William & Mary

Q&A with Hahamovitch: Who gets the deportation card?

Q&A with Hahamovitch As the Congress considers expanding the country’s guest-worker programs, Cindy Hahamovitch, associate professor of history at the College, urges caution. Recently she went to Washington, D.C., to voice her concerns during a forum sponsored by the Farmworker Justice Fund. In short, her advice is this: As long as employers hold the deportation card, working conditions for international farmworkers in the United States may remain marginal, at best. Hahamovitch, who is writing a history of the H-2 (guest-worker) program in the United States, recently answered the following questions. —Ed.

Q: What is your interest in the U.S. guest-worker program?
I am writing a history of the H-2 program, which is our current guest-worker program in the United States. It’s been running since roughly 1943. What this congressional debate is about is creating a much larger deregulated guest-worker program.

The congressional people who are for this, such as Larry Craig, a Republican from Idaho, and others, say it is not a problem to create a much larger guest-worker program because we can monitor it and keep it from devolving into oppressive conditions. However, the guest-worker program in the American context essentially means that employers recruit workers directly from abroad. The workers come in under contract, so they have written guarantees, but the problem is in who enforces the contract. If, as a worker, you complain, if you organize, if you protest, the employer can report you, can say you’ve violated your contract by refusing to work under the terms of the contract and kick you back home.

We have had a Caribbean guest-worker program since 1943. It is still running. Then there was the much, much larger Mexican program known as the bracero program, which became very controversial. It was bringing in as many as half a million workers a year from Mexico on contract. The workers were bound to a particular employer. They could not quit and walk down the road to another employer, so even though they had a contract, if their employer did not pay them what the contract stipulated or if their conditions were terrible or their employer was abusive, there was not really anything they could do about it. If they protested, they could be deported.

Those in the U.S. Congress who are advocating for an expanded guest-worker program say that there is no risk in any future program becoming like the Mexican bracero program, which was canceled in 1964 because it was so exploitative. They believe that it would not become like that because the workers would have a contract, protections in writing. What they do not understand is that the bracero program had protections in writing. At the time, it was the most liberal deal that any farmworkers had in the world. It had a minimum wage, it had a guaranteed housing clause and it provided medical treatment. These advocates for the guest-worker program might say, “We have a Department of Labor more conscientious than it was in 1965; we can enforce the contract.” I would argue that what history shows is that when workers are bound to employers who have the power to deport them, no amount of federal enforcement is going to make a difference.

Q: What can we do differently?
There are ways to modify a guest-worker program and make it less abusive. Whichever kind of program we end up having, I think that we have to decide in this country that we are deeply dependent on immigrant labor and that it is both damaging to those workers and to our own security in this country to have anybody working under substandard conditions. We cannot have one standard for immigrant workers and one standard for the rest of us. It creates a two-tiered caste society. I think we have to have labor rights that are for everybody regardless of citizenship. If we’re going to employ people in the United States who are from other countries, whether they’re illegal or guest workers, we have to guarantee them the right to organize, the right to a minimum wage, the right to safety and so forth. I would advocate for labor rights regardless of borders.

Q: How do you respond to those who say we are paying people to do jobs that Americans will not do, so they should be paid less?
We could say these are rotten jobs in our society. They’re dirty. They’re dangerous. They’re sometimes deadly. Let other people do them, and we don’t care under what conditions they do them. We had that system before. It was called the Atlantic slave trade.

Q: Is not expanding the program a means of protecting our borders?
The question of whether the United States can control its borders has been an issue since the nation began enforcing its borders in the 1890s. There have been legislative attempts to police borders and regulate who comes in and who does not come in, and they never have been particularly successful. I think it is a growing sense of crisis that gives the impression that we used to control our borders and now we do not. I think the current sense of crisis is pushed by the security crisis, terrorism and the sense that we need to know exactly who is here and limit who gets in. The presence of illegal immigrants in the United States now all of a sudden appears to be a crisis, as it has at some other moments in the past, while at other moments it has been tolerated.

What agricultural workers have to do with terrorism is beyond me. I interviewed a man who has been living here illegally with his family as a farmworker for four years. He is from Mexico, but people think he looks Arabic. They would stop him and ask, “Are you a terrorist?” He said to me, “What do they think I can blow up on $5 an hour?”

Why the farmworker debate has been rolled into the security debate is not entirely clear, but I think it is related to the sense that the borders are porous and something has to be done about it. Guest-worker programs always have been held up as an alternative to the problem of illegal immigration—the thinking being that if we could just make these people come in an orderly way, all would be better. Growers could hire people who were legal, and workers would have some sorts of guarantees. Workers would not have to sneak across the border; they would not have to cross the Arizona desert. Guest workers come with visas, they come with passports, they come on air-conditioned buses. It sounds like a great answer. The question is whether you can have a guest-worker program that does not devolve into abuse. So far in the United States the answer is no. We’ve never had a guest-worker program that was not rife with abuse, and I think the key to that is that employers hold the deportation card. That deportation card has become the new whip.

Q: Does what we do in the United States have consequences beyond our borders?
The program that we have here is very small in scale compared with what it used to be but also compared with the rest of the world. The U.S. guest-worker program that began in the 1940s was one of the earliest, and it became the model for the European guest-worker programs, which were enormous. The Europeans brought 30 million guest workers from the periphery of Europe to the center in the decades after World War II. They only canceled their programs in the 1970s because of rising unemployment and inflation. They did not deport the people they had imported, however, so those people became permanent settlers. Then the program shifted from Europe to the Middle East. The same oil shock that caused a recession in Europe and in the United States caused a boom in the Middle East, so guest-worker programs started on a massive scale there. For example, in the United Arab Emirates, which is a tiny place, the labor pool contains 85 percent guest workers. It becomes increasingly feminized at that point. You get the maid trade. It is something that started in America and in South Africa, but it has spread around the world and it has become an enormous global phenomenon. If the United States continues to bind a large percentage of its workers to employers, we have to be aware of the implications of moving in that direction.