On the parched plaza outside the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey, Mexico, hundreds of men and women lean against tree trunks or press their backs into the consulate wall, seeking any sliver of shade. They wait to be fingerprinted, interviewed, and – with luck – approved as one of the 175,000 guest workers admitted to the United States each year. An ordinary day in May 2005 – or perhaps not quite. Under one tree, a meeting is underway. At the center of a circle stands a labor organizer, copy of a contract in hand. Asegúrense que sus derechos sean respetados, he urges the crowd, all of whom are bound for North Carolina. “Make sure that your rights are respected.” Another man, his crisp shirt and spotless jeans belying the previous sixteen hours spent on a bus from his hometown, stands up and offers advice to the others. Cuidado con el patrón en Ranch Farm. “Careful with the boss at Ranch Farm.” He continues: “He’s still trying to get away with piece rate when he’s supposed to be paying us by the hour. Call the union’s North Carolina office if it happens to you.” Others nod assent. After half an hour of sharing information and reestablishing bonds, the group disperses. Before the week’s end, they will be thinning tobacco plants in the hot Carolina fields. For the first time in history, guest workers are about to cross the border into the United States as union members.
Over one million new immigrants arrive in the United States each year. This spring, Americans saw several times that number pour into the streets, protesting proposed changes in U.S. immigration and guest work policies. As the signs they carried indicated, most migrants come to work, and it is in the workplace that the impact of large numbers of newcomers is most keenly felt. For those who see both the free movement of people and the preservation of decent working conditions as essential to social justice, this presents a seemingly unresolvable dilemma. In a situation of massive inequality among countries, to prevent people from moving in search of work is to curtail their chance to build a decent life for themselves and their families. But from the perspective of workers in the country that receives them, the more immigrants, the more competition, and the worse work becomes.