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Why I Support Amnesty for Undocumented Immigrants

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Migrant Worker with Grandchildren

Original caption: "Migrant worker with his grandchildren in front of two room shack which houses three families (20 people). This man and his family follow the crops north from Texas each year. His present job is weeding sugar beets at $2.00/hour."

Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Dated June 1972.
"And the local men are lazy,
and they make to much a'trouble.
'Sides, we'd have to pay them double, bracero.

"Ah, but if you feel you're falling,
if you find the pace is killing,
there are others who are willing, bracero."

-- Phil Ochs, 1965
In 1848, the Treaty of Gaudalupe ended the Mexican-American War and reduced the size of Mexico by 45 percent. The land we now know as California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah was surrendered by Mexico to the United States. This was what the American government wanted. Although Mexico was financially compensated for the land, it was unquestionably a war of conquest--grounded in the idea of "Manifest Destiny," which held that white European Americans had been granted North America by God. This was also the rationale used to justify the conquest of American Indian land, and the ghettoization and near-genocide inflicted on its inhabitants. You didn't hear much about this in American history class, did you? Right. That's because we don't like to think about the fact that there was a time when calling U.S. leaders "Nazis" would not have been hyperbole, had the term existed.

But our government's leaders, white supremacists though they were, weren't stupid. They knew they had a railroad to build, and they knew they'd need Mexican labor to build it. When 55,000 migrant workers were brought into the former Mexican territories to work on the railroads between 1850 and 1880, nobody called them illegal aliens--but that's essentially what they were. Our leaders looked the other way as they were paid substandard wages, worked under harsh conditions, and received none of the constitutional protections that U.S. citizens received. Our leaders, whose supporters stood to benefit from the labor, saw no problem with this and made no serious effort to end the practice. Sound familiar?

Immigration really picked up in 1910 with the Mexican Revolution; over 50,000 Mexican workers immigrated to the United States every year looking for jobs, and our leaders welcomed them with open arms as long as there was a need for them--they proved particularly useful during World War I. Then, as soon as the public began to grow concerned that the migrant workers were taking jobs from citizens, American political leaders suddenly discovered "the rule of law." Maybe this sounds familiar, too.

In 1929, the U.S. government responded by cracking down on undocumented immigrants. Well, that was the pretense, anyway. Of the two million people forcibly deported to Mexico during this period, 1.2 million had been born in the United States and really should have been considered citizens. (It is worth noting that modern-day conservative leaders in the immigration reform movement are working to close this loophole by proposing that the Constitution be revised to revoke citizenship for native-born Americans whose parents are undocumented.) The State of California has formally apologized for its role in the project, but Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill last August that would have allowed victims of false repatriation to sue the government for damages.

When the United States found itself embroiled in a second World War in 1942, Mexican migrant labor began to look like a good idea again. U.S. and Mexican officials agreed to the Bracero Program, which would have allowed temporary guest workers to labor in the United States without any of the labor protections extended to U.S. workers. Corporations loved this, for the obvious reasons, so the program was maintained long after World War II ended--until 1964, in fact.

In the four decades since then, there has been an unspoken agreement between the government, corporations, and undocumented workers. The government has resisted implementing any regulations that would close the border, punish corporations for hiring undocumented immigrants, or discourage undocumented workers from coming into the country. Corporations have exploited undocumented workers' status by paying them substandard wages, housing them in shacks, and ignoring labor practices--all with relative impunity. And low-income Mexicans have been recruited to come into the United States and build families and lives here under those unspoken terms.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan and the Democratic Congress did something truly humane and decent: They granted amnesty to three million undocumented Mexican-American workers, bringing them under the umbrella of U.S. human rights protections. But corporations still wanted undocumented laborers, the U.S. government was still willing to look the other way, and low-income Mexicans still immigrate to the United States under this arrangement. The unspoken agreement continued for two decades more. Now the number of undocumented Mexican-American immigrants stands at about 12 million.

After all these decades, U.S. government officials are finding themselves in the same situation they were in back in 1929, and again in 1986--with corporations dependent on Mexican migrant labor, Mexican Americans who accepted the opportunity for work and crossed the border, and an American public that is at least in part hostile to the presence of a large number of undocumented immigrants.
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