Migrant workers oppose Bush's immigration plan
Published: Wednesday, January 14, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 13, 2004 at 11:18 p.m.
FRESNO, Calif. - President Bush's plan to give undocumented workers temporary legal status brings back painful memories for Florentino Lararios, who spent 14 grueling years in a similar World War II-era program.
Lararios, a 77-year-old with large, rough hands that never mastered a pencil, recalls the back-breaking work picking cotton in the South, the slapped-together communal housing, the cold meals they ate in the fields, and the unwelcome prospect of going back to Mexico without a chance to become a U.S. citizen.
"If we accept, then our grandsons and great-grandsons will go through what we went through," Lararios said. "We suffered a lot."
While generally welcomed by farmers, Bush's immigration proposals face opposition from an unlikely combination that includes unions, conservatives and migrant workers like Lararios who are supposed to benefit the most.
The issue is sure to resonate far beyond the vegetable fields and orange groves that make up the heart of California's central valley. Bush considers the immigration overhaul crucial to his re-election bid as he courts the growing Hispanic vote, but the proposal faces an uncertain fate in Congress.
Bush's plan would give legal status for at least three years to millions of undocumented immigrants working in the United States, and allow for more foreign workers to come when employers show a need.
But Bush has stressed that he expects most of the workers will return home permanently when their job is done. And as a motivator, part of their pay would be collectable only after they go back to Mexico.
Compared with illegal immigration, "this program will be more humane - humane to workers - and will live up to the highest ideals of our nations," Bush said Monday in Mexico in a visit with President Vicente Fox.
But immigration advocates and unions want protections allowing workers to switch jobs and stay in the United States, and conservatives are reluctant to reward anyone who entered the country illegally.
Lararios, who left his native San Luis Potosi as a young man and spent most of his life in the fields, said he is leery of any program that does not guarantee a chance at American citizenship.
"It's not good. The Mexican government shouldn't let him do it," he said in Spanish, pushing his worn straw hat down against the cold wind.
Supporters say the program would have protections in place for workers' rights, preventing abuses that occurred in previous generations.
"No one wants to repeat the problems from the bracero program," said John Gay, co-chairman of the Essential Workers Immigration Coalition, a group of businesses associations pushing for immigration reform. "This is a population that really got the shaft. I can understand their skepticism, but that was a long time ago."
From 1942 to 1964, about 400,000 men became braceros - a term that stems from the Spanish word for arm, "brazo," and refers to manual labor.
Some managed to stay after escaping their job sites and joining the undocumented work force. Others were lucky enough to get sponsored by an employer for permanent residency.
The ones who stayed were able to give their children a better life, said Dimas Villareal, who got permanent residency in 1959 and raised his nine children in the United States.
The rest "got cut off, like a machine that they didn't need anymore," said Frank Villareal, who brought his father to a meeting Sunday at a church in Fresno.
"It was humiliating," said Manuel Herrera, 75, who was a bracero from 1954 to 1960. "They rented us, got our work, then sent us back when they had no more use for us."
Now in their 70s and 80s, the former braceros gather regularly for updates about their legal case, and to complain of old bones that ache when the weather is cold.
Bush would divert a portion of the workers' pay to "tax preferred savings accounts" collectable only in Mexico. The bracero program had a similar provision that sent 10 percent of workers' wages to Mexico. Few braceros ever saw that money, and their demands for those wages were forgotten for half a century.
In 2001, they sued in federal court, demanding repayment from the U.S. and Mexican governments, as well as banks that transmitted the money. The claims against the Mexican government and banks were dismissed, but the rest of the case continues.
"How can they create another program, when they still haven't paid the debt to the braceros?" asked Delia Reynosa, whose father was a bracero between 1942 and 1962.
Sons and daughters of braceros who still work in the fields also fear that a new guest worker program could depress their wages in the same way that the bracero program kept farm wages low in the 1950s.
"There aren't enough jobs for us even now," said Sixto Cortes, a day laborer whose father was a bracero in the '50s.
President Kennedy ended the program in 1964, saying the program was "adversely affecting the wages, working conditions and employment opportunities of our own agricultural workers."
The former braceros say they cannot support the current president's proposal.
"If they can't pay us back, then they shouldn't bring any more," Lararios said.
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