By Donna R. Gabaccia, Rudolph J. Vecoli Professor of Immigration History and Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota
In recent weeks President Bush has asked for a â€śtemporary workerâ€? program
that would create visas for low-skill workers. Such low-skill workers have
almost no access to visas under current immigration law. They make up the
largest group of immigrants without proper documentation, the so-called
In a country, and a political party, that celebrates hard work, many
Republicans nevertheless reject Bushâ€™s proposal.
"Senate Deal on Immigration Falters" (New York Times)
"Bush pushes to make illegals temporary workers" (Pioneer Press)
As an historian, Iâ€™m intrigued by this debate, and especially by debatersâ€™
labels for the Bush proposal. Most critics refer to it as a â€śguest workerâ€?
program. That, of course, is the name Germany gave workers (Gastarbeiter)
recruited from southern and southeastern Europe and Turkey in the 1960s and
These guestworkers made Germanyâ€™s economy the strongest in Europe.
Still, when the program stopped in 1973, many Germans were shocked to
discover guest workers had become permanent residents. They lived in
families, they had children, and they wanted to stay. Itâ€™s been a source of
controversy for three decades.
But it also provided one of the strongest arguments for current European
Union policy on labor migration. These now allow for completely free
movement across national boundaries for all citizens of EU member states.
Neither supporters nor critics in the contemporary debate turn to the
American past for a name for Bushâ€™s program. Yet the U.S. once had a large
program that actively recruited Mexican workers to come to work temporarily
in the U.S.
It was called the bracero program, and it functioned between 1942 and 1963.
Itâ€™s interesting to remember how hard the U.S. once had to work to recruit
temporary Mexican workers. Before 1965, there were no numerical limits on
Mexican immigration. Perhaps potential workers still worried about what had
happened during the Great Depression when California, for example, put
Mexican workers onto railroad cars, along with their citizen children, to
ship them back to Mexico.
See: U.S. urged to apologize for 1930s deportations (Pioneer Press)
Itâ€™s even more interesting to recall why the bracero program ended. Almost
no one liked it. Employers preferred to do the hiring themselves, and not
depend on Mexican and U.S. government to deliver their labor supply.
Workers faced deportation if they objected to contract violations. The
A.F.L.-C.I.O believed the bracero program undermined working conditions for
all workers and made unionization almost impossible.
In short, programs for temporary workers are not foreign to the U.S.â€”as use
of the term guest worker implies. Nor are they new.
Neither supporters nor critics of Bushâ€™s proposal want to call it a new
â€śbracero programâ€? because memory of the failures of that program are still
Temporary worker programs are not the only way to guarantee that jobs in
the U.S. find workers willing to cross borders to take them. Ironically,
when the European Union abandoned temporary labor programs it sought to
create a freer, less regulated Euroepan-wide labor market. By contrast,
here in North America, under NAFTA, goods and capital move freely across
national boundaries; human beings do not.
Contributor Contact Information:
Donna R. Gabaccia Rudolph J. Vecoli Professor of Immigration History
Research and Director Immigration History Research Center
311 Elmer L. Andersen Library
222-21st Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55455