $500 million, which were collected for workers' retirement funds upon return to Mexico. Many never saw the money and are pointing the finger at Wells Fargo Bank, which oversaw the transaction.

Jorge Castañeda, Foreign Minister of Mexico, recently resigned in protest to the stalled negotiations over a guest worker program--a symbolic move at best, with no foreseeable consequence.

Until the issue is back on the agenda of politicians, Mexicans will keep crossing illegally and dying, in the scorching desert, in the fast rivers and treacherous mountains.

"Workers are being exploited every day, but I don't hear our congressmen talking about it," said Watson of the AFL-CIO. "We have to do something about our border policy. These people are not coming over here to buy a Big Mac, but for an opportunity to make their lives better."

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