Inside the State: The Bracero Program, Illegal Immigrants and the INS

Inside the State: The Bracero Program, Illegal Immigrants and the INS

by Kitty Calavita
Sweeping reforms in immigration policy over the last decade have led to heightened public awareness of this controversial issue. Inside The State takes the reader behind the scenes inside the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)-one of the most secretive agencies in the federal government, and one which wields enormous discretionary power.


Sweeping reforms in immigration policy over the last decade have led to heightened public awareness of this controversial issue. Inside The State takes the reader behind the scenes inside the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)-one of the most secretive agencies in the federal government, and one which wields enormous discretionary power.

Editorial Reviews

Peter H. Schuck
Immigration politics, law, and policy are only now beginning to receive the scholarly attention that their importance in American life deserves. Yet the agency primarily responsible for immigration policy has attracted remarkably little systematic empirical study. This monograph on the Bracero program by Kitty Calavita, a social scientist at the University of California at Irvine, is a welcome addition to this sparse literature. The few existing studies of INS behavior (Gilboy on border inspections and bail determinations, Harwood on enforcement against illegal aliens, Morris on the political environment, and RAND/Urban Institute on employer sanctions) focus on small, though important, areas of the agency's work. Calavita's work, while also narrow (it examines a single INS program), is admirably deep. It enriches our understanding of administrative behavior and bureaucratic politics in the context of a program whose social effects continue to ramify almost 30 years after it ended. Under the program, the INS contracted on behalf of growers for Mexican "braceros" (farm-hands) to work for certain periods under specified conditions supposedly enforced by the agency. Created in 1942, ostensibly in response to war-time labor shortages in the fields, the Johnson administration ended it in 1964 at the behest of organized labor, which had always opposed it. Calavita argues, as have others, that the Bracero program made western agriculture so dependent on Mexican labor that its termination invited the illegal migration that has vexed U.S. immigration policymakers ever since. Tracing the government's subsequent efforts to control this migration, she ends her story with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which she views -- again, consistent with most other analysts -- as a toothless legislative compromise designed to assure growers an adequate supply of cheap agricultural labor while creating the pretense of decisive action to control our borders. Much of this is familiar ground; the general outlines of these events are well-understood. What is new and most valuable in Calavita's study, however, is her detailed description of the bureaucratic dynamics that ultimately shaped the Bracero program. Calavita wants to use this case study in order to debunk some now- standard academic theories about the modern administrative state -- particularly what she calls the "dialectical-structural model, which emphasizes officials' dependence on the structural conditions engendered by capitalism and on the political configuration that those conditions produce. In this model, the contradictions produced by capitalism are faithfully reproduced in the state. Governmental policies exhibit these same underlying conflicts and tensions, which officials are powerless to resolve. The Bracero program, in this view, cannot escape the deep conflict between the economic demand for cheap labor, the social costs of illegal migration, and the symbolic call for control over borders. Another "instrumentalist" model, which stresses the links between powerful groups and public officials, predicts outcomes consistent with the interests of dominant economic and political actors. Calavita, following the work of Theda Skocpol, offers a more nuanced, complex, contingent, people-centered view of state action using the Bracero program as the example. Although she fails to construct anything approaching a full-blown theory, she does identify some of its key elements. First, the state is not monolithic but institutionally fragmented among warring bureaucracies. Here she points to the protracted struggle among the INS (a unit in the Department of Justice), the Department of Labor, the State Department (intermittently), and the agriculture committees of Congress to control the program's goals and implementation. Second, agencies do not act simply to maximize support from their key constituent groups (for INS and the agricultural committees, the growers; for Labor, the unions; for State, relations with Mexico). Page 39 follows: Agencies also pursue bureaucratic agendas that may diverge from or even contradict those of outside groups; when their agendas coincide, Calavita says, it may be due not to cooptation or subservience but because the agency acts for reasons of its own. Unfortunately, this important proposition is difficult to test, and it is only weakly supported by Calavita's data, which include only one instance (the "Specials" program) in which one agency (INS) took a position contrary to that of the growers (although even this is somewhat ambiguous). Third, the agency uses its discretion to reshape (and sometimes distort) its governing statute to conform to its own policy needs. Fourth, even politically weak agencies like the INS contrive to blunt congressional influence, as when INS Commissioner Swing placed regional offices in remote locations in order to insulate officials both from immigration lawyers and from interventions by individual members of Congress. In sum, the policy that emerges from this welter of interests proceeds "less according to some grand plan to rescue the political economy [as some structural theory predicts] than in response to immediate institutional needs." The state, Calavita finds, "is rift (sic) with internal divisions." Little of this will surprise empirical political scientists, who have made similar findings about a wide variety of administrative contexts. But Calavita's careful documentation of her case, achieved by dint of her dogged assault on INS's vaunted secrecy and the almost comically adventitious appearance of a long- sought index to the agency's files, confirms many of the findings of this literature. Highly sensitive to the dynamic nature of agency behavior, she shows how the INS frequently shifted its strategies in response to new leadership, changing political conditions, and evolving policy dilemmas. She does not claim that her portrait of the INS accurately depicts today's agency, and there are many reasons to doubt that there is a close resemblance. In recent years, Congress has delegated responsibilities to the INS that dwarf those of other domestic agencies its size. It conducts mass detentions not only of adults but of small children; adjudicates asylum and amnesty claims; has been impressed into the wars on drugs and terrorism; and administers many new statutes. Although the agency remains a bureaucratic backwater with low morale and inconsistent leadership, it is now better funded and staffed. Between 1975 and 1990 the INS budget tripled to over $1 billion while its staff grew by 70%; just within the last five years, the Border Patrol budget has grown by 82%. The agency's Justice Department and congressional superiors now appreciate its importance, if only because it deals with issues of high public visibility which carry a perennial risk of political embarrassment. (The public outcry surrounding the bombing of the World Trade Center by terrorists with apparent organizational ties to an alien linked to earlier violence and to whom the INS issued a green card is only the most recent of many examples that could be cited.) In addition (as I recently showed elsewhere), the political interests that shape immigration policy have changed substantially since the 1960s. Organized labor's influence, for example, has markedly declined while that of Latino and Asian groups has grown. Ideas about immigration are increasingly important political forces in their own right. For all these changes, there is a striking continuity that Calavita's study demonstrates. For at least a half-century, Congress and the INS have pursued one policy innovation after another in an effort to find a politically viable solution to the intersecting problems of adequately supplying agricultural workers, satisfying domestic labor interests, and controlling illegal migration. All of these policies have failed. Before World War II, when Calavita's story begins, the government pursued an essentially opportunistic policy toward Mexican migration; there was no numerical limit on visas for Mexicans but the INS would periodically crack down on those who were here, deporting legals and illegals alike. Beginning with the Bracero program, the agency attempted to limit the illegal flow by admitting a cohort of temporary workers under its control, only to find itself caught between the conflicting political pressures exerted by growers, the Department of Page 40 follows: Labor representing domestic workers, and the Mexican government protesting the agencies' lax enforcement of mandated labor protections. As control continued to elude the INS's grasp, it turned to a number of spasmodic policy approaches -- de facto legalizations at the border, "Operation Wetback," the I-100 card, H-2 guestworkers, commuter aliens, beefed-up border enforcement, amnesty, and now employer sanctions -- intended to shore up or replace the program. None of these strategies has worked, for the economic and political constraints on their success are too great. The history that Kitty Calavita so ably recounts strongly suggests, moreover, that none of them -- or others yet to be devised -- ever will.

Product Details

Taylor & Francis
Publication date:
After the Law Series
Product dimensions:
8.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 2.00(d)

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