NPR Story
7:18 am
Wed April 17, 2013

Guest Worker Programs Have A Long History In U.S.

EL PASO, Texas — Fulfilling the demand for unskilled labor is a big part of the immigration bill unveiled by a group of bipartisan senators this week.

One of the oldest and certainly the largest guest worker program in United States history was that of the Braceros. Nearly 5 million Mexican laborers worked in U.S. fields over the course of two decades. Even as Congress debates future programs, unresolved issues remain with both current and past guest workers.

At a downtown plaza in the Mexican border city of Juárez, dozens of angry men gather every Sunday. They were among the first guest workers to come the United States back during World War II when American farm boys traded their plows for rifles.

Amado Estrada Piñon was 18 when he left his Mexican village to pick carrots, beets and cotton in the U.S. for 50 cents an hour.

Estrada and his fellow protestors were called Braceros, Spanish for strong arms, because of the physically demanding labor they did. Part of their paycheck went to a Mexican savings account the Braceros were supposed to get back as pension money. That never happened.

"Why doesn't the government give us our money?" Estrada said. "It's ours, we earned it off the sweat of our brows."

In 2005 the Mexican government did agree to make a one-time payment to ex-Braceros, but the money has been slow to come. Those that haven’t been paid continue to protest.

At age 80, there's no such thing as retirement for Estrada. He survives by collecting aluminum cans off the street in exchange for a few pesos. The disappearance of their pension money wasn't the only problem with the Bracero program. Some claim they were mistreated while in the U.S.

Under today’s guest worker programs, problems continue.

Ana Rosa Diaz Flores spent the better part of the last decade peeling crawfish in Louisiana. She sometimes worked 15 hour days for less than minimum wage. Her boss would block the exit at work with cardboard boxes so no one could get out. If they complained he'd threaten to harm their families back in Mexico.

"As a girl I don't remember fearing my mother as much as I feared my boss," she said.

Diaz worked under the H-2B visa program which allows tens of thousands of temporary foreign workers into the U.S. each year.

Sarah Rich, an attorney with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid in El Paso, said one of the biggest problems with temporary worker programs is that they bind workers to a single employer.

"They are given legal status to work for that employer only," she said. "If for some reason they are fired or want to quit that job, they fall out of legal status and have to leave the United States."

That makes guest workers less likely to report abuse.

"They're stuck with that one employer and that really limits their options," Rich said. "It's sort of an indentured servitude situation. So they put up with a lot."

In the Senate’s immigration reform proposal, H-2B workers, like Diaz, would come under what they’re calling a “W” visa. They’ll have the ability to change employers and would be required to receive the same wage as a U.S. worker.

Guest worker protections like these are important but can difficult to enforce, said Jacob Horwitz of the National Guestworker Alliance.

"Without really strong labor protections for guest workers, we'll continue to have a situation where corporations can go shopping for the cheapest workers on the global market," Horwitz said.

Back at the Bracero protest in Ciudad Juárez, volunteer nurse Blanca Duran took vital signs on a park bench. Their protest complete, her aging patients all wore the same worn look, as if they just returned from a day in the field. Duran said these former guest workers feel forgotten.

"They worked so hard for so long," she said. "And now many are dying without ever receiving the compensation they're owed."

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