Migrant workers in peril

By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Saturday, April 17, 2010

Blame Edward R. Murrow. The legendary broadcaster's last major report, "Harvest of Shame" in 1960, set the template for today's muckraking filmmakers. It also helped create today's illegal immigration quandary.

Murrow meant well. He catalogued shortchanged pay, scandalous living and working conditions, and other horrors suffered by foreign migrant farm workers in Florida. The documentary set off a public outcry and a congressional battle over the moral rot behind the nation's fruits and vegetables. In 1964, led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and an alliance of churches and unions, Congress shut down the migrant worker program, called Bracero.

But in so doing, it also cut off millions of poor Mexicans who, by flowing back and forth across the border, were lifting themselves and their country out of poverty. They and their U.S. employers, many of them decent bosses in genuine need of workers, reverted to illegality.

I am reminded of Murrow as I work on a documentary on guest workers with Anne Morriss of Harvard University's Center for International Development. Some small programs for unskilled agricultural and other workers have been reinstituted, but they are not nearly large enough to meet business demand and provide an alternative to halt the illegal traffic.

Yet the same shortsighted moral opposition persists, complicated now by a populist backlash that opposes immigration in general. The two camps are opposites ideologically but united in their distrust of government's ability to either protect migrant workers or control their numbers.

Some alleged abuses that made headlines would seem to vindicate the moralists. One of the most egregious involves 500 metalworkers brought from India in 2006 to work on damaged oil rigs off the Mississippi coast after Hurricane Katrina. Hundreds have sworn in a lawsuit against the owner of the rigs, Signal International, that they were promised permanent residency by middlemen who acted as Signal's recruiters. Many said they sold their homes or went into debt to pay as much as $20,000 to the recruiters for such a prized opportunity.

What they got instead was an isolated workplace that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said appears to have been "laced with ridicule and harassment." The New York Times reported in February that when workers protested, authorities in Immigration and Customs Enforcement advised Signal to strike with surprise and deport the ringleaders. The company tried, but it was physically blocked by immigration activists in a tense standoff.

The departments of Justice and Homeland Security are now investigating Signal. The company, for its part, professes innocence and is suing the American and Indian recruiters.

To some moralists and union militants, the case is just more confirmation that being a temporary worker is a form of indentured servitude. This is because of the workers' limited rights, dependence on the employer and vulnerability to being sent home.

I disagree. The problem is not the work; it's the potential for abuse. Abuses can be rectified, and largely have been in small programs today and in other countries.

The comprehensive immigration reform packages taking shape in the House and Senate, and prodded by President Obama, further reduce the likelihood of mistreatment. They give migrant workers the right to switch employers and, in some cases, earn their way to citizenship.

The cold reality for the country, meanwhile, is that without a large guest program for unskilled labor, unauthorized immigration will rebound to fill a need for workers and services as the economy recovers. Ever more costly enforcement is helping to greatly reduce the unauthorized traffic, but only police states can totally shut it down. I don't think we want to go there.

Still, the moralists and populists combined in 2007 to help defeat President George W. Bush's comprehensive immigration reform bill that included a modest temporary worker program. They are geared now to go after the Obama package.

There is some reason for hope that the emerging proposals may be enacted. The AFL-CIO leadership, in a historic switch, has overridden some of its more strident members to join the pro-immigrant Change to Win alliance of mostly service workers to support a temporary worker program. It is unclear, however, whether the labor leaders and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, long a guest-worker advocate, are statesmen enough to overcome mutual suspicions in setting actual numbers.

Meanwhile, the most basic moral concern for the immigrant workers and their home countries -- escaping penury -- wilts on the vine. As Morriss puts it, poverty is its own crime against humanity.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is edward.schumachermatos@yahoo.com

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