David Bacon: Legalizing An Underclass

I have argued that “illegal” immigration offers employers an exploitable work force with which they can intimidate “legal” workers. But David Bacon argues that an obvious alternative–making it possible for workers to enter the country “legally” as “guest workers”–is insufficient:

Today, many Congressional leaders—Democrats and Republicans—want to allow corporations and contractors to recruit hundreds of thousands of workers a year outside of the U.S. and put them to work here on temporary visas. Labor schemes like this have a long history. From 1942 to 1964, the Bracero Program recruited temporary immigrants. They were exploited, cheated, and deported if they tried to go on strike. Growers pitted them against workers already in the country to drive down wages. César Chávez, Ernesto Galarza and Bert Corona all campaigned to get the program repealed.

In practice, “guest worker” programs do not protect worker rights. Nor does it truly protect “legal” workers:

By their nature, guest worker programs are low-wage schemes, intended to supply plentiful labor to corporate employers at a price they want to pay. Companies don’t recruit guest workers so they can pay them more, but to pay them less.

Bacon’s argument undermines my logic that “legalizing” these workers would undermine employers’ ability to pressure citizens to accept lower wages. Such a change would merely serve to reduce the risk and increase the incentives for employers to hire these workers. Bacon writes, “The schemes create a second tier of workers with fewer rights and less job security. They have none of the social benefits U.S. workers won in the New Deal—retirement, unemployment and disability insurance.”

But the cruelty of the existing system is no answer. Bacon begins by noting that immigration “raids do cause terrible suffering.” He also writes:

The question Congress is deciding isn’t “what can stop immigration?” With over 180 million people in the world living outside their countries of origin, nothing can. Migration begins when people are displaced. In the countries that are the main sources of migration to the U.S., most migration is caused by economic dislocation—people can no longer survive as farmers or workers. Other migrants fled the wars that raged in Central America.

Bacon winds up arguing for a far more liberality in issuing green cards, allowing people “the chance to come and go—to work, study or take care of family members in the U.S. or in their home country. They can’t be deported if they lose a job.” He also argues for prohibiting companies from recruiting abroad.

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