Transient Servitude:
The US Guest Worker Program for Exploiting
Mexican and Central American Workers

Richard D. Vogel
Copyright © 2010

Permission to copy granted


(Author's note:  Since well before the publication of Transient Servitude in Monthly Review in January 2007, the neoconservative sector of US capitalism has relentlessly pursued the establishment of a national guest worker program to import cheap labor from the global south [especially Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean].  The failure, to date, of the US Congress to implement comprehensive immigration reform that includes provisions for a guest worker program has not derailed capital's initiative.  Transient Servitude Update: The Continuing Campaign to Establish a US Guest Worker Program [under construction] reports on the current status of this critical issue that will shape the future of labor in the 21st century.)

Defining moments in the history of a nation are time and again overshadowed by the drama of war.  These critical events are often domestic policy decisions that affect the immediate state of a country and have serious consequences for the future.  Significant examples in US history include: the initial decision of the revolutionary government to found a republic dedicated to the lofty principles of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" but embracing slavery, a contradiction that ultimately led to civil war; the decision to prematurely end reconstruction efforts in the South after the Civil War, a policy reversal which allowed the long-term oppression and exploitation of the emancipated slaves and their descendents; and the decision during World War II to encourage the mass migration of poor African Americans from the rural South to the industrial centers of the Midwest and Northeast to support the war economy, a haphazard resettlement program that resulted in the ghettoization and continued oppression of a significant national minority.

The US is currently at war and, simultaneously, at another historical crossroad of domestic policy that will not only undermine the economic life of working people, but will tax the social and political institutions of the nation at large.  The stakes of the unfolding US strategy to exploit millions of Mexican and Central American laborers as transient servants through a national guest worker program are staggering.  Since a major component of the plan is to recruit or deport the unauthorized migrant population currently residing and working in the US, a look at the target population suggests the scope of the strategy and its consequences. 

Chart 1

Chart 1 depicts the trend of unauthorized migrants living in the US from 1980 through 2005i.  The trend line in the chart records a steady growth in that sector of the population for the last 25 years.  Since the mid-1990s, that population's growth has been meteoric.  It is important to note that the apparent decline during the late 1980's was actually produced by legalization measures that removed many immigrants from the unauthorized population count but did not decrease the actual number of immigrants in the country.  Current estimates put the total unauthorized population living in the US at 11.1 to 12 million people.  These people are a primary target of the US transient servitude program. 

Chart 2 offers more essential information about this target population by identifying current unauthorized migrants in the US by country of origin:

Chart 2

Chart 2 shows that, although unauthorized migrants from all over the world reside and work in the US, almost 80 percent of the total are citizens of Mexico and other Latin American (primarily Central American) countries.  This overwhelming majority status establishes that the primary target population for the transient servitude program will be the citizens of Mexico and Central American countries currently residing in the US and suggests that most of new migrant workers who will be recruited through a national guest worker program will be from those regions.  

A short history of the prior US exploitation of the Mexican and Central American people is essential for understanding the implications of the latest program aimed at this target population.


A History of Exploitation

The US has subjected the Mexican people to relentless exploitation since the inequitable war of 1846-1848.  Despite US treaty obligations to respect the civil and property rights of Mexican citizens that resided in the territory seized during the war, efforts, both legal and illegal, to displace them from the land and reduce them to wage labor status began before hostilities ended.  During the last half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, displaced and migrant Mexicans were employed extensively in mining, agriculture, and railroad construction in the West and Southwest.

The manpower demand produced by World War I led to active recruitment by US labor contractors in Mexico, not only for men to replace the rural US workers who were drafted, but also for men to work in the booming manufacturing sector of the US economy.  The governments of both nations facilitated this mass migration of Mexican workers and cooperated in the establishment of a gatekeeper border policy that has continued to allow workers from Mexico to enter the US when the economy is hot and restrict their passage during periods of economic recession. 

The instutionalization of Mexican workers as a reserve labor pool for US capitalism has produced waves of migration to the North, and, periodically, led to mass, and in some instances, forced, deportations.  During the Great Depression and later, during the severe economic recession that followed the Korean War, large numbers of Mexican migrants were summarily deported to Mexico.

