The New El Norte: Canada

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I lived in Mexico on and off from 1999 through 2005.  Working with immigrants traveling back and forth to Pennsylvania, we spend a lot of time talking about the broken U.S. immigration system and the difficulties workers faced when crossing into the U.S.

Back then I asked a question that seemed far-fetched: why not go to work in Canada?  Their immigration laws were certainly more flexible.

The responses were consistently the same: “it’s too cold” or “I don’t know anyone in Canada.”  I already knew that most immigrants followed their networks north–one person would find and setting in a new area, then travel back to Mexico and share the cultural knowledge with family, friends and neighbors who in turn would start to join the “pioneer” migrant in the new locale.  Migrant patterns are enduring, but they are not unchanging.  This article from the Washington Post highlights how a model guest worker program in Canada is making a new El Norte.

For years I have argued that the U.S. needs a revised guest worker program. Many of my colleagues scoff at the idea, thinking that our H2-A visa program, which links agricultural workers to their employer for housing and health care.  It’s a program that might work well for farmer, but it makes the immigrant worker beholden to his or her employer.

Canada’s worker visa has its drawbacks, but the WAPO article point out that it is designed to offer safe, stable employment and worker protection and to actively encourage workers to return home at the end of the growing season.  While not necessarily ideal, it does meet the needs of the laborer, to some degree.

Only married men are eligible for the Canadian program, preferably those with young children, and their families must remain in Mexico. Another incentive to return home: a cut of the migrants’ wages is placed in a Canadian pension fund, receivable only if they return to Mexico.

Once in Canada, the workers live like monks, sleeping in trailers or barracks, under contractual agreements that forbid them from drinking alcohol and having female visitors, or even socializing with other Mexican workers from different farms.
Most of their time in Canada is limited to sleeping, eating and working long days that can stretch to 15 hours, without overtime pay.“People look to Canada as a model for their success at making temporary workers truly temporary,” said David FitzGerald, an immigration expert at the University of California at San Diego. “But the way they are prevented from staying is by socially isolating them to an extreme degree, controlling their movements and systematically preventing them from interacting with Canadian society,” he said.“From a labor rights perspective, it’s troubling, but it’s appealing to policymakers because it keeps the workers temporary,” FitzGerald said.

Still, migrants interviewed here in the high desert towns of rural Zacatecas said work in Canada is hard but fair and well-paid. Their employers treated them well, they said, and when they didn’t, the local Mexican consulate intervened.

“The consulate threatens to take away their Mexicans, and usually that’s enough,” said Armando Tenorio, who first worked in Quebec tending flowers and herbs inside a massive greenhouse.

At the same time, one wonders why governments cannot simply offer temporary visas for a fee.  If human traffickers are charging upwards of $5000 for what all know to be a perilous border crossing, it seems reasonable that there are resources available to pay a fee to do the same safely.  Once in the U.S., workers could freely seek employment where they wish, and if job were unavailable, they would likely go home.  That has been the trend during the recession, and there is ample research to support this assumption historically.

What is troubling about the current U.S. and Canadian temporary worker visas is the need to control the immigrant.  It’s clear from the Canadian example that for Mexicans participating in the program, safety, security and fairness are as important as freedom to live and work where one pleases. That is something we all need to consider as the U.S. slowly considers immigration reform.

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