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Immigration forum seeks humane, workable solutions

by Scott Brinckerhoff - May 1, 2006

Experts on immigration law reform convened last Thursday [April 27] at UConn to discuss many of the same issues that are vexing lawmakers in Washington.

While firm conclusions are proving elusive in both Washington and Connecticut, the contingent at Storrs agreed broadly that the “guest worker” program advancing in Congress is likely to cause more problems than it solves.

“The guest worker program fails to address the reasons why immigrants come to the United States in the first place,” said Daniel Pacheco of the Mexico Solidarity Network, a human rights advocacy group.

“It ignores the causes of undocumented immigration and takes advantage of the effects, an unprotected population willing to work for low wages and without any opportunity for upward mobility in their home countries.”

Several speakers at the forum, Latin American Immigration Policy and Human Rights in Connecticut, recalled the abuses of the bracero program launched in 1942, when the United States needed labor to fill the void left by young U.S. citizens who had gone to war.

Under the program, which lasted until 1964, more than 4 million Mexican farm workers came to work the fields of the United States on temporary contract to American growers and ranchers.

On paper, laborers were promised a prevailing wage, free housing, and medical treatment; but these promises often were not kept, according to many who have studied the era.

Gabriel Camacho, an immigration policy expert at the American Friends Service Committee, a lobbying group, said he had first-hand knowledge of the bracero program from his father, who had been a bracero.

“People were never paid what they were supposed to be given,” Camacho said.

“According to my father, sometimes they would give you a six-pack of beer for your weekly wages. People worked long hours and lived in subhuman conditions, eating spoiled food. My father said he had to sleep on four kitchen chairs.

“There are many, many problems with guest worker programs,” Camacho said, adding that two such programs for migrant farm workers already operate in the United States.

Recruiters in Mexico often take bribes, and workers who participate are routinely abused, he said.

U.S. citizens often believe Latin Americans come here simply for economic reasons, to fill jobs that citizens are unwilling to do.

But several forum participants said this is an oversimplification, and that reasons for the migration north are varied.

One reason is the North American Free Trade Agreement, which forced many Mexican farmers out of agriculture, because they could not compete against factory farm produce flooding in from the United States, Pacheco said.

Chase Harrison, center, a doctoral candidate in political science at UConn, speaks about U.S. public opinion on immigration policy during a conference on Latin American Immigration Policy and Human Rights in Connecticut at the Wilbur Cross Building on April 20.
Joyce Hamilton Henry, center, executive director of Democracy Works, speaks about U.S. public opinion on immigration policy during a conference on Latin American Immigration Policy and Human Rights in Connecticut at the Wilbur Cross Building on April 20.
Photo by Melissa Arbo

In addition, Camacho reminded the audience, in the 1980s, wars were going on in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, causing people to flee to the north.

He added that World Bank loans to Latin America are often accompanied by a devaluation of the local currency and privatization of jobs in utilities, education, and health care.

The net effect, he said, is currency that is almost worthless, and a sudden dearth of jobs, leading to more migration north.

The debate in Congress, said Josh Bernstein, director of federal policy at the National Center for Immigration Law, is largely divided among people who want to punish immigrants and those who want a solution.

Bernstein suggested that punitive measures have never worked, and that the most workable solution is one that includes a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants.

“Is our effort geared toward marginalizing immigrants or integrating them? Is it consistent with our values about how people should be treated?” he said.

“Punitive laws are damaging not only to immigrants, but to our democratic ideals.”

The day-long conference included a statistical look at immigration in Connecticut, as compiled by Democracy Works, a lobbying group that focuses on immigration issues. Among the findings:

  • 12 percent of Connecticut’s population is foreign-born, about the same as the national average. But the state’s immigrant population is more diverse, with substantial numbers from Europe, Canada, Latin America, and Asia.
  • Latin Americans are the fastest-growing immigrant population. Half of Connecticut’s immigrants are naturalized citizens, compared with one third nationally.
  • Immigrants are increasing in Connecticut’s labor force, while native-born workers are declining. The population of well-educated immigrants is growing faster than that of less-educated immigrants.
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