21st Century Slave Trade: The 'Guest Worker' Amnesty

This is the first in a series of excerpts from the new book, “Minutemen: The Battle to Secure America’s Borders.” Order your copy at Human Events Book Service.

“There are jobs that just simply aren’t getting done because Americans won’t do them.”
—President George W. Bush, Cleveland, Ohio, March 20, 2006 [1]

The twenty-first-century slave trade involves an organized effort to bring into the United States an underclass of uneducated, impoverished illegal immigrants who will work for below-market wages for companies that plan to commit employment tax fraud and violations of labor and immigration laws. No slave trader may actually go to Mexico or other Hispanic countries to capture workers and force them in chains to come to America to work in sub-standard conditions. Yet, we have termed this “under-market” in illegal alien workers the “twenty-first-century slave trade” because the practice of brokering workers into these jobs involves a determination to exploit them.

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Servitude sets in when the workers come to live in the United States and find no alternative but to accept these under-market jobs. Often living in extended family units, the economic opportunity here may still be better than in their home countries. Still, by U.S. standards, the illegal immigrant laborer is being exploited; otherwise their employment market probably would not exist in the first place.

“Jobs Americans Won’t Do”

The argument that President Bush has advanced to justify his “guest worker” program is that there are jobs Americans won’t do. The problem is that the president’s core assumption is false. The job statistics show that there is no job an American won’t do. Moreover, there is no job classification in which foreign-born workers are the majority. Even in the low-paying, menial job categories, Americans still hold most of the jobs.

Dr. Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, shows that there are available, unemployed Americans in every job category in which immigrants hold jobs. [2] In the three classifications where immigrants have the highest proportion of all jobs, there is still substantial native-born unemployment: In fishing, farming, and forestry, where immigrants (both legal and illegal) hold 44.7 percent of the jobs, the native-born unemployment rate is 12.8 percent; in construction and extraction, in which immigrants hold 26.1 percent of the jobs, the native unemployment rate is 11.3 percent; and in building cleaning and maintenance, in which immigrants hold 34.8 percent of the jobs, the native-born unemployment rate is 10.5 percent. Not only do Americans work in all job categories, but there are native-born Americans who are unemployed and available to go to work in these job categories. [3]

In January of 2005, the investment firm of Bear Stearns Asset Management produced a report on illegal immigration and “the underground labor force.” Bear Sterns also sees evidence that hiring illegal aliens at below-market wages is undercutting labor markets: “This large infusion of the imported labor supply has reduced average annual earnings by approximately 4 to 6 percent.” [4]

Bear Sterns also shares our concerns about the enormous social costs of such a great influx of impoverished, poorly educated immigrants:

The social expenses of health care, retirement funding, education and law enforcement are potentially accruing at $30 billion per year. Many of these costs lag and will not be realized until the next economic downturn and beyond as new immigrants require a safety net… On the revenue side, the United States may be foregoing $35 billion a year in income tax collections because of the number of jobs that are now off the books. [5]

America still has millions of less-educated and/or low-skilled workers to compete for the only jobs that immigrants are qualified to take. When illegal immigrants are willing to work at below-market wages, many without benefits or employment taxes paid by employers, they place a squeeze on the bottom tiers of American workers and a large social cost on all American taxpayers.

Farm “Guest Workers” Depress Wages, Cause Poverty

Twice before, the United States has experimented with a “guest worker” program, the Bracero program in which farm workers were employed from Mexico, first between 1917 and 1921, and again in 1942 during World War II. Both efforts were predicated on the need of U.S. farmers to access cheap labor. Farm owners recruited Mexican farm workers in order to protect the value of land that had been capitalized on decades of cheap labor. [6] The farmers then echoed the argument we hear today, that they needed Mexicans to do the farm work that Americans would not do. In reality, what the farmers wanted was immigrant Mexicans who would work at wages so low that Americans wouldn’t accept the jobs.

Some 4.6 million Mexicans were admitted under the Bracero program from 1942 through 1964. The success of the Bracero program in attracting Mexican farm labor and driving out U.S. farm labor has been examined by Philip Martin, professor of agriculture and resource economics at the University of California, Davis. Dr. Martin argues that allowing agriculture to have an exemption from immigration laws has had a major impact in that “U.S. farm jobs have played an important role in moving about 10 percent of the persons born in Mexico to the United States, half in the 1990s.” [7] A change in government policy to move away from depending upon immigrants to do agricultural labor would cost the average American family no more than about ten dollars per year in the added costs of fresh fruits and vegetables, largely because wages are held down artificially by immigrants. Additionally, Dr. Martin argues, the agricultural industry would adapt:

Closing the port of entry for farm workers would allow market forces to push up wages, which would increase mechanization and imports, and leave the United States with a smaller but better paid farm work force. Agricultural exceptionalism has left a legacy of farm worker poverty, and the efforts to mitigate that poverty with assistance programs and special labor laws seem as doomed to fail in the twenty-first century as they did in the twentieth century. [8]

“Exceptionalism” is a term that translates into allowing agriculture to hire illegal aliens without violating U.S. immigration laws that outlaw the practice. Dr. Martin could not be clearer: “If agricultural exceptionalism is allowed to continue, it will produce farm labor problems today and urban poverty tomorrow.” [9]

Labor Unions Abandon the “Right to Work”

The Bracero program finally came under attack by organized labor, which argued that the Mexican immigrant farm workers were depressing wages in the farm industry. César Chavez, a continuing hero of the Left and the union movement, organized the United Farm Workers (UFW) in large part to oppose the use of cheap immigrant labor on the farms. Chavez saw the cheap immigrant labor as a direct threat to his desire to establish minimum wages for farm workers and to institute benefit packages that were common to the union movement in other industries.

