Newswise – The government is using illegal Mexican immigrants to clean up damage from Katrina. Meanwhile, President Bush wants to create a “guest worker” program, somewhat like the “brasero” program of the 1940s and 50s.

Economist Paul Hancock says the use of migrant labor to harvest America’s crops is a product of policy decisions dating back to 1909. He says, “It’s far more complex than conventional economic principals about the supply and demand of labor. Economic, political and cultural processes, operating in both the United States and in nations that send migrant workers to the United States, are at work. Unfortunately, few people have examined migrant labor in anything other than simplistic economic terms.”

In 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt established the Country Life Commission which encouraged farmers to increase their acreage, mechanize and use more chemicals. The idea was to turn farming into more of a business. One of the effects, however, was the shattering of the sharecropper economy, emptying plantations of black tenant farmers and sending them north to find work in industry.

“By World War I, facing a policy-imposed shortage of labor, the farm lobby pressured the government to recruit Puerto Rican farm workers to cover the harvest seasons,” says Hancock.

One of the goals of the Country Life Commission was to provide farm workers with the means to eventually become farm owners. However, that ideal was ended with the political changes of 1930s and 1940s.

“No more agrarian romanticism was wasted on farm workers,” says Hancock. “New Deal legislation could not be passed unless farm workers were specifically exempted.” Agriculture has the problem of needing seasonal workers, which makes it hard for farms to rely on traditional labor forces.

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