Thursday, June 08, 2006


John Tierney’s opinion column ($) from the other day uses our own history to explain why we need to increase legal immigration programs, like guest workers or replicating an old program called braceros, if we are going to have any chance of eliminating illegal immigration. Tough enforcement can be one side of the solution, but it will not work alone.

In the 1950's, federal agents were initially overwhelmed by waves of Mexican farmworkers illegally crossing the border. The number of immigrants apprehended surpassed half a million in 1951 and was approaching 900,000 in 1953, a level roughly comparable to the situation now.

Back then there were fewer than 2,000 federal agents patrolling the borders, less than a fifth the size of today's force. But within two years, the flow of illegal immigrants declined so drastically that the immigration service declared in its 1955 annual report, "The border has been secured."

And it stayed that way the rest of the decade. The number of immigrants caught kept dropping until it reached 45,000 in 1959 — a decline of 95 percent in just six years.


What stopped the farmworkers from sneaking across? It wasn't simply the get-tough measures that Republicans are calling for today. Although federal agents did intensify their efforts, conducting sweeps of farms and ranches, immigration officials realized that stricter enforcement wasn't enough.

Along with the crackdown, officials encouraged farmers and ranchers to legally hire Mexican temporary workers called braceros. As new rules made it easier to hire braceros, the number of these legal workers doubled to more than 400,000 at the same time illegal immigration was plummeting.
Tierney goes on to describe how immigration problems increased again once the braceros program was abandoned by Congress.

One thing that I want to highlight in the column is that the program was successful when new rules made it easy for employers to hire legal workers. From what I have heard in the press, the current guest worker program we have here is too slow to respond to the needs of employers. We also shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that we can have a successful program today with only 400,000 legal workers. Any guest worker program will need to be much bigger.