Sunday, July 12, 2015

Note of Thanks to Donald Trump

Donald Trump is like a kid in a candy store. Of all the ways a Republican candidate might attract attention, he picked the biggest cookie of all -- Mexican immigrants. Forget terrorism, Palestine, Russia, Greece, Confederate flags, guns, income disparity. taxes and The Economy Stupid. Building a wall between Mexico and the US is better than a holiday fireworks display.
The Trump Card in person

And about as long-lasting.

But while he has everyone's attention, this is a good time to look more closely at the backstory of Mexican immigrants. We might start with the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, but that's kinda like slavery. Nobody alive now had anything to do with that so what would be the point?
The Gadsden Purchase, or Treaty, was an agreement between the United States and Mexico, finalized in 1854, in which the United States agreed to pay Mexico $10 million for a 29,670 square mile portion of Mexico that later became part of Arizona and New Mexico. Gadsden’s Purchase provided the land necessary for a southern transcontinental railroad and attempted to resolve conflicts that lingered after the Mexican-American War.
Whole Spanish-speaking communities who thought they were Mexicans woke up one morning to learn they became Americans overnight with the stroke of a pen. At least they didn't change the names of their towns to the new mother tongue -- San Francisco would be Saint Francis...Los Angeles, The Angels...San Antonio, Saint Anthony...Sacramento, Most Holy Sacrament. You get the idea.

A more recent Mexican-American connection was established with the Bracero program lasting from about the Second World War to 1965.
The Bracero Program was created by executive order in 1942 because many growers argued that World War II would bring labor shortages to low-paying agricultural jobs. On August 4, 1942 the United States concluded a temporary intergovernmental agreement for the use of Mexican agricultural labor on United States farms (officially referred to as the Mexican Farm Labor Program), and the influx of legal temporary Mexican workers began. But the program lasted much longer than anticipated. In 1951, after nearly a decade in existence, concerns about production and the U.S. entry into the Korean conflict led Congress to formalize the Bracero Program with Public Law 78. 
The Bracero Program was controversial in its time. Mexican nationals, desperate for work, were willing to take arduous jobs at wages scorned by most Americans. Farm workers already living in the United States worried that braceros would compete for jobs and lower wages. In theory, the Bracero Program had safeguards to protect both Mexican and domestic workers for example, guaranteed payment of at least the prevailing area wage received by native workers; employment for three-fourths of the contract period; adequate, sanitary, and free housing; decent meals at reasonable prices; occupational insurance at employer's expense; and free transportation back to Mexico at the end of the contract. Employers were supposed to hire braceros only in areas of certified domestic labor shortage, and were not to use them as strikebreakers. In practice, they ignored many of these rules and Mexican and native workers suffered while growers benefited from plentiful, cheap, labor. Between the 1940s and mid 1950s, farm wages dropped sharply as a percentage of manufacturing wages, a result in part of the use of braceros and undocumented laborers who lacked full rights in American society.
Any of that look familiar?

We're coming into a part of history now that some of us still remember. When I was one of those children of the Sixties boycotting table grapes in support of Caesar Chavez was more fashionable than avoiding plastic bags. Even then some of us knew Mexicans were being exploited. I guess that was the whole point of the Bracero program.

I'm not sure why the Bracero program ended. It should have morphed into a more manageable, rational arrangement  which allowed Mexicans to continue what was (and continues to be) a valuable contribution to the American economy.  But that's not what happened. Wikipedia offers as good an narrative as any explaining what happened next.
In 1964, the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexican agricultural workers to work legally in the U.S. on a seasonal basis, came to an end. Less than a year after the end of the Bracero Program, the Mexican Government launched the Border Industrialization Program (BIP) or the Maquiladora Program, to solve the problem of rising unemployment along the border. The maquiladoras became attractive to the US firms due to availability of cheap labor, devaluations of peso and favorable changes in the US customs laws.[citation needed] In 1985, maquiladoras overtook tourism as the largest source of foreign exchange, and since 1996 they have been the second largest industry in Mexico behind the petroleum industry.
Following the North American Free Trade Agreement (1994), the growth of maquila plants skyrocketed. During the five years before NAFTA, the maquila employment had grown at the rate of 47%; this figure increased to 86% in the next five years. The number of factories also increased dramatically. In the five years preceding NAFTA, 564 new plants opened; in the five years following, 1460 plants opened. However, the maquiladora growth is largely attributable to growth in US demand and not NAFTA itself. In the 1970s, most maquiladoras were located around the Mexico–United States border. By 1994, these were spread in the interior parts of the country, although the majority of the plants were still near the border. Recent research indicates that the maquiladora industry has an impact on U.S. border city employment in service sectors.
Does anyone else see what's happening?  Anybody catch that NAFTA reference?  Is it my imagination or do I smell a whiff of corporate profits taking precedence over those always annoying and expensive employee benefits?

