Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two part series examining the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 and the Sonoma immigrant experience. Part one is a brief history of a Sonoma immigrant family drawn to the U.S. by the dream of a better life. Part two will tell the story of a family who emigrated from Mexico after being pushed out by working conditions there.
“I want the president to know that, when he raises a glass of wine, the immigrants are making it … so that he can drink his glass of wine – every day,” said Noe, a grape-picker living in Sonoma after emigrating from Jalisco, Mexico.
This year marks yet another attempt in the ongoing effort to chart a course for immigrants, those who are undocumented as well as lawful permanent residents, or those with green cards. The U.S. Senate has passed its comprehensive immigration reform bill, S.744, known as the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013,” which promises eventual citizenship for all immigrants in the United States. And soon, the House will begin plans to present its own version.
But citizenship won’t come easily, or without a price. Under the bill, certain “triggers” have to be reached that will delay the pathway to citizenship by at least 13 years.
Congress has been challenged by the complex issue of immigration for decades. Until 1964, U.S. immigration and economic policies were copacetic with the aspirations of many Mexicans. The “bracero” program, established in 1942, legally pulled immigrants in through temporary visas for seasonal agriculture work. But in 1964, the program was abolished, in part because it was thought to be unjustly similar to indentured servitude.
Because they had been encouraged to come legally under the “bracero” program, Hispanic immigrants kept coming even when the program ended. Except this time, they came illegally. There were few repercussions; the steady stream of undocumented labor wasn’t cut off because it kept the cost of agricultural products low. Now, more than half of the undocumented immigrants living in the United States today are from Mexico, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
In 1986, Congress tried to take aggressive action to deter illegal immigration with the Immigration Control and Reform Act. In addition to granting amnesty to the undocumented residents already in the U.S., the law imposed fines against employers who hired undocumented workers. However, the law proved difficult to enforce, and instead bolstered an underground industry of fraudulent documents as demand for identification grew to enable immigrants to continue to work in the US. For employers, the cost-savings of immigrant labor was too appealing, and growers and factory owners continued to use undocumented immigrants.
With the passage of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in 1993, illegal immigration, once a steady stream, became uncontrolled. The new law brought a slew of American products, including American corn, into Mexico, at a price small-scale Mexican farmers couldn’t compete with. Consequently, the Mexican farming industry began to collapse, destroying jobs and forcing more immigrants to look for work in the U.S..
“A lot of the folks that I work with are from Oaxaca, and that was a district in Mexico that was devastated by NAFTA,” said 24-year-old Jesús Guzman, the lead organizer for the Graton Day Labor Center and a DREAMer (a term used for those seeking residency under the Dream Act, which applies to immigrants who came to the U.S. undocumented as children with their parents, but who have grown up in America). Guzman came to Sonoma when he was 1-year-old from Jalisco, Mexico. He is studying history at Sonoma State University.