By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Four decades of working in the United States has left Carlos Diaz-Nunez, 63, a shrunken man. His face is lined with wrinkles, his left leg crushed by a box of mushrooms six years ago.
This farmhand from Mexico, despite his shriveled frame, carries much on his shoulders: His life reflects how the United States has met its desire and need for low-wage, low-skilled workers through its immigration policy over six decades.
He came to the United States as a bracero, one of millions of Mexican laborers with temporary work permits who streamed onto U.S. farms from the days of World War II to 1964.
The guest-worker program President Bush proposed last week has stirred up memories for Diaz-Nunez, of how he came to pick cotton in Texas for 45 days and learned that the United States held the promise of cash for hard work. Some immigration experts say that the comparison is apt – and that the past program holds lessons.
“What the bracero program did, and what this new program undoubtedly would do, is create new patterns of migration that will continue even after it ends,” said Louis DeSipio, a political scientist and a fellow at the Toms Rivera Policy Institute, a think tank that studies issues affecting Latinos.
“As soon as it ended, the workers still had the contacts. They knew growers who would hire them,” he said. “You’d accustomed them to the idea that you could go to the U.S., work, and go back to have a relatively good life in their country. They just kept coming, even if they were illegal.”
That is what Diaz-Nunez did. Less than a decade after the bracero program’s end, he returned to the United States with the help of a smuggler, or coyote. A few times, immigration agents deported him. But he found his way back – to pick lettuce in California, assemble cars in Illinois, and pick mushrooms in Chester County’s Kennett Square.
In the mid-1980s, his wife and eventually his entire family followed him to this country. Today he lives in a white clapboard house in a Wilmington neighborhood in the shadow of Interstate 95. His house in the mountains of central Mexico – a house that U.S. dollars built on land that U.S. dollars bought – is empty these days. In fact, most of his village in Guanajuato state has given its sons and husbands, if not entire families, to the United States in a relationship that began with the braceros.
“A lot of Mexican Americans in the U.S. have family roots that go back to that program,” said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center.
For many of those Americans, the term bracero conjures images of their forefathers crammed into barrack-like dormitories, paid too little, worked too hard, and subjected to racism – a system so exploitative that Lee G. Williams, the Labor Department official in charge of the program at the time it ended, called it “legalized slavery.”
That, Suro said, would not likely be the way Bush’s proposal takes shape in an America transformed by workplace regulation and the civil rights movement.
“We’re a very different country now,” he said.
Bush’s proposal, though thin on details, differs from the bracero program in other key ways. It would provide jobs in any sector of the economy, not just agriculture. It would provide visas for longer stints – three years, possibly renewable. And it would be available to workers from every country, not just Mexico.
One immigration expert, Rodolfo de la Garza, a political scientist at Columbia University, argues that Bush’s proposal would be, in fact, the reverse of its predecessor.
“The bracero program created illegal immigration,” he said. “This one is designed to respond to illegal immigration. Whether or not it [creates more in the long run] is irrelevant. They’re coming anyway. That’s already in place.”
“In the past, we used the INS in cahoots with bad employers to screw Mexican workers,” de la Garza said. “All of that stuff is behind us, I think.”
Diaz-Nunez, who became a legal U.S. resident through an amnesty for certain illegal immigrants in 1986, is not so sure.
He remembers his first stint on an East Texas cotton farm in the autumn of 1959. The money was good – he earned $200 for picking 115 pounds of cotton – until a freeze ruined the crop early in his contract. For more than a month, he hunkered down with 10 other braceros, two to a bedroom, and waited until it was time to go home.
“The proposal of Bush,” he said in Spanish, “is bad because it doesn’t give the opportunity to the workers [because employee sponsorship is required]. It’s the same situation as when we came as braceros.”
He came, he said, because “I had a hope to be better, to have a better life, but it wasn’t very good.”
© The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.