American Immigration Reform Needs to Focus on a Jobs Plan for Migrants

By Katherine Hueston '23

In 1942, as the United States and the Allied powers fought for international freedom and democracy abroad, my grandparents fought for the same, crossing the Rio Grande River from Mexico, searching for liberation, economic freedom, and a better life for their children.  My grandmother carried one of my uncles in a serape, bound tightly to her chest.  Meanwhile, my grandfather carried my oldest uncle on his shoulders, while my oldest aunt clung to his chest as they waded through the river to Brownsville, Texas, a migrant town just across the border.  Like many migrants in the mid-20th century, they worked as farm laborers, moving from Texas, then north to Michigan, and eventually settling outside Denver, Colorado.  By that point, my grandparents had with them nine kids and little money, but still believed the economic opportunities they had in America were superior to those available to them in Mexico.

The author’s great uncle and grandfather holding her uncle’s hands around 1940.

While my grandparents did not come to the United States through the Bracero Program, the year they crossed, 1942, was when the Program began.  The Program has long been criticized for its exploitation of migrant labor, but it should also be recognized for the breadth and scope through which it offered thousands of migrants the opportunity to live and work legally in the United States during World War II and for several decades following.  Although the Bracero Program is not the way forward for American immigration policy today, a new and improved migrant job plan is urgently needed.  Focusing United States immigration policy on a permanent job plan for migrants would stimulate economic growth for the foreign-born population in the US, bolster our nation’s economy, and lead to fewer undocumented migrants, resulting in fewer resources needed for detention and deportation.

My family, like the vast majority of migrant families, was extremely grateful for the opportunity to live and work in the United States.  After they settled in Colorado, my grandfather spent the rest of his career as a laborer for the Rio Grande Railroad, working to maintain the railroad that intimately connects people all across the country.  By 1955, he had become a citizen, learning English from his co-workers and reading the dictionary every night.  My grandmother was born a US citizen but grew up in Mexico and understood the economic opportunities that were more readily available in the US.  My grandfather, aunts, uncles, and mom were proud to be born or become US citizens and have worked hard each day to achieve their own American Dream.  Still, my grandparents came to the US at a moment when obtaining a job and gaining citizenship status were far easier than today.

The author’s grandmother at 74, who loved cooking and looked forward to her family’s annual tamale-making party.

After the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act passed, entering the United States, let alone obtaining a job, became increasingly difficult.  The Law set a quota on the number of migrants who could come to the US from within the Western Hemisphere – and the number was far lower than the realistic number of migrants who were migrating each year.  This meant migrants had no choice but to cross without documentation and hope to find a job upon arrival.  Finding a job was made especially difficult by 1986, however, with the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act.  The government began imposing sanctions on companies that knowingly hired undocumented workers, which made it increasingly difficult for those who did cross to find employment.  Since then, migrants from Central and South America have been increasingly criminalized, as prosecution of illegal entry and reentry to the United States has skyrocketed.  Today, millions of undocumented migrants live in fear of detention and deportation, when they should only have to be focused on how to obtain a paying job to support their families and pay their share of taxes.

There are many possibilities for expanding upon the existing H-2B Temporary Non-Agricultural Workers Program or the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers Program.  Both of these programs prioritize augmenting our current capacity for temporary migrant labor.  While there is a substantial need for seasonal and temporary labor, a comprehensive jobs plan for migrants should consist of a permanent and stable option for those who want to stay in the US to work.  For example, bills like the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021 are a strong stepping stone in providing access to resources and legal status for those workers who are already here doing the work that most citizens would not.  These bills are essential for expanding upon the existing temporary migrant programs, though we must go a step further by expanding them to more industries to cover more migrant workers.  It is crucial that we expand the opportunity for citizenship and legal status to those who have not yet migrated, guaranteeing them legal security as they find and maintain jobs in the United States.  Many unskilled migrants take minimum wage jobs in the United States that native-born citizens refuse.  Because undocumented migrants may not even be making minimum wage in many circumstances, they are particularly susceptible to exploitation, meaning they “…cannot access regular health care and social safety net programs, and cannot obtain a driver’s license, among other constraints.”  By providing migrants access to legal status, as well as social safety net programs, we are supplying them with the tools to live safely in the United States and contribute productively to the American economy. 

To pass a comprehensive, permanent jobs plan for migrants, Americans need to understand the economic plight many Central and South American migrants face, as well as the advantages that come when immigrants contribute to the American economy.  Like most rural workers in Mexico in the 1940s, my grandparents lived in poverty.  They often experienced food insecurity in Mexico and would sometimes go without meals so their young children would have something to eat.  If they had continued to live there, the chances they made it out of poverty over the next half century were slim.  Therefore, they migrated for economic reasons, hoping for greater economic opportunities in the United States.  Today, poverty is still the reality for many who decide to migrate, especially those from rural regions.  While the cost of living is rising across the world, in Mexico, in particular, people cannot afford to advance economically due to the rising cost of living, thereby motivating migrants who have the means to leave to do so. 

Once migrants come to the United States, they are often extremely motivated, as communities “with more immigration have actually seen higher gains in per-capita income.”  Migrant communities are also known to be particularly entrepreneurial, as one study points out migrants are only 15% of the labor force, yet are 80% more likely to start a business.  Therefore, migrants are actually creating more jobs that they can take.  Additionally, migrants contribute more in taxes than they are taking from the federal government annually.  By giving migrants job opportunities, the US will see an increase in tax contributions that will grow the national economy.  Finally, allowing migrants the chance to enter the United States to work legally and support their families creates better prospects for America’s economic success long-term.

The children of immigrants are “upwardly mobile,” meaning they will make valuable contributions to their communities and the national economy over the course of their lifetimes.  Their ability to contribute to the United States, however, is greatly dependent on their ability to grow up as members of US society without fear of deportation.  I have witnessed the success of immigrant children in my own life.  My mom, the daughter of immigrants, has earned two Masters degrees, including one from an Ivy League University, became an executive in Corporate America, started and ran her own successful small business, and is currently advocating for universal early education and childcare.  Therefore, we should be accepting of all immigrants, as a focus on jobs policy will drive both short- and long-term successes for the American economy.  Recent migration policy has favored skilled immigrants, who offer America competitive advantages by bringing their skills to the United States.  While these migrants are especially crucial to American economy and culture, it is essential to understand the impact and contributions of migrants of all backgrounds and offer them equal chances for success.

Migrant workers are an essential part of the American story and its economy.  Rather than criminalize migrants’ need for economic opportunity, we need a permanent, comprehensive migrant jobs plan.  It should expand upon existing programs already in place by offering migrants of all backgrounds the freedom to work in the US legally, while also guaranteeing them access to safety net services that provides them access to legal status and social safety net programs.  Such a plan will result in fewer undocumented immigrants, greater opportunities for a return in circular migration patterns for those who want it, as well as increased input to the American economic system.  America must shift the narrative around migration to better communicate who migrants are and why they come to the United States.  Like my grandparents, many migrants come in search of economic opportunity.  My grandparents realized their American Dream: to own a home, raise children without fear of deportation, and to make real contributions to our nation.  Those same opportunities should be afforded to all who want and need them. 

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