Despite periodic political backlashes against Mexicans in the US, the demand for their labor has endured.  Even the second forced deportation, Operation Wetback, which targeted Mexican communities across the nation, did not stop the use of Mexican workers as agricultural laborers through the infamous Bracero Program.

The Bracero Program

The history of the Bracero Program, an indentured servitude program which allowed for the temporary migration of Mexican agricultural workers to the US from 1942 to 1964, is important because it impacted the lives of millions of Mexican workers, and it was the first bilateral agreement regulating migrant labor between the two nations.  The Bracero Agreement offers the historical and legal precedent for the program currently being developed for the mass exploitation of Mexican and Central American workers in the US.

Chart 3 captures the dynamics of the Bracero Program:

Chart 3

The time line in chart 3 tracks the official number of individual contracts that were signed with the US government by Mexican workers during the period covered by the Bracero Agreement.  It shows that the program, initially proposed to deal with the manpower shortage in the US triggered by World War II, worked as it was intended--the number of bracero contracts signed rose rapidly during the war and then declined steadily in the immediate post war period.  The most significant feature of the time line, however, is that it reveals that the vast majority of the Mexican workers who signed bracero contracts were employed during the 1950s, indicating that US capitalism was quick to take advantage of cheap Mexican labor and expanded the program far beyond its original mandate.

Chart 3 also documents the duplicity of US policy towards Mexican migrants that was manifested quite clearly in the 1950s when an economic recession triggered a political backlash against Mexican migrants.  Operation Wetback, as it was officially designated, was a paramilitary campaign conducted by the US Border Patrol against Mexican communities across the nation that resulted in the deportation or flight of well over a million migrant workers and their families.  Chart 3 shows clearly that the demand for indentured Mexican workers continued to rise despite Operation Wetback, reaching an annual average of 430,000 a year during the second half of the decade.

Chart 3 also records the decline of the Bracero Program.  Although both opposition by organized labor and public outrage against the abuses of the program were factors in the termination of the agreement, the dramatic drop in demand for indentured Mexican labor corresponded to the overall decline in farm employment resulting from the extensive mechanization of US agriculture during the 1960s (The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy, ).  In short, most of the backbreaking fieldwork that was being done by bracero labor simply disappeared.  Although the official program of utilizing indentured workers was ended in 1964, the exploitation of Mexican migrants in the worst and lowest paying jobs in US agriculture has continued to this day.

Ultimately, over 4.6 million Mexican citizens entered the US under the Bracero Agreement, providing an abundant supply of cheap workers for US agriculture as long as it was needed.  Though the program provided desperately needed jobs to Mexican workers, the bracero experience was characterized by poverty wages and substandard working conditions, social discrimination, and lack of even the most basic social services for braceros and their families.

US demand for Mexican workers did not disappear with the termination of the Bracero Program.  The tradition of exploiting cheap Mexican labor, firmly established during World War I, instutionalized through bilateral agreement during World War II, and expanded during the post-war era, continued with the establishment of the maquiladora manufacturing system in Mexico.

The Maquiladora System
US capitalism invaded Mexico in pursuit of cheap labor the year after the termination of the Bracero Agreement.  In 1965, Mexican President Diaz Ortiz signed into law the Border Industrialization Program (BIP) that established the maquiladora system in Mexico.  Developed by US business interests and secured through "dollar diplomacy", the BIP granted US industry access to Mexican labor, initially along the US-Mexico border and later expanded under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) into the interior of Mexico, with virtually no liability for the social or environmental costs of production.

Chart 4 tracks the growth of the maquiladora manufacturing system in Mexico:

Chart 4

Chart 4 shows that the system built up slowly--in 1980, 15 years into the program, slightly more than 500 maquilas employed about 120,000 workers.  In the following 15 years, maquiladora employment increased 5-fold to over 600,000.  The BIP soared in the late 1990s, peaking in the year 2000 with approximately 1.3 million workers employed in over 3,000 plants.  The program showed an abrupt decline accompanying the mild economic recession in the US in 2001 but is currently in a period of strong recovery.  Overall, the maquiladora system has been a boon to US capitalism, keeping the costs of production down and profits up in many critical US industries.

