In 1952, the United States passed the Immigration and Nationality Act. The law created various categories for non-immigrants' entry into the country. One of these was the H-2 program for temporary workers.
In the 1950s, the U.S. Virgin Islands used the H-2 program to allow unskilled workers from various neighboring islands to work in the agricultural and tourist industries. The best-laid plans being what they are, by the 1960s these temporary workers were being employed for any and every job on the islands. By the end of the decade, these guest workers accounted for almost half of the entire work force.
Many native workers were unwilling to work for the low wages paid to the guest workers. As a result, unemployment increased dramatically. Resources for schools and housing were strained. As the number of "temporary" workers kept increasing, the native-born population even began to fear they might lose political control of their homeland.
Soon, efforts were afoot to stop the children of guest workers from attending public schools but federal courts intervened. The program was abandoned in 1975 with most of the guest workers allowed to become permanent resident aliens, because by this time, they had put down roots on their new island.
Sounds eerily familiar.
Central to the Bush administration's planned immigration reform is a similar temporary worker program that, in the words of President Bush, "rejects amnesty, allows foreign workers to fill jobs no American is willing to do and reduces smuggling and crime at the border."
Let's pause just a moment so that we may all disabuse ourselves — once and for all! — of the notion that there are jobs Americans are unwilling to do. A quick Internet search for dog waste removal will reveal literally hundreds of Americans that get up each morning and clean up after their neighbors' pets. If Americans will earn their livings cleaning up doggy-doo for an honest wage they will certainly pick fruit, cook food, build houses and mop floors.
And while we are busting myths — guest worker programs have in the past been used as a solution to offset labor shortages.
Such was the rationale of the Bracero program. In order to compensate for the loss of manpower in the agricultural industry during the Second World War and the Korean conflict, the United States and Mexico agreed to allow agricultural workers from Mexico's poorest states into the country. The program ended in 1964.
And similarly to the H-2 program in the Virgin Islands native workers suffered. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, "In its thorough report on the Bracero program in 1952, President Truman's Commission on Migratory Labor found that 'wages by States (for agricultural workers) were inversely related to the supply of alien labor.' Citizen farm workers in the Southwest simply could not compete with braceros."
Unlike the early '40s when men were being shipped off to war by the hundreds of thousands, it is simply untrue that there is a shortage of low-skilled labor in the United States. There are more than 30 million low-wage workers in the workforce. More specifically, Black teenage unemployment in the United States (men ages 16 to 19) is approximately 35 percent.
The New York Times recently reported on the "deepening plight" of Black men. We must ask ourselves what these men will do to support themselves if we institutionalize a program whereby low-skilled jobs go to guest workers from another country.
Like temporary worker programs before it, the president's plan to provide American businesses with a constant influx of low-priced labor is sure to keep both prices and wages low. What remains unclear is exactly how such a program builds solidarity with the American worker.
Joseph C. Phillips is an actor/writer based in Los Angeles.