Immigrants say temporary worker program won't be temporary

By LYNN BREZOSKY Associated Press, Houston Chronicle .com, June 13, 2006

SAN BENITO -- Jose Luis Vazquez and Elia Garcia know what they're talking about when they predict that new immigrants crossing the border under the U.S. Senate's temporary guest worker program won't go home.

They each came over illegally more than a decade ago. They have children, jobs and houses a life that would be difficult to dismantle because of a date on the calendar.

While the immigration plan would allow Vazquez and Garcia to stay after paying fines and back taxes, and learning English newcomers would compete for one of 200,000 temporary guest worker visas that would be issued each year.

President Bush called for such a plan last month on the theory that these immigrants would earn enough money to help their families and then move home.

The guest worker idea has strong appeal among such industries as construction, where nearly a third of the work force are immigrants.

"It's a win-win," said Jerry Howard, chief executive of the National Association of Home Builders. "This guest worker program would allow immigrants to come in who are employed and skilled laborers and get them into the system while meeting demands for labor."

But some immigration experts say temporary worker programs have never worked in free market societies, because as workers become used to higher wages and start to assimilate, they don't want to go back. It's even harder to return once children are born here, making them automatic Americans, and the Senate bill allows for spouses of workers also to obtain visas.

"I think the general conclusion of everybody who has studied guest or temporary worker programs is that they are never as advertised," said Michael Teitelbaum, a demographer with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York. "They are never temporary programs, nor are the workers temporary."

Fewer than half the "Bracero" workers brought in to work the farms in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War went home, said Vernon Briggs, a labor economist at Cornell University.

"These things are a disaster," he said. "They don't stop illegal immigration. What they basically do is encourage people to keep coming."

The Senate immigration bill allows illegal immigrants who have been in the country between two and five years to become legal permanent residents and citizens after paying fines and taxes and learning English. Those here less than two years must leave. If they want to re-enter, it would be through a temporary guest worker program that would provide 200,000 temporary visas a year.

As the House and Senate try to reach a compromise, immigrants like Vazquez and Garcia are watching Spanish television, meeting with immigration advocates, and hoping the marches and protests they have joined in will give legal status to those who are in the United States to work as well as others who will come later.

Between the two of them, they have sneaked across the Rio Grande, overstayed visas, and bribed immigration officials to continue living in Texas.

It didn't start out that way for either.

Garcia first crossed over on a tourist visa to clean houses, and moved back and forth across the border frequently. But then she had a baby on the U.S. side. In 1998, she crossed back to Mexico for some shopping, and wasn't allowed back. Her 4-year-old daughter was still in the United States.

She asked a friend to sneak her across the Rio Grande. She hasn't been back to Mexico, where her mother and sisters live, in eight years.

Vazquez came over on a 10-year work visa to work in the fields and fruit orchards. By the time the visa expired in 2002, he had a steady clientele as a mechanic and had brought his wife and three children over. A fourth child was born a U.S. citizen. In 2001, when his wife went back to Mexico to renew her visa, she was denied. He said he paid $900 to have an immigration agent bribed to let her across.

Edith De La Cruz, 36, has the simplest tale. She crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in a car and her documents weren't checked.

Fourteen years later, De La Cruz has two children who are U.S. citizens and a life she says is rooted in America. She hasn't been the few miles back to Mexico, and says it would be wrong to send people back who have contributed years of their life to the U.S. culture and economy.

"We have had to fight, we have children who are accustomed to life here," she said. "It is too much to ask that it all be just temporary."

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