The costs of the maquiladora system have fallen on Mexico.  Maquila industries have produced a sizable number of jobs, but real wages have declined throughout the history of the program.  In addition, Mexico has lost untold revenues and resources, and, therefore, opportunity for national development.  The social and environmental costs of the maquiladora system in Mexico have been well documented and continue, exacerbated, under NAFTA.

Especially relevant to the unfolding US labor strategy is the fact that the maquiladora program resulted in substantial resettlement of the working-age Mexican population along the US-Mexico border that was supplemented in the 1990s by many of the over one million Mexican farmers dislocated by NAFTA.  High unemployment in Mexican border cities, despite the thriving maquiladora industry, and higher wages to be earned in the booming US economy triggered the flood of immigrant laborers that entered the US during the 1990s and early 2000's.  The exodus was facilitated by the lax enforcement of immigration law in the US and an unofficial open border policy.

A Gatekeeper Border Policy

Though a gatekeeper policy dictated by the needs of the US economy for Mexican labor has been in effect since the US conquest of Mexico, the resettlement of unauthorized migrants to the North since 1990 is unprecedented and has been facilitated by a virtually open border policy.

Chart 5 highlights the significant trends of contemporary migration from Mexico:

Chart 5

Chart 5 compares legal versus unauthorized migration from Mexico to the US for chronological 5 year-periods from 1980 through 2004.  The numbers on the bars represent annual average migration during each 5-year period.  The overall trend shows a steady increase of migration for the last 25 years.  The most significant trend, however, is the constantly increasing predominance of unauthorized versus legal migration during the last 15 years.  While unauthorized migration accounted for less than 25 percent of all Mexicans relocating to the US during the 1980s, it has risen to a staggering 84 percent of the most recent Mexican migrants.  These findings indicate that, because of the rising demand for cheap Mexican and Central American labor during the last 15 years, a gatekeeper border policy has kept the southern US border virtually wide open so as not to impede the migration

Chart 5 suggests that the much-touted Border Patrol operations against unauthorized migrants of the mid-1990s, Hold the Line (San Diego, 1993) and Operation Gatekeeper (El Paso, 1994), were either the worst failures in that agency's history, or official grandstanding to cover an unofficial open border policy demanded by American capitalism.  The US history of drawing on Mexican labor during economic booms and the current dependency of the US economy on cheap labor from south of the border indicate the latter.

This short history of the US exploitation of Mexican labor as a reserve labor pool for US capitalism provides background for the current US strategy to systematically exploit Latin American workers as transient servants under a national guest worker program.  This latest plan, which targets millions of workers from the South, is more sophisticated and grander in scale than anything that has gone before.  Consequently, it is requiring unprecedented international and domestic preparations.


Setting the International Stage

The scope and scale of the unfolding US labor strategy has necessitated international preparations.  Two key prerequisites for the realization of the plan are, first, a plentiful supply of workers who will toil for sub-standard wages under adverse working and social conditions, and, second, the establishment of international law that sanctions free trade in human labor across national boundaries.  The pauperization of the Mexican and Central American working classes and initiatives in the World Trade Organization (WTO) to create global guest worker guidelines have set the stage for initiating a strategy of transient servitude in the US.

The Pauperization of the Mexican and Central American Working Classes

US financial and political intervention in the national life of Mexico during the 1980s and 1990s, often carried out through the WTO, has pauperized the Mexican working class.  It is they who have had to suffer the brunt of the mandatory austerity programs, strict debt restructuring, and privatization initiatives that were imposed on Mexico in the 1980's after the credit binge of the Mexican bourgeoisie during the previous decade.  The result of this foreign intervention has been widespread unemployment and displacement from the land that has produced onerous hardship and sparked internal migration from the interior of Mexico to the industrialized border region and to the US.  It is widely acknowledged that NAFTA has exacerbated all of the problems created by the financial and political interventions of the 1980's and that the purpose of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) is to expand the US sphere of influence, including access to cheap labor, into Central America.

Although US capitalism has profited handsomely from the pauperization and northward migration of the Mexican working class through the BIP and an open border policy that has provided a steady supply of cheap labor to sustain the US economy for the last 15 years, the pending US strategy to implement a comprehensive transient servitude program will intensify the exploitation of Mexican and Central American workers.  The plan will be advanced significantly if it is sanctioned under global guest worker guidelines being developed in the WTO.

