Published on Thursday, January 8, 2004 by the New York Daily News
Down this Dead-end Road Before
by Juan Gonzalez
Welcome to the Wal-Mart Bracero Program.
That's what some Latino leaders are calling President Bush's startling plan to create a massive new government-sanctioned guest worker program for more than 8 million immigrants in the country illegally.
Among the illegal population, Hispanics are the biggest group. It's no secret that Bush needs a bigger share of the Hispanic vote this year to assure his reelection.
Two years ago, one of his senior advisers concluded that if Bush gets the same percentage of the vote among all ethnic and racial groups this November that he received against Al Gore in 2000, he will lose the White House by 3 million votes.
The reason is simple. Hispanics, who usually vote Democratic, are the fastest-growing part of the electorate. Bush got 35% of the Hispanic vote against Gore. He needs at least 40% to 45% to win this time.
So in the first week of the election year, Bush turned immigration into a national issue by dangling the carrot of legal status before millions of immigrants.
But reforming our nation's arcane and unwieldly immigration system is an enormous task, and Bush's proposal lacked specifics.
Latinos have seen this carrot before.
At the turn of the century, U.S. companies recruited hundreds of thousands of Mexicans to work in industry throughout the West and the Midwest.
But whenever the economy soured, the government rounded up the migrants and deported them by the trainloads.
Then, during World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt launched the infamous Bracero Program, another guest worker scheme to recruit Mexicans for U.S. industry. It led to such terrible abuses of the migrants that President Lyndon Johnson ended it in 1965.
"This is a modern-day rewrite of the 1940s Bracero Program that tore families apart and stripped laborers of their earnings and their future," said Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Tex.), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Bush is right that the current immigration system has failed.
But his solution only creates a "permanent legal underclass" of low-paid workers, said AFL-CIO president John Sweeney.
Employers could quickly hire temporary foreign workers after certifying to the government that they couldn't find U.S. citizens to fill their vacancies.
"Our laws should allow willing workers to enter our country and fill jobs that Americans are not filling," Bush said in his speech yesterday.
Of course, the best way to get an American worker to refuse a job is to offer a wage so low that only a desperate immigrant would take it.
Not too long ago, federal agents raided several Wal-Mart stores. They charged the company, the nation's largest retailer, with employing hundreds of illegal immigrants as maintenance workers.
Under Bush's proposal, low-wage companies like Wal-Mart won't just use guest workers as night-shift cleaners. They'll employ them as sales and shipping clerks, too.
Bush's immigration reform is so full of holes that it doesn't have a prayer in Congress.
No matter. The President will spend the next few months telling Latino voters how hard he tried to help the nation's immigrants. And some may even vote for him.
Juan Gonzalez is a Daily News columnist. Email: jgonzalez@ edit.nydailynews.com
© 2004 Daily News, L.P