January 26, 2004
"When a More Open Border Is Better"
Mention the bracero program to a civil rights advocate or academic, and you're likely to hear words such as "exploitation," "unfortunate" and "let's not have another bracero program." What you won't hear is that the bracero program confirmed the central premise of President Bush's immigration proposal: that permitting greater access to legal visas can indeed reduce illegal entry into the United States.
Operating from 1942 to 1964, the bracero program allowed Mexican farmworkers to be employed as seasonal contract labor. Although the U.S. government permitted the admission of Mexican farmworkers before 1954, limited enforcement and other factors provided little deterrent to illegal entry.
A controversial crackdown on illegal immigration began in 1954. But Joseph Swing, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, preceded the crackdown by working with growers to replace an illegal and therefore unpredictable source of labor with a legal, regulated one. Although it was popularly believed that employers preferred hiring people who were here illegally, Swing got a favorable reaction from growers and from Congress for pushing the substitution of legal for illegal workers.
Senior immigration law enforcement personnel understood that market forces were the best way to control the southwestern border. A February 1958 Border Patrol document from the El Centro (Calif.) district, referring to the bracero program, states: "Should Public Law 78 be repealed or a restriction placed on the number of braceros allowed to enter the United States, we can look forward to a large increase in the number of illegal alien entrants into the United States."
Increased bracero admissions produced dramatic results. After the 1954 enforcement actions were combined with an increase in the use of the bracero program, illegal entry, as measured by INS apprehensions at the border, fell an astonishing 95 percent between 1953 and 1959.
But complaints from unions that bracero workers created too much competition helped bring an end to the program in 1964. What happened to illegal immigration after that? It skyrocketed; from 1964 to 1976, while the number of Border Patrol agents remained essentially constant, INS apprehensions of people entering illegally increased more than 1,000 percent. It was the start of the illegal immigration tide that we see up to the present day.
The bracero program had its flaws, including evidence that there were employers who treated workers poorly and that a large number of bracero workers never received withheld wages. In designing new temporary visa categories, we should learn from the past. While many people, as before, will choose to work in the United States on new temporary visas and go home, others, particularly those who have been here for years, will seek a path to permanent residence. The extent to which Congress follows through on the president's call to increase legal immigration numbers, which would enable more workers to stay, assimilate and become part of America, will be watched by both employees and employers.
Whatever its faults, the bracero program annually attracted up to 445,000 people who chose to come here and work under its rules. Relatively few chose to enter the United States illegally to work in agriculture. While it is argued that bracero admissions harmed domestic agricultural workers, it's unlikely that the situation of domestic workers improved once they competed primarily against people who were entering illegally.
Why did the end of the bracero program result in greatly increased illegal immigration? Policymakers should heed the findings in a House report: "Reason clearly indicates that if a Mexican who wants to come to the United States for this employment can enter this country legally, with all the protection and benefits that a well-considered and well-administered employment program give him he will do so, rather than come in illegally." The report goes on to note: "If, because the program is not available or is not realistically geared to the requirements of employers or workers, the Mexican seeking employment finds it's impossible or difficult to come in legally, many of them will find their own way across the long border between the United States and Mexico and get employment where they can, under whatever wages and working conditions they are able to obtain." The report was written in 1954.
The only proven way to control the border is to open up paths to legal entry, allowing the market to succeed where law enforcement alone has failed.
The writer was executive associate commissioner for policy and planning at the Immigration and Naturalization Service from August 2001 to January 2003. He is now executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a public policy research organization.