GATS: Establishing Global Guest Worker Guidelines

Free trade in workers across international borders is a primary goal of global capitalism. While offshoring schemes, such as the Border Industrialization Program, transfer the work of manufacturing industries to regions with cheap labor, the goal of global guest worker programs is to import cheap labor for agriculture, site-bound manufacturing, and local service industries.  To facilitate the global movement of workers the developed nations of the world have joined forces to legitimize this latest form of free trade through international law and thereby sanction the practice of human servitude in the modern world.

The WTO's existing General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) categorizes international service industries into four "modes" depending on the location of the provider and the consumer at the time the service is rendered.  Mode 4 applies specifically to the "temporary movement of natural persons [workers as opposed to corporate entities] across borders to provide services."  The key stipulation of Mode 4 is that migrant workers must either be employed by a foreign firm with commercial presence where the service is provided or be under contract for the provision of a service.

This employment/contract captivity stipulation of Mode 4 establishes the servitude status of modern migrant workers.  The migrants' visas are employer or contract bound, so they must remain employed to maintain their legal status.  Linking the legal status of the worker to a binding contract shifts virtually all the power to the side of the employer or contractor and inevitably leads to abuse--a fact that the twenty-two year history of the Bracero Agreement and all other guest worker programs demonstrate unequivocally.  The WTO is well aware of the potential for abuse under Mode 4 and openly disavows any responsibility for the rights of migrant workers. 

Although most existing guest worker programs are based on bilateral agreements, current negotiations to extend Mode 4 to all workers will in effect establish a global guest worker program that will supersede all existing agreements. Extending Mode 4 will have grave implications for tens of millions of migrant workers and their nations of origin:

  • The outcome of current Mode 4 negotiations will constitute a set of rules and regulations that participant nations will have to take as a whole and will not be able to amend.
  • Commitments to the program will be legally binding for at lease three years on participant nations that, after the initial period, will only be able to withdraw by paying compensation to all WTO members.  The penalties for withdrawing will amount to billions, if not trillions, of dollars, compelling poor countries to supply cheap labor as long as rich nations demand it.
  • Foreign governments will be able to challenge any national labor regulations.  WTO tribunals that supersede all national judiciaries and are not subject to public scrutiny would resolve all conflicts.


This extended GATS Mode 4 is the model behind the US strategy to exploit Mexican and Central American labor that is currently unfolding.

The US Strategy Unfolds

Because the idea of human servitude runs counter to the political sentiments of many Americans and is bound to generate opposition, the current US strategy of mass transient servitude remains undeclared even as it unfolds.  However, like the provisions on the international level, extensive domestic preparations are currently underway to facilitate the influx of millions of migrants from Mexico and Central America into the US.  These measures include: the building of transportation and enforcement infrastructures to facilitate the movement and management of millions of migrants; the promotion of immigration legislation to legitimize transient servitude in the US, and initial steps to implement the program in full as soon as it becomes the law of the land.
Building the Transportation Infrastructure

Map 1

Map 1 depicts the transportation infrastructure that is being developed to accommodate the increasing traffic in goods and labor between the US and Latin America.  The NAFTA corridors designated on the map, which currently consist of existing Mexican Federal highways and specific sections of the US Interstate Highway System, are being expanded through what as touted as the biggest surface transportation project in history.  When construction is completed, the largest sections of the I-35 corridor, located in Texas where the traffic is heaviest, will be up to 1,200 feet wide and include 4 truck lanes, 6 auto lanes, 6 passenger and freight rail lines, necessary safety medians, and wide service and utility zones (For a complete discussion of the scope and impact of the NAFTA corridor system see: Richard D. Vogel, "The NAFTA Corridors: Offshoring US Transportation Jobs to Mexico", Monthly Review, February 2006 available at ).

The NAFTA corridors will be integrated transportation super-corridors to consolidate the existing streams of NAFTA trade goods, containerized freight from the Far Eastern Pacific Rim routed through Mexico, current migrant traffic, and accommodate the additional human traffic generated by a national guest worker program.  The combined traffic, already heavy on existing I-35, will increase exponentially when the new I-35 corridor, already under construction, is completed. The proposed I-69 is intended to carry the traffic from Mexico bound to eastern and northeastern US destinations.  The stated purpose of the future "Ports-to-Plains" corridor from Laredo to Denver (which has not yet been numbered) is to exploit cheap goods and labor from Mexico to develop the sparsely populated plains of west Texas, northeastern New Mexico, and southeastern Colorado. 

