United States Commission on Immigration Reform

Testimony of Richard M. Estrada
Commissioner, U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform
Before the U.S. House of Representatives
Committee on the Judiciary
Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims
December 7, 1995


Agricultural Guestworker Programs

Mr. Chairman:

The following points represent a summary of my formal written testimony:

In the face of such evidence my testimony concludes that reviving or expanding agricultural guestworker programs is not in the national interest of the United States.

Mr. Chairman, thank you kindly for the opportunity to testify before you today. I am honored to have been invited. My name is Richard M. Estrada. I am a native of New Mexico, currently based in Dallas, Texas.

I hold the title of associate editor of the editorial page of The Dallas Morning News. I am also a columnist under contract to The Washington Post Writers Group. In addition, I am a member of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, a nine-member bipartisan panel appointed by Congress. A political independent, I happen to have been appointed by the Senate Republican leadership.

Also for the record, I would like to note that in 1986 and 1987 I worked for the Center for Immigration Studies and the Federation for American Immigration Reform. The following testimony is based on years of personal interest in and professional investigation into the issue.

My most recent fact-finding trip occurred last month when I traveled to the state where the question of foreign agricultural labor is most prominent, California. There I met with some of those who most fervently support, as well as those who most fervently oppose, the revival or expansion of agricultural guestworker programs. I sincerely hope the facts and viewpoints I present here today will be of some use to you and your colleagues as you craft immigration-related policy in this area.

The Commission on Immigration Reform has already strongly recommended against the revival of an agricultural guestworker program, such as the one that occurred under the terms of the so-called Bracero Agreement in effect from 1942 to December 31, 1964.

The internal deliberations of the Commission have not always been studies in harmony. But it may interest you to know that on no issue has there been greater agreement than on this one. Simply stated, the Commission, which substantially represents a very broad spectrum of views and opinions on immigration, does not consider a revived agricultural guestworker program to be in the national interest. If I may, I would now like to give you my reasons as to why this is so.

Free vs. Unfree Labor

I oppose new or expanded agricultural guestworker programs because they represent "unfree" labor.

Doubtless, some will immediately object to the use of this term because all the workers in question would presumably come to America willingly. Despite uncertainty about the circumstances under which guest laborers in such programs are selected, let us concede for the sake of argument that all guestworkers do in fact come willingly.

One must still insist that the absence of slavery does not imply the presence of freedom. As commonly understood, the term free labor also implies that an individual can sell his or her labor on the open market to whomever will contract for it. It is in this regard that guestworker programs are, by definition, unfree labor arrangements or, at the very least, not totally free labor arrangements.

To be specific, the agricultural guestworker is explicitly obligated not to sell his or her labor anywhere else but to the agricultural employer who sponsors entry. Employers tend to prize guestworkers for their abilities, true. But they also value them because they have no options and are, therefore, more malleable. (Employers tend to prefer the term "disciplined.")

This basic characteristic is the ugly underbelly of any and all agricultural guestworker programs: the foreign worker is virtually indentured to the agricultural employer, with an important exception. Unlike indentured servitude as practiced in America in the eighteenth century, the guestworker has no expectation based in the legal provisions of his or her entry that he or she will be able to become a free laborer in America.

In addition, guestworker programs tend to have no worker protections. When it come to housing and health care, uneducated and often illiterate guestworkers, who often do not speak English and who have little or no disposable income, are left to fend for themselves. There are thousands of such people roaming the agriculture-based communities of America today. Reasonable and honorable people may disagree about guestworker programs in general, but the specific practice of providing no meaningful worker protections in this manner is unacceptable. It is wrong. It is immoral.

Finally, Congress should consider that the "Bracero" guestworker program was implemented in 1942 under extremely unusual conditions. With millions of native-born rural workers suddenly called off to war, turning to foreign labor through a temporary guestworker program was justified. Even so, the fact that it took more than twenty years to end the Bracero program, long after the end of the Second World War, should give Congress pause about reintroducing it. Cheap, unskilled foreign labor has proven to be an opiate to agricultural employers. Congress should dispense it sparingly, if at all.

"Needs" of Growers and Consumers

A serious analysis of the agricultural guestworker issue must of course weigh the arguments of those who are lobbying for an expansion in the supply of agricultural guestworkers. In particular, fruit and vegetable growers routinely maintain that a sizable and replenishable foreign agricultural labor supply is imperative, not only for their own economic survival, but also for the benefit of the American consumer at large.

In promoting their demands, growers routinely raise worst-case scenarios. They invoke the specter of produce rotting in the fields as a direct result of an insufficient labor supply. They also allege that, absent whatever levels of foreign labor they may demand at any given time, consumers will be obligated to pay sky-high prices for their fruits and vegetables.

Such arguments possess elements of truth. Common sense says that having too few workers may indeed result in an inability to pick an entire crop, especially within the limited window of opportunity that some, but not all, growers have. And, should the crop yield be insufficient to meet consumer demand, the most basic law of economics says that the greater the demand, the greater the price of the produce will tend to be.

