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Column: The ‘Wetback’ Problem Has More Than Just One Side

When la migra calls the Mexican trembles.

La migra is Chicano slang for the U.S. Immigration Service, which, with the Border Patrol, plays an important and sometimes terrifying role in the lives of thousands of Mexicans, Mexican-Americans and other Latins in the Southwest.

A recent crackdown by the immigration department against illegal entrants in the Los Angeles area has again dramatized the human tragedy which can occur when a poor country, Mexico, borders a rich country, the United States.

The fact that at least one American citizen, a mentally retarded Mexican-American boy, was mistakenly deported in the immigration service dragnet indicates the vulnerability of the underprivileged Chicano to la migra’s power.

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Wetbacks and Chicanos look alike to the border patrolman.

The problem of illegal entrants to the United States can be looked at very coldly. It is illegal to enter the United States without the proper papers, so, from time to time, these people must be rounded up and deported.

A closer look at why Los Angeles has become the wetback capital of the world, however, shows why it’s unfair to blame only the illegal entrant for the breakdown of the law.

Why is it that it is estimated that at certain times of the year there are at least 80,000 wetbacks working in California? Because employers are willing to hire them.

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A wetback lives in constant fear. Fear that he will be discovered. Fear of what might happen to him once la migra finds him. Fear that he will not be paid before being deported.

The wetback employers know no such fear. There is no law against hiring wetbacks. There is only a law against being a wetback.

A sweat shop employer of low-paid wetbacks has only one small work—the temporary stoppage of production between the time his wetbacks are discovered in his plant and the time the next wave of wetbacks arrives.

When the wetback is caught he is jailed and deported. Nothing, however, happens to the employer. As a matter of fact, the employer can gain from the wetback raid on his plant because he can easily get away without paying the wetbacks’ salaries due at the time of the arrests.

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State Sen. Lewis Sherman, a Republican from Alameda County, would like to change this. He feels the employer should bear some of the responsibility for the wetback situation. He has introduced a bill (S.B. 1091) which would make it a misdemeanor to knowingly hire wetbacks. Under the proposed law, the employer could be fined as much as $500 for each wetback he hires. Sen. Sherman contends that with “reasonable care” employers could detect wetbacks from legal workers.

Most people concerned with the problem feel this would help immensely.

But it would probably not solve the basic reason for the wetback problem: poor Mexicans willing to take a chance at arrest for what they think will be a good job and the employers willing to take a chance at getting caught because they want cheap labor.

Bert Corona, a leader in the Mexican-American Political Assn., claims that the immigration service, in its dragnets, is “conducting a reign of terror and exploitation against the Mexican people” and that among the 1,600 recently deported there were persons born in the United States who did not have their papers with them, Mexicans with valid tourist visas, persons separated from their families.

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The policeman, this time the immigration and border patrol man, is invariably accused of “brutality” when enforcing the law and undoubtedly they have made mistakes.

But anyone who has seen the fetid shacks in which potential wetbacks live on the Mexican side of the border can better understand why these people become wetbacks. In comparison, the detention center for wetback sin El Centro—called a “concentration camp” by Chicano activists—looks like a luxury hotel.

The point is that Mexico has a grave poverty problem which is growing alarmingly. Mexico, with its limited resources, has grown from a nation of 15 million 1910 to an estimated 44 million in 1966. In another 10 years some Mexican demographers estimate an increase to 61 million people and by 1980, to 72 million. Many, many of these will be potential wetbacks.

Though Sen. Sherman’s proposed bill should help alleviate the wetback problem, it is obvious that the United States and Mexico must talk and plan on the highest level to forestall an even more serious wetback explosion in the future.


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