Looking back historically, labor unions have typically fought for minimum wages in general and for negotiated agreements with employers or groups of employers to set union wage and benefit packages at reasonably high levels industry-wide. Efforts to hire low-cost, nonunion, immigrant labor would typically be resisted by labor unions, which have struggled for decades to control employment environments so that they could raise mandated wage and benefit packages for union workers industry-wide and throughout the economy. But this is no longer the case.

We have obtained a copy of the national survey sent out by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to congressional candidates who want an SEIU endorsement. With 1.8 million members, SEIU is the nation’s largest and fastest-growing union. [10] In the immigration section of the questionnaire, SEIU makes clear that the union supports “guest worker” programs that would convert the status of illegal immigrants to legal immigrants:

Immigrants should be entitled to full and fair workplace protections. They should not fear that their families could be split apart because of differing status of family members. And especially now with national security needs at the forefront, the estimated 8–10 million immigrants with status problems should not be afraid to come forward… [11]

Unions today have switched to support what amounts to an open border policy. Realizing that unions allow employers to hire illegal aliens and pay below union wages completely off the books is shocking. Listening to the arguments being made by today’s labor union leaders in support of “guest worker” programs is a surreal experience after decades during which union leaders such as César Chavez were presented as heroes because they resisted cheap labor and fought to defeat “Right to Work” movements.

Democrats and the “Guest Worker” Trap

The Left also encourages illegal immigration, comfortable with the idea that the illegal immigrants will take whatever jobs they can find, whether on or off the books, with or without benefits, paying or evading taxes, working in OSHA-safe environments or not.

Consider David Shipler’s 2004 book, “The Working Poor: Invisible in America.” In the first paragraph, Shipler writes: “Most of the people I write about in this book do not have the luxury of rage. They are caught in exhausting struggles… The term by which they are usually described, ‘working poor,’ should be an oxymoron. Nobody who works hard should be poor in America.” [12] This is the agenda of the extreme Left: expanding government bureaucracies and increasing the number of people receiving welfare, job assistance, or some other form of government-paid social service. Since 1965 and the dawn of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, the Democratic Party has cultivated a large clientele of inner-city voters living on welfare. Illegal immigrants who get converted into “guest workers” are ready to see themselves and their families added to the welfare rolls by the millions.

Right now, employers are more than happy to have everyone’s agreement that they can finally hire cheap labor and not worry about benefits or taxes. Ever since the American union movement arose out of the economic hardship of the Great Depression, employers have not had this kind of opportunity to hire cheap labor. In years past, employers who hiree at below-union wages faced union wrath, and those who evaded minimum-wage or payroll tax laws faced prosecution. But today, as long as they are hiring illegal immigrants, even the unions and the Democratic Party don’t seem to care.

Yet we should expect all this to change. Once the unions have stocked up on illegal alien or “guest worker” union members, the next move by the Democratic Party and its union backers will be to resume the fight for minimum wages and benefits, this time for the “guest workers” and their families.

Greed and the Twenty-First Century Slave Trade

The twenty-first-century slave trade is all about greed. Gangs like MS-13 love the fact that illegal aliens are brought to the United States to work in low-paying jobs, because they support the coyotes who prey on illegal immigrants. Employers profit by hiring below-market labor off the books while honest, middle-class taxpayers pay heavily when “guest workers” need health services or when their children need an education. The unions look forward to a future day when they can recruit from the ranks of illegal immigrants, while the Democratic Party eyes them as future welfare recipients and even voters. Meanwhile, the rest of us pay for their social services with our taxes.

Greed drives the system, every bit as much as it did in our original slave trade before the Civil War officially ended slavery in America. The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slave traders would have had the entire population of Africa in the United States if we had allowed it. The same is true today. The slave traders of the twenty-first century will soon bring a significant percentage of the population of Mexico and other countries into the United States if we let them. Before the Civil War, Africa would have been transplanted onto the United States, for a few people to get rich. Today, the same thing is happening with largely Hispanic countries, especially Mexico. Slave traders of all centuries are morally cheap, with little or no regard for laws or human beings.

[1] “President Discusses War on Terror and Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Renaissance Cleveland Hotel, Cleveland, Ohio, March 20, 2006.
[2] Stephen A. Camarota, “Dropping Out. Immigrant Entry and Native Exit From the Labor Market, 2000–2005,” Center for Immigration Studies, March 2006, 12.
[3] Camarota, “Dropping Out,” 12.
[4] Robert Justich and Betty Ng, “The Underground Labor Force Is Rising to the Surface,” Bear Stearns Asset Management, Jan. 3, 2005, 1.
[5] Ibid., 2.
[6] Philip Martin of the University of California, Davis, has done extensive research on the issues of immigration and farm workers. We draw from his analysis in papers such as Philip Martin, “Braceros: History, Compensation,” Rural Migration News, 2003.
[7] Ibid., 193.
[8] Ibid.,196.
[9] Ibid.
[10] SEIU Federal Candidate Questionnaire, produced in the SEIU 2005–2006 Candidate Questionnaire and Interview Process by SEIU Political Department
[11] Ibid.
[12] David K. Shipler, The Working Poor: Invisible in America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), ix.