Still, these arguments must be placed in context. The first thing to note about them is their absolute or extreme nature. Virtually no one other than agricultural employers is implying that any labor shortage at all is occurring or is about to occur. Anyone who reviews the historical record will find that allegations of actual or impending labor shortages have been common in this debate but that actual labor shortages have been rare.

Consider the unfounded scare about shortages of apple pickers in Washington state in 1987 or the enormous oversupply of labor that obtains in California normally, as proved by unemployment figures in agricultural regions of the state.

I recently heard testimony from growers in Fresno about what they termed a very serious labor shortage in the early fall of 1990. However, a review of economic data pertaining to the raisin industry at the time found that at the height of the alleged shortage, they offered a piece rate increase of a few pennies, at best. This during a time in which the value of the California raisin industry was in dramatic ascent.

Indeed, one often gets the feeling that when growers say they can't find workers, they fail to complete the sentence. What they really mean is that they can't find workers at the extremely low wages and working conditions they offer.

Aside from wages and working conditions, Congress would be well advised to study the issue of living conditions. In many cases, agricultural employers are hiring workers who live in the worst conditions imaginable. Lest anyone think I am exaggerating, consider the case of Mexican agricultural workers in northern San Diego County, California. For years, this region has seen agricultural workers literally live in holes in the ground that have been lined with plastic. These are popularly called "spider holes."

Around Fresno, to the north, they have been known to live in cars or in the most primitive tin and cardboard shacks. This represents no improvement over the situation in Texas some twenty years ago when rural laborers were found to be living in chicken coops. In contrast, the rural unincorporated subdivisions of the Mexican border are castles. The colonias are unincorporated rural subdivisions lacking services and featuring the worst public health menace in America.

In a situation where workers routinely endure such deprivation, California agricultural experts say that projected labor shortages have proven to be largely mythical. The number of people currently residing in the United Sates who want to work is simply too great. Once again, when considering the contrary arguments of growers, Congress should ask itself fundamental questions about wages and working conditions.

One of the most renowned agricultural economists in the world, Professor Philip Martin of the University of California at Davis, says that contrary to grower arguments, U.S. agribusiness has consistently experienced a labor oversupply. He does not see a shortage on the horizon.

As for the "need" of consumers for cheap fruits and vegetables, one might also allege a "need" for inexpensive but high quality automobiles. But having a "need" does not automatically imply that the nation should expand the supply of unskilled foreign labor supply in order to meet that need. Field labor is but a small percentage of the retail price.

Again, the question is not so much whether consumers will be deprived of fruits and vegetables, but what price the free market will oblige them to pay. Even then, it is not as if the demand for fruits and vegetables is inelastic. People will forgo or buy less of what they cannot afford. Strawberries are not essential to human survival.

In America, products are supposed to be offered for sale in a free market. There is no God-given right to cheap and exploitable foreign labor, and there is no God-given right to cheap fruits and vegetables. Yet such an assumption is inherent in many of the arguments made by argibusiness.

Later in my comments, I will consider the factor of "external" costs related to foreign agricultural labor. Such costs raise a legitimate question as to whether the constant replenishment of the agricultural labor supply represents a de facto labor market subsidy to growers that is being unwittingly paid for by all taxpayers.

Arguments about skyrocketing prices for produce should be carefully analyzed against the historical record. In the years leading up to the termination of the U.S.-Mexico agricultural guestworker accord, or Bracero Program, at the end of 1964, growers routinely argued that a lack of labor would cause the price of tomatoes to skyrocket. Instead, the price fell.

Why? Because the sudden decline in the volume of available agricultural labor promoted the development and availability of something that growers often refuse to discuss openly--the introduction of mechanization in the tomato industry. Mechanization not only staved off the economic ruination that agribusiness had warned against, it also increased efficiency and productivity and actually led to a drop in prices.

Congress may wish to note that within the last two months, Florida sugar cane growers have finally decided to mechanize because of world competition on the global sugar market. Sadly, this is occurring some thirty years after Edward R. Murrow's famous expose of brutal working conditions in Florida agriculture in the celebrated documentary, "Harvest of Shame."

Now, it is true that not all categories of produce lend themselves to mechanization. But the basic point is that a blind acceptance of demands for additional foreign agricultural labor will help ensure that such alternatives never materialize. It will actually promote the continuation of a labor intensive system. If Congress is concerned with the nation's increased economic efficiency and productivity, it may wish to ponder what a continued blind reliance on labor intensiveness in agriculture implies for the country over time.

There is no reason to question the sincerity of agricultural employers when they talk about the possible ruination of their enterprises. And they are doubtless concerned that American consumers will not be blessed with the fruits--and vegetables--of their labor, or that of their guestworkers.

However, I would suggest that if Congress is to examine the full range of factors, it must consider a fundamental point of economics that agricultural employers almost never volunteer: To wit, the greater the number of workers there are vying for a particular job, the lower the wages and working conditions agricultural employers will be obliged to offer.