I-35, which already carries a trickle of farm workers from the Mexican states of Tlaxcala, Guanajuanto, Mexico, and Hildago to the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec under an existing bilateral guest worker agreement, is slated to become the main conduit of the US guest worker program, transporting an unending stream of transient labor between the heart of Mexico and the heartland of America.  Both San Antonio and Kansas City have been designated as inland Ports of Entry, a unique status that will allow them to be utilized as guest worker processing centers.

Like the massive transportation network under construction, an expanded migrant control infrastructure is being developed to enforce a national guest worker program as soon as it is implemented.

Expanding the Enforcement Infrastructure  

The expansion of Detention and Removal Operation (DRO) facilities operated by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is the other major area of infrastructure development to facilitate the mass influx of migrant workers from the South.  Monitoring and enforcing a national guest worker program in the US that will ultimately involve tens of millions of migrant workers from Mexico and Central America is the biggest human management program that has ever been undertaken.  Expansion of the facilities that will be needed to detain and remove unauthorized migrant workers from the US is already underway.

Map 2

Map 2 identifies the locations of the current DRO facilities in the US, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.  The map reveals that 11 of the existing 18 DRO facilities are strategically located to regulate the flow of migrants across the southern US border.  The largest of these facilities (which opened in May, 2005) near Pearsall, Texas and the Laredo detention facility are both located on the I-35 corridor. The Houston, El Paso, Florence, Eloy, and San Pedro facilities are all located along I-10, the main east-west highway that parallels the US-Mexico border.  The San Diego and El Centro facilities, linked to I-10 by I-8, complete the southern border enforcement infrastructure.  The proximity of the Guantanamo Bay facility to both Central and South America suggests that the current construction at that site foreshadows detention and removal operations for those regions.  Aquadilla and Krome, DRO facilities currently serving the Caribbean, are in excellent position to process guest workers from that region.

As much as map 2 reveals about how DRO facilities will be used to facilitate a guest worker program, it does not present the complete picture.  In January, 2006, the DHS awarded a $385 million contingency contract to KBR, the engineering and construction subsidiary of the Halliburton Company, to establish temporary DRO facilities to supplement the existing ones in the case of an "immigration emergency".  Questions about the nature of the anticipated "immigration emergency" not answered by the expansion of the transportation and enforcement infrastructures depicted in maps 1 and 2 are answered by examining the major immigration legislation that was introduced in the US Congress in 2006 and the concrete steps that have already been taken to implement a national guest worker program.

Immigration Reform: Legitimizing Transient Servitude

While the WTO can supply international guidelines and sanctions for guest worker programs, a national program of transient servitude must be drafted and sanctioned by US law before it can be implemented.  Table 1 presents a summary of the major immigration legislation that was introduced in the US Congress in 2006.

Table 1:  Comparison of major immigration legislation introduced in the 109th US Congress (2006)
Guest worker provisions
Sponsor (Political Party-State) Bush proposal (for comparison) Kennedy (D-MA) - McCain (R-AZ) (S.1033) Cornyn (R-TX) -Kyl (R-AZ)
Tancredo (R-CO)           (H.R. 3333) Hagel (R-NE)
Specter (R-PA)
(Chairman's Mark)
Jackson-Lee (D-TX)
(H.R. 2092)
Guest Worker Program YES YES YES YES YES YES NO
Conditions for Participation Visa required; portable Visa required; portable Visa required; portable Visa required; portability not specified Visa required; portable after 3 months Visa required; portable _
Type of Workers Not sector specific Not sector specific Not sector specific Not sector specific Not sector specific Not sector specific _
Maximum Length of Participation in Program 6 years 6 years 6 years Unspecified 4 years 6 years _
Program Provides Path to Legal Residency Conditional through existing channels Conditional after 4 years, anytime with employer sponsorship NO NO Conditional after 3 years Conditional on employer sponsorship YES
Enforcement provisions
Employer Penalties _ Doubles the penalties under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) Doubles the penalties under the INA $5,000 for paperwork violation, $10,000 for substantive violation, $25,000 for pattern of offenses Doubles the penalties under the INA Doubles the penalties under the INA Establishes immigration status-related intimidation as an unfair labor practice
Border Enforcement _ Requires DHS to develop a national strategy for border security Increases by 10,000 the number of Border Patrol agents over 5 years Allows the military to be deployed at or near the border to assist in enforcement Increases customs and border personnel by 2,500 over 5 years Requires DHS Secretary to develop a national strategy for border security _
Local and State Enforcement _ _ Requires L/S authorities to report immigration violations to DHS Denies Federal funding to L/S authorities that do not report immigration violations to DHS Reimburses states for costs of immigration law enforcement Reimburses states for costs of immigration law enforcement Allows L/S authorities to decide whether or not they will participate in immigration law enforcement
Detention Facilities _ _ Adds 10,000 beds for ICE _ Adds 10,000 beds for ICE each year FY 2006-2010 Adds 10,000 beds for ICE each year FY 2006-2010 _
Expedited Removal _ _ Expands to entire southern border _ Expands to entire southern border Expands to entire southern border _


