Freedom and Labor in Latina/o USA

I find the recent holiday a fitting time for analysis. As a trained U.S. historian, and a person dedicated to many of the core ideals of this nation, a national birthday–like any birthday–is a good time to take stock. Specifically, I like to remind myself what is important about the ideals I hold very dear, what is a distraction to them, and how they can be more fully realized in my or my children’s lifetimes.

For example, I find democracy–or the rule of government lying in the hands of “the people”–to be both the practice of a just humanism as well as the prospect of a consensus based on fear. That doesn’t mean I am anti-democratic, far from it. But it does mean I recognize the institutionalization of a philosophical ideal is not an end in itself and that all governmental institutions require informed participation and eternal vigilance.

A careful analysis of this nation’s history and present fixates my attention on power–of small groups over the masses; of the processes of empire-building over liberty; and of ideas like nationalism to trump ideals like freedom. These views do not make me “anti-American,” at least not in my perspective. They do frame my hesitance with nationalism, my skepticism with regard to capitalism, and strong opposition to war. They help me to separate distractions like nationalism and capitalism and militarism from the preservation of a union of people arranged to secure each others’ human rights.

I share these thoughts in order to convey the “America” I believe in versus the one I do not, the one W.E.B. DuBois described as “the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” This is more than a blogger’s sense of self-importance; it is my attempt to share some of the intellectual processes that structure my encounters with the world around me.

(Photo by photographer and journalist David Bacon)

It is through this process of analysis that I make sense of the daily experiences of immigrant labor in this nation. When I say this, I do not only mean undocumented labor. The Southern Poverty Law Center provides a beautifully-detailed report on legal guestworker programs in place in the United States. “Close to Slavery” is a reminder of the brutal ways a government’s protection of the “rights” of an elite group of business interests–in the name of free market capitalism–sacrifices the humanity of hundreds of thousands of others.

In his 2007 State of the Union Address, President Bush called for legislation creating a “legal and orderly path for foreign workers to enter our country to work on a temporary basis.” Doing so, the president said, would mean “they won’t have to try to sneak in.” Such a program has been central to Bush’s past immigration reform proposals. Similarly, recent congressional proposals have included provisions that would bring potentially millions of new “guest” workers to the United States.

What Bush did not say was that the United States already has a guestworker program for unskilled laborers — one that is largely hidden from view because the workers are typically socially and geographically isolated. Before we expand this system in the name of immigration reform, we should carefully examine how it operates.

Under the current system, called the H-2 program, employers brought about 121,000 guestworkers into the United States in 2005 — approximately 32,000 for agricultural work and another 89,000 for jobs in forestry, seafood processing, landscaping, construction and other non-agricultural industries.

These workers, though, are not treated like “guests.” Rather, they are systematically exploited and abused. Unlike U.S. citizens, guestworkers do not enjoy the most fundamental protection of a competitive labor market — the ability to change jobs if they are mistreated. Instead, they are bound to the employers who “import” them. If guestworkers complain about abuses, they face deportation, blacklisting or other retaliation.

Federal law and U.S. Department of Labor regulations provide some basic protections to H-2 guestworkers — but they exist mainly on paper. Government enforcement of their rights is almost non-existent. Private attorneys typically won’t take up their cause.

Bound to a single employer and without access to legal resources, guestworkers are:

* routinely cheated out of wages;

* forced to mortgage their futures to obtain low-wage, temporary jobs;

* held virtually captive by employers or labor brokers who seize their documents;

* forced to live in squalid conditions; and,

* denied medical benefits for on-the-job injuries.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel recently put it this way: “This guestworker program’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to slavery.”

Congressman Rangel’s conclusion is not mere hyperbole — and not the first time such a comparison has been made. Former Department of Labor official Lee G. Williams described the old “bracero” program — the guestworker program that brought thousands of Mexican nationals to work in the United States during and after World War II — as a system of “legalized slavery.” In practice, there is little difference between the bracero program and the current H-2 guestworker program.

The H-2 guestworker system also can be viewed as a modern-day system of indentured servitude. But unlike European indentured servants of old, today’s guestworkers have no prospect of becoming U.S. citizens. When their work visas expire, they must leave the United States. They are, in effect, the disposable workers of the U.S. economy.

Read the full report, section by section, here. As you do, keep in mind the limits of freedom in our present reality, not as a way to devalue the numerous examples of it taking root and thriving, but to remind yourself of its preciousness and its requirement of continued struggle.

3 thoughts on “Freedom and Labor in Latina/o USA

  1. It might be “almost slavery” but as long as it isn’t slavery the workers have the simple solution of simply staying home. No one is dragging them in chains to work here. And if they still want to work here it means even the crappy conditions offered are better than what’s back home.

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