John Weber: Immigration Reform, Guest Workers, and Poorly Understood History

weber_fromWe welcome a guest post by John Weber, author of From South Texas to the Nation: The Exploitation of Mexican Labor in the Twentieth Century. In the early years of the twentieth century, newcomer farmers and migrant Mexicans forged a new world in South Texas. In just a decade, this vast region, previously considered too isolated and desolate for large-scale agriculture, became one of the United States’ most lucrative farming regions and one of its worst places to work. By encouraging mass migration from Mexico, paying low wages, selectively enforcing immigration restrictions, toppling older political arrangements, and periodically immobilizing the workforce, growers created a system of labor controls unique in its levels of exploitation.

Ethnic Mexican residents of South Texas fought back by organizing and by leaving, migrating to destinations around the United States where employers eagerly hired them—and continued to exploit them. In From South Texas to the Nation, Weber reinterprets the United States’ record on human and labor rights. This important book illuminates the way in which South Texas pioneered the low-wage, insecure, migration-dependent labor system on which so many industries continue to depend.

In today’s post, Weber cautions against the flawed arguments of those who wish to reinstate guest worker programs like the Bracero Program as a means of immigration reform.


As the next presidential election looms on the horizon, the familiar screeching of immigration alarmists has started to grow in volume (if not in coherence). Public dialogue about immigration issues rarely rises above the race-baiting dispatches from the lunatic fringe of Donald Trump, Pat Buchanan, and Ann Coulter (or their slightly more respectable brethren, Victor Davis Hanson, Mark Krikorian, and the late Samuel Huntington).

While little oxygen remains for useful discussions on immigration reform, some self-styled “serious” thinkers have sought to take a different path toward solving the “immigration crisis,” a phrase which is often invoked but never actually explained. William McGurn, a writer for the Wall Street Journal and former speechwriter in the George W. Bush White House, provided one example of this line of argument in an op-ed in the WSJ from March 23, 2015, entitled “Bring on the Guestworkers.” In many ways, McGurn’s essay is a predictable one coming from the WSJ, eschewing the extreme cultural conservatism of Rupert Murdoch’s other media properties for a seemingly more moderate, business-friendly solution to immigration reform. McGurn argues that no Republican politician can support legislation that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented migrants without incurring the wrath of Republican voters. The solution, he explains, is simple: “So if citizenship is the sticking point, why not start with something that by definition is not about citizenship: guest workers?” This strategy would allow Republicans to blunt the most xenophobic wing of their own party while also providing the credible fiction of managed migration that they could use as a bludgeon against reform initiatives like the DREAM Act or deferred prosecution of illegal entry (cue screams of “amnesty”).

McGurn turns to history as one justification for this plan. He lauds the Bracero Program, the two-decade-long guest worker program that brought Mexican agricultural laborers to the United States starting during World War II, as “one of the most successful programs of all time,” though he provides no explanation of what this means. It ended in 1964, he argues, because of unjustified complaints from labor unions that the program was abusive. McGurn points at the decision to end the Bracero Program as the moment that the United States lost control of immigration, as “the Mexicans who had worked under it legally kept coming to the U.S. to do the work that needed to be done—but now illegally.” Simply resuscitate the Bracero Program, he argues, and the “immigration crisis” will disappear.

This enthusiasm for guest workers—temporary laborers stripped of the right to choose employers, bargain for higher wages, or remain within the United States past the expiration date of their labor contract—ignores a few basic problems. McGurn’s oversimplified history of the Bracero Program bears no resemblance to the growing scholarship on the binational contract labor scheme and its many problems. A quick glance at the work of scholars like Mae Ngai, Cindy Hahamovitch, Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Deborah Cohen, Don Mitchell, Peter Andreas, Kitty Calavita, or the older work of Ernesto Galarza would reveal a much more problematic history of efforts to manage labor migration. The most glaring falsehood put forward by McGurn, however, is the one that undergirds his central point in recommending guest workers. Rather than a solution to undocumented labor migration, the Bracero Program encouraged many who were unable to migrate through the binational labor scheme to travel north on their own.

The Mexican government had hoped to use the Bracero Program as a way to keep its citizens from entering the United States without authorization, but those hopes were dashed throughout the life of the program by apathetic U.S. enforcement efforts and employer indifference to the legal status of the workers they hired. The growth of undocumented migration actually accelerated through much of the life of the program. So even if we ignore the rampant evidence of abuse and fraud that characterized the post-World War II labor scheme, we should be able to see past the argument that guest-worker programs eliminate or even decrease rates of undocumented migration.

It is fine to lavish McGurn and others like him with the faint praise of being less objectionable than the Ann Coulters and Pat Buchanans of the world, but their simplistic cries of “Bring on the Guestworkers” should be viewed for what they are. These are serious solutions to immigration reform only in the sense that they are less ridiculous than calls for “self-deportation” or widespread expulsion. McGurn and his ilk stopped short of learning this history, but their poor understanding of the past should not allow them to dictate the terms of this debate. In the end, their only goal is a system built on denying the basic rights of workers, especially non-white workers, something that the real Bracero Program did throughout its existence.

John Weber is assistant professor of history at Old Dominion University. His book From South Texas to the Nation: The Exploitation of Mexican Labor in the Twentieth Century will be published later this month.