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AMLO Answer: Bracero 2.0 Seems The Immigration Reform The U.S. Needs Most Now

Gregory Bull
Police inspect the crash scene at Holtville, California, near the U.S.-Mexico border, where a cement semi-truck collided with an SUV carrying two dozen undocumented immigrants, killing 13 people and injuring others.

COMMENTARY Neither border wall fantasies nor immigrant amnesties will solve America's immigration crisis. A retooled guest worker program just might.

Immigration advocates and xenophobes alike consider “bracero” a dirty word. But after this week’s ghastly collision near the Mexico-California border between a tractor-trailer and an SUV – a vehicle crammed with 25 people, 13 of whom were killed — I think they need to reconsider.

The bracero program of the mid-20th century let Mexican labor into the U.S. temporarily for agricultural work. It sprang to my mind again this week because the passengers in that SUV were undocumented immigrants. Its dead driver, authorities say, was a coyote, or migrant smuggler. And the sort of violent crash they had will likely happen again, because sadly accidents involving coyotes and their client-victims are frequent along the U.S.-Mexico border.

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Frequent enough to be a symbol of the U.S. immigration chaos that’s got to be fixed. Fixed not by border wall fantasies or undocumented immigrant amnesties – neither of which manage the border flow that’s at the heart of the U.S.’s immigration debacle – but maybe by a bracero-like idea that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador proposed to President Biden this week.

READ MORE: Nothing Exemplified Trump Thuggery Like Immigration. Ergo, It's Biden's First Fix.

I’m usually not a fan of López Obrador, who’s known as AMLO. He’s a populist demagogue whose bromance with populist demagogue Donald Trump – in particular his willingness to turn Mexico into a holding pen for Central American asylum seekers enroute to America – helped make U.S. immigration policy more dysfunctional and inhumane. But AMLO’s suggestion that the U.S., with Mexico’s help, should reach back to at least the basic bracero concept seems a commonsense approach to immigration reform — a.k.a. 21st-century Washington’s political third rail.

AMLO essentially urged a new guest-worker visa program that would let as many as 800,000 Mexican and Central American workers into the U.S. legally each year. They'd do the sort of jobs we all know few if any U.S. citizens will do anymore — jobs 12 more migrants died coming to do in the illegal shadows this week.

Immigration advocates and xenophobes alike consider “bracero” a dirty word – but after this week’s ghastly collision near the Mexico-California border, I think they need to reconsider.

Immigration advocates will say: Wait a minute, the original bracero program had myriad problems like unfair wages and squalid housing. They’re right. Immigration control proponents will say: Wait a minute, the U.S. already has the H-2 temporary worker visa program. They’re right. But it’s unnecessarily complicated and accommodates too few workers – only a quarter of what’s really needed – not enough non-agricultural workers and nowhere near enough Central American workers, who are the lion’s share of today’s undocumented migrants.


Regarding that last key point, immigration advocates and opponents raise another key question: would migrants adhere to the "temporary" part?

Ideally under Bracero 2.0, Central American guest workers will book the return flight to Tegucigalpa if they know they can regularly return to U.S. vegetable fields, restaurants, poultry factories and construction sites. But realistically, skeptics fear, Central America’s hellishly hopeless poverty and gang violence mean many if not most don’t plan to go back home once they’re here. Those factors dilute the incentive to sign up for a bracero plan and follow its come-and-go rules.

Marco Ugarte
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico City last month.

Bracero boosters like Alex Nowrasteh of the conservative Cato Institute believe that concern is exaggerated. Nowrasteh told me that since so few Central American workers are currently given H-2 visas, they tend to steer themselves and their families toward the asylum system because they see it as the only legal means of entering the U.S. Or they just come in illegally. Either way, he says, the dearth of H-2 entrance accorded Central Americans has helped both overload the asylum circuits and add to the border chaos.

While many Central American migrants are indeed fleeing a gang leader’s murder threat, he says, many are not. If those who are only escaping destitution could arrive legally on an updated bracero path, they’d be more likely to leave family members at home and move back and forth between there and the U.S. the way the program’s designed. Not to mention send home the remittances that help reduce poverty – and therefore illegal immigration.

I’d also favor giving these workers, after enough time and conditions are met, a path to legal residence. But as Nowrasteh writes in his Cato paper this week, under a bracero-style system almost all undocumented immigrants “could be funneled into the legal market without a large increase” in border enforcement.

And, hopefully, with a large decrease in ghastly border deaths.