Table 1 erases any doubts about US intentions to legalize the wholesale exploitation of Mexican and Latin America workers through a national guest worker program.  The table reveals the fact that Representative Shirley Jackson-Lee offered the only major immigration reform proposal introduced in the 109th US Congress that did not embrace a guest worker program.
Common threads run through all of the guest worker proposals:

  • All of the guest worker programs link visas to employment.  Portable visas allow workers to change jobs and remain in the program.
  • None of the guest worker programs are sector specific, meaning that all industries in the US will be entitled to exploit cheap migrant labor.
  • All of the guest worker proposals double the fines for employers who hire undocumented migrant workers, insuring maximum employer participation in the program.
  • All of the proposals insure the transient nature of the program by restricting the maximum length of worker participation to no more than six years.
  • None of the current guest worker proposals guarantee a clear path to legal residency.  Legal residency is conditional under three of the proposed programs (with employer sponsorship in two of those) and not even offered by the other two.
  • All of the pending guest worker programs call for increased southern border enforcement with massive expansion of DRO facilities.  The fact that only H.R.3333 calls for the open militarization of the border is a moot point since the southern US border is already being militarized by the DHS under the Secure Border Initiative (SBI).
  • With the exception of S.1033, all of the proposals either require or reward local and state participation in immigration law enforcement.


Overall, the Chairman's Mark proposals, including the provision to expand expedited removal to the entire southern border, are committee recommendations that will probably prevail in the final form of the national guest worker program.

Adoption of the US guest worker program as the law of the land and securing bilateral agreements with Mexico and the Central American countries through NAFTA and CAFTA according to the GATS Mode 4 guidelines will legitimize and therefore facilitate the strategy that is already being implemented though current government initiatives.

Implementing the Program

The US strategy to capture and exploit Mexican and Central American labor through a national guest worker program, while awaiting a rubber stamp from Congress, is already well underway.   In addition to the transportation and infrastructure projects reported above, comprehensive government policies to implement the program have already been formulated and initiated.  These specific policies include: sealing the US southern border as tightly as possible in order to stop unauthorized migration; provisions for the mass detention and removal of unauthorized migrant workers presently residing and working in the US; and the reorganization and mobilization of government agencies to enforce the provisions of the guest worker program as soon as it becomes law. 

SBI: Sealing the Southern Border

Although the goal of supporting a national guest worker program is the last item in the Secure Border Initiative Fact Sheet posted on the DHS website (, the geographical location of existing DRO facilities indicates that it is going to be the primary function.  DHS has assigned the job of sealing the southern US border to the Office of Border Patrol under US Customs and Border Protection (CBP).  The current CBP commissioner proclaims that the new National Border Patrol Strategy "embraces and builds upon many elements of Operations Gatekeeper and Hold the Line; however, it goes beyond the deterrence strategy embodied in those operations and it is more than a strategy just for the southwest border."  It "has an ambitious goal: the operational control of our nation's border, and particularly our borders with Mexico and Canada." ii  To this end, the Commissioner pledges the deployment of more highly trained and well-equipped Border Patrol agents, integrated detection and sensor technology, including unmanned aerial vehicles, and strategically placed tactical infrastructure.