Congress has considered these issues before. Some, if not all, of you will remember that a landmark legislative compromise occurred less than a decade ago in the context of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, also known as the Simpson-Rodino bill. At the time, agricultural interests said they would be satisfied by an expansion in the number of agricultural workers through a Special Agricultural Workers provision. Nearly 1.1 million formerly illegal aliens purporting to be agricultural workers were granted legal status in a program saturated with fraud.

Keep in mind that the main point of the 1986 act was to implement an employer sanctions mechanism that would allow the United States to control illegal immigration. After having agreed to the legislation because of the legalization of agricultural workers, agribusiness is, in effect, now coming back to repudiate the compromise of 1986 and ask for still more foreign agricultural labor.

The difference is that this time around they do not want such labor to be afforded the opportunity to legalize. This time they do not want totally free labor. This time they want guestworkers.

According to testimony I heard from agribusiness and its representatives in California last month, the new request is predicated on the assumption that loopholes in the employer sanctions law of 1986 may actually be plugged by Congress in the near future. They referred specifically to the expected passage and implementation of a worker verification system.

If that happens, agribusiness fears a decline in its labor supply. In this regard, Congress should know that a representative of the Western Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association publicly stated last year that illegal aliens comprise 50 percent of the work force of the Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County, California. This is not necessarily evidence that only alien workers are available, but rather that the growers are hiring large numbers of aliens.

Congress should take careful note of what this new argument is really saying. In effect, growers are claiming that while agribusiness is not knowingly hiring illegal aliens--an act that is illegal under the 1986 legislation--they are nonetheless fearful that if the law is actually enforced, agribusiness will have fewer illegal aliens to hire.

I have no specific evidence to justify the assertion that agricultural employers are knowingly hiring illegally aliens as defined under IRCA, and I will not make that charge here. Yet, whatever defense they may raise in the context of the confusion over work eligibility documents--the factor cited as the main drawback to effective employer sanctions enforcement--that cannot be permitted to cloud the fact that the growers are fundamentally opposed to the spirit of the 1986 act, which, to repeat, is the reduction and control of illegal immigration.

Agribusiness now says we should forget about the compromise of 1986 and revive the so-called Bracero Agreement or expand the H-2A program. Before Congress acquiesces in such a request, it may wish to weigh the growers' assertions against powerful evidence from many agricultural areas that unemployment is high in rural labor sectors. That certainly was the message I recently heard during a visit to Fresno.

Moreover, labor economists point out that California agribusiness in particular does not want so much a stable supply of labor, but rather a dependable system of constantly disposable and replenishable labor. Foreign labor is best for their needs precisely because it represents a never-ending pool and because the constant replacement of such labor ensures that the entire workforce will, in the classic phraseology of those who are familiar with the bottom line of illegal or legally admitted but not totally free labor, "work hard and scared."

Those who doubt this should inquire about the labor made legally available to growers by Congress a decade ago. Reports emanating from California note that formerly illegal aliens who were legalized under the 1986 Special Agricultural Workers provision are today deeply concerned that they are about to be displaced by a new agricultural guestworker program or the expansion of an existing one. They fear being tossed aside as the next victims of what might be called the Dixie Cup system of labor replenishment.

In my opinion, they are right to be afraid. Longtime observers know that the constant replacement and replenishment of labor is the Holy Grail of the agribusiness labor system.

In passing, I should also note the important side issues of unemployment benefits and Social Security taxes. Illegal aliens are not eligible for unemployment benefits, which, in the case of unemployed legal workers, are charged against an account for which the individual employer is responsible. Citizens and legal residents are eligible for such benefits. In effect, agricultural employers end up paying around 4 percent less for those workers who are not eligible for unemployment benefits than for those workers who are.

By itself, that may be a compelling reason for agricultural employers to promote a constant supply of labor that is not eligible for the benefit made available to legal residents. More dramatic still is the factor of Social Security taxes. Hiring foreign workers for whom Social Security taxes are not paid represents nearly a 15 percent wage premium right off the bat. No matter how hard a citizen of the United States may work in the fields, these factors represent two strikes against his or her employment in the agricultural sector.

Congress should consider such points the next time it hears that illegal aliens and guestworkers do jobs Americans won't do. Still, to focus only on the costs of labor in the fields would be to miss one of the most important facets of the entire issue. Congress would be well advised to weigh other real-world costs, as well.

External Costs

On November 15, about three weeks ago, I was present at a hearing of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform in Fresno. The hearing dealt with the issue of agriculture and foreign workers. That hearing only underscored a point that has been made time and again throughout the Southwest and West, in particular. Illegal immigration and legalized illegal aliens represent costs for the nation that go far beyond the cost of their labor.

In Fresno, I heard the testimony of Mayor Jim Patterson, who complained that the residents of his agriculture-based city are currently paying what he calls "a large immigration tax." Mayor Patterson specifically blamed this unwritten and unlegislated tax on the federal