Most readers are smart enough to see where this is going so I won't dwell on the obvious. Instead I want to speak about my personal experience during forty years in food service management.  I hired the first Mexican employees at the cafeteria where I worked in 1982, one of the busiest units in the company. We served over two thousand meals daily during the week and three thousand-plus on weekends, and staffing was a constant challenge. I remember one day perfectly. I was carrying a tray of dirty dishes to the dishroom window when someone said "You look like you need some help." I dropped down immediately and said "Do you need a job?"

That was the beginning of the end of all our problems in the dishroom. Within a week there were no more broken dishes, no missed schedules, no arguing or fighting and the few teens we had nights and weekends had adult role models who did worked quickly and efficiently. Washing dishes is not rocket science. Years passed, but to make a long story short, I learned to welcome and appreciate, not only Mexican workers but immigrants from all over the world. A few years later I had employed many immigrants from other Central American countries as well as Haiti, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Kenya, Cameroon, Ghana and the former Yugoslavia.

But I digress. This post is about Mexicans. It's no surprise by now that many of the lowest-paid workers in America come from other countries, but mostly Mexico. And it's also no surprise that many of them are not documented. The number tossed around is about eleven million. And anyone who thinks that those eleven million people might simply vanish without being noticed is living in a fool's paradise.

Moreover, that population of eleven million might once have been made up of all-undocumented immigrants, but it a blended population which includes natural born American citizens as well as a whole generation of young people brought here as children, even babies, about the time the Bracero Program (remember that?) was ended, and closing the border became a priority.

When crossing the border was easier, Mexican men and boys came to America for work and lived humbly, returning to the Mexican economy to live quite well on what they had earned. But when the border became harder to cross they started remitting the money by other means while remaining in America. But that is a lonely existence, so it was natural that they would eventually be joined by girlfriends and wives so their families could stay together.

The senior employee in my last dishroom was a middle-aged man who was something of a foreman, instructing newcomers what to do and basically keeping the place running smoothly. I was told that when he took vacation he returned to Mexico to check on several pieces of business real estate which provided him and his family enough income for a comfortable lifestyle. I don't know about that, but I know his wife sure made some killer tamales which they sometimes shared with me at lunch,

Just as we have an informal economy outside the "real" economy (baby-sitters, yard sales, flea markets, illegal drugs, cigarettes and liquor across state or county lines -- you know the drill -- not to mention bribes, kickbacks and political wheeling and dealing) there has always been a fairly steady level of undocumented immigrants (or illegal aliens, as many like to say) that are essential to the stability of our economy.

Here is a good place to mention the Dreamers, a generation of young people now ready for college, comprising the biggest population of non-citizens in our lifetime who are ready, willing and able to become working, tax-paying members of society.
Over three million students graduate from U.S. high schools every year. Most get the opportunity to test their dreams and live their American story. However, a group of approximately 65,000 youth do not get this opportunity; they are smeared with an inherited title, an illegal immigrant. These youth have lived in the United States for most of their lives and want nothing more than to be recognized for what they are, Americans. 
The DREAM Act is a bipartisan legislation ‒ pioneered by Sen. Orin Hatch [R-UT] and Sen. Richard Durbin [D-IL] ‒ that can solve this hemorrhaging injustice in our society. Under the rigorous provisions of the DREAM Act, qualifying undocumented youth would be eligible for a 6 year long conditional path to citizenship that requires completion of a college degree or two years of military service.
It should be mentioned that many of these young people have younger siblings who are Americans by birth. I need not point out how damaging to family structure citizenship and other legal issues can be.

Getting back to The Donald, we need to thank him for bringing this issue into the spotlight. When campaigning for the next election gets under way the matter of immigration will morph into something different as Republicans work hard to retain the xenophobic votes and Democrats, if they're smart, will stay our of the GOP circular firing squad. Meantime, thanks to anyone who plowed through my notes. I hope they are helpful. 

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