Although Objective 1 cited in the National Strategy is stated as "the apprehending of terrorists and their weapons as they attempt to illegally enter the United States between points of entry", the actual allocation of manpower and material resources by the Border Patrol indicates that Objective 2: to "Deter illegal entries through improved enforcement" is the highest priority of the agency.  This sealing of the southern border is the first step in implementing the guest worker program aimed at capturing and controlling Mexican and Central American workers in the US. 

ICE, the DHS agency that has been tasked with the mass detention and removal of undocumented migrants already living and working across the US, is the largest special weapons and tactics (SWAT) unit that has ever been mobilized, and Endgame is the agency's strategic plan that will initiate the program of transient servitude across the nation.  Endgame will be the biggest police action in history.

Endgame: The Plan for the Mass Deportation of Undocumented Migrants

Endgame is the DHS strategic plan to remove all unauthorized migrants in the US within 10 years.iii  The plan, instituted in 2003 and scheduled for completion by 2012, in conjunction with the ongoing legislative initiative for a national guest worker program, clearly establishes the time line of the unfolding US strategy to exploit Latin American labor.

Endgame is basically an expanded replay of Operation Wetback.  The goal of the two operations is the same: the mass removal of undocumented Latin American migrants from the nation at large while continuing to exploit the labor of those who remain under captive contract.  The scope of Endgame, however, eclipses the short-term deportation project of 1954:  "The DRO strategic plan sets in motion a cohesive enforcement program with a ten-year time horizon that will build the capacity to 'remove all removable aliens,' eliminate the backlog of unexecuted final order removal cases, and realize its vision."

The final campaign of Endgame, a nationwide assault on the established communities of undocumented migrants living and working in the US and the deportation of millions of men, women, and children to Mexico and Central America, is the "immigration emergency" anticipated by the DHS.  It will be the biggest mass deportation in world history.  To "remove all removable aliens" means to locate, arrest, detain, and deport in excess of 12 million people.  The logistical problems alone are staggering and, if ICE meets organized resistance, the operation could indeed produce an "immigration emergency".  People with their lives invested in the US and with nothing to return to in their home countries might not go without a fight.  The organization and training of ICE for military operations indicates that DHS is anticipating just such a contingency.

The ultimate DRO vision is highlighted in Endgame: "Within ten years, the Detention and Removal Program will be able to meet all of our commitments to and mandates from the President, Congress, and the American people."

The forthcoming mandate from Congress, clearly foreshadowed in the immigration reform legislation introduced in 2006, is beyond doubt: the establishment of a US guest worker program under the aegis of GATS that will reduce Mexican and Central American workers to a condition of transient servitude.  It will be a program that serves the interest of US capitalism at the cost of the developing nations to the South.  Though it will offer menial jobs to many Latin American workers, it is nothing more than the latest stage in the history of the US exploitation of the South.  If it becomes public law, it will be enforced by the most powerful state in history.

DHS: Enforcing Transient Servitude

The pending US guest worker program to exploit Mexican and Central American labor will be administered and enforced by the US Department of Homeland Security, the most powerful and pervasive agency of state control that has ever been mobilized.  To monitor and control the movement of migrants, DHS can employ unprecedented police power: US Customs and Border Protection; US Immigration and Customs Enforcement; the US Coast Guard; US Citizenship and Immigration Services; the Transportation Security Administration; and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center to train and enlist state, local, and international police agencies for immigration law enforcement.

Indeed, if a national guest worker program becomes the law of the land, chances for migrant Latin American workers in the US to avoid being trapped in the program of transient servitude will be nil.

Transient Servitude: A Close-up

The innocuous term, "guest worker", obscures the true nature of transient servitude. The term "guest" suggests a person to whom hospitality is extended, but this labor program will offer no kindness or generosity to workers caught in the trap.  The program will be conducted primarily by private corporations (perhaps exclusively by Halliburton/KBR or one of its subsidiaries) that are only interested in the bottom line of profits for their stockholders and huge salaries and bonuses for their managers and executives, and it will be enforced by the unprecedented power of the US government and guaranteed by the WTO through GATS.

The work offered under the program will be transient in a double sense--the work visas will be temporary and employment will be itinerant because of visa portability.  Limited to a maximum of 6 years participation and with the prospect of legalization conditional, the program offers workers an uncertain future at best.

