Democrats Could Learn From Truman’s Commission On Foreign-Worker Programs

Dale L. Wilcox Dale L. Wilcox is Executive Director of the Immigration Reform Law Institute (www.irli.org).
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This past week back in 1950, President Harry Truman formed the Commission on Migratory Labor to investigate the effects of illegal and legal unskilled immigration on US seasonal farm-worker wages. It would be the first official review of this part of the labor market since the government began experimenting with the so-called ‘Bracero’ foreign-worker program following its entry into World War II. Considering the recent flurry of legislative activity aimed at ramping up the unskilled foreign labor supply, the Commission’s reports are required reading.

On top of pushes to increase both the H-2A and H-2B unskilled foreign-contractor programs, there’s also the legislative campaign to amnesty-in millions of illegal alien farm-workers, an effort spearheaded by the relentlessly anti-borders congressman Luis Gutierrez. Just as notable as his bill is how he’s selling it to the American people: by blaming them.

According to an official statement from him, “Every American is complicit in the reality that we depend on agriculture, and agriculture depends on immigrants, but we have not allowed those workers to come here legally nor allowed them to work legally once they have been here.” In other words, Americans eat too much, work too little, and it’s their fault Big Agribusiness has to displace them in favor of illegal foreign labor.

Blaming the American people for their dispossession is a psychological tactic immigration-control advocates know all too well. Almost daily we hear from our post-national elite in the media and elsewhere that “Immigrants are doing jobs Americans won’t do” (a line which always seems to leave out the key qualifier “…for the substandard wages employers are willing to pay.”).

But as reports from the Commission show, denigrating the American worker was just as big a PR-tactic back then as it is now. While Big Agribusiness, one report reads, “scour[s]…adjoining nations for more and more labor”, they “discredit” domestic workers as “incompetent, irresponsible, and shiftless” and “heap imprecations on the man or agency which will point to unemployed farm workers in their midst.” These employers, the Commission stated, “have exploited the idea in order to obtain either imported or illegal Mexicans” and have “convinced many white workers and some of the American public that their contention is true” even in “such areas local workers have been without employment.”

On the supposed “shortage” of willing US workers, the AFL-CIO says in Commission testimony, there would be none “[i]f the agricultural worker were paid even the accepted common labor wages.” Theirs and others testimony along with the Commission’s three years of research led them to conclude, “alien labor has depressed farm wages and, therefore, has been detrimental to domestic labor.”

Most striking is the Commission’s statement on employers’ overarching motivation behind foreign labor programs. They simply “do not wish to work with free labor”, they state; instead preferring to install “a feudal type of rural economy and the relationship of the overlord to a subservient class.” Such scepticism of Big Business and concern for the American people contrasts completely with Gutierrez’s comments above and shows how far liberal priorities have shifted over the years. Even pop music from the era was critical of foreign labor programs. As folk artist and socialist Phil Ochs sarcastically sung in “Bracero”: Welcome to California/Where the friendly farmers will take care of you/And the local men are lazy, and they make too much of trouble/Besides we’d have to pay them double, bracero.

Forcing the American worker to accept their own displacement isn’t easy. It takes millions in public-relations dollars from the cheap labor lobby to “convince” the broader public that the American underclass deserves to be crowded out by foreign labor. Convince the general public that the American worker is “arrogant” and “lazy” and they’ll go along with blaming them for being poor and powerless.

Although Commission authors write that American farm-workers “have performed these tasks both in Europe and the United States for many generations”, out of fairness they ask whether there might actually be something to agribusiness’s allegations; that is, whether domestic seasonal workers really have become a “debased” lot: “Do we have a system of work that takes good human material and destroys its self-respect, morals, and feeling of social responsibility?… [c]ould it be the migratory farm labor that they and their families have worked in that has debased them?” Whatever the case, they write, it’s recommended that “[i]f our economic institutions operate to destroy character, they should be reorganized.” I agree, but as the Commission clearly intimates, it’s not the American worker’s “baseness” that’s the problem, but Big Agribusiness’s addiction to cheap foreign labor and its refusal to innovate.

Sadly, nearly 70 years on since the Commission was established and we’re still waiting for an America-first solution: to end all foreign unskilled worker programs; to let the domestic labor market function freely; and to give the American people the dignity they deserve.