A condition of servitude is all but guaranteed during the term of employment because GATS has officially disavowed any responsibility for enforcing international labor law advocated by the International Labor Organization (ILO) which itself has no enforcement provisions.  Ironically, workers under the pending US guest worker programs will have less protection than the workers who labored under the Bracero Agreement because of the power of GATS to supercede all national (including labor) law thus nullifying worker rights guaranteed in the Mexican Constitution.

The exploitation of workers under the US guest worker program will, in practice, be virtually unrestricted and participation will be expensive.  In addition to the visa and work permit fees required by the US government, workers will have to absorb the commission fees charged by labor contractors and transportation costs (both prohibited under the Bracero Program), and additional charges for medical exams, inoculations, and miscellaneous expenses.  In practice, the costs born by migrant laborers under a US guest worker program will greatly reduce the money available for remittances to families in Latin America, one of the primary motivating factors for participating in the program.

In the end, all that guest workers will get are short careers of transient servitude in the US without the guarantee of minimal labor standards or any social security, and during which a large proportion of their earnings will be siphoned away by US labor contractors and opportunistic goods and services providers.

The dead end prospects for millions of Latin American "guest workers" in the US are a foregone conclusion.  What remains to be considered is the impact that the program will have on native workers and the nation at large.   

Servitude--Past and Future

The history of the United States holds powerful lessons about the economic, social, and political costs of human servitude.  The practice of slavery backed by the power of the state during the first 80 years of the republic devalued the labor of all working people and finally resulted in a civil war that almost destroyed the nation.  And while the pending program of transient servitude will not be as oppressive as chattel slavery, it will produce the same erosive economic effect--the presence of millions of workers toiling at substandard wages in all sectors of the US economy will undercut the value of the labor of all working people in the nation, and, considering the scope and size of the pending guest worker program, the aggregate effect will be far greater than the cost of slavery in the past.  With the expensive infrastructure in place and the program sanctioned by the WTO, legitimized by US immigration law, and enforced by the DHS, state, and local police, transient servitude will become so entrenched in the US economy that it might well prove to be harder to abolish than the practice of chattel slavery was.   

The prospective social impact of a national guest worker program is not without precedent.  Again, while the social discrimination accompanying transient servitude may not prove to be as harsh as life in the bracero work camps of the American Southwest, or the post-war African American ghettos, the scope of the social impact will be far wider, penetrating every community in the US.  The acute regional social problems created by servitude and oppression in the past will become chronic national problems under a national guest worker program.

The political problems generated by a national guest worker program will be daunting.  Since the pending program will target mainly young, uneducated and unskilled workers--the most volatile sector of any population--and displace many corresponding native workers, the problems of social control will be manifold and trigger further expansion of the already burgeoning police functions of the state.  A new surge of mass incarceration, which might surpass the record numbers that accompanied the deindustrialization of the US economy in the 1980s and 1990s, can be expected (See Richard D. Vogel, "Capitalism and Incarceration Revisited", Monthly Review, September 2003, available at ).

Not the least of the political considerations is the fact that the initiative to adopt a national guest worker program is the latest battle in the campaign against organized labor that was launched in the 1980s.   While the offshoring of manufacturing jobs and the flood of anti-union legislation have devastated traditional unions, the prospect of having millions of workers trapped in transient servitude in the US threatens to nullify current labor movements throughout the Americas.

Despite the clamor in Congress from both conservatives and liberals for a national guest worker program, it is a reactionary policy with dire economic, social, and political ramifications.  The working people of the US must respond to the pending program of transient servitude with the same answer we have given to all forms of human servitude in the past--a resounding NO!

We are facing the fight of our lives.


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i This article draws heavily on demographic research developed and published by the Pew Hispanic Center ( , which is widely recognized for its validity and is used to formulate US immigration policy.

ii The full text of the National Border Patrol Strategy (Sept. 2004) is available on the CBP website (

iii "ENDGAME: Office of Detention and Removal Strategic Plan, 2003-20012, Detention and Removal Strategy for a Secure Homeland, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Form M-592 (8/15/03) was originally posted on the website of the DHS but has subsequently been removed.  It can still be found through an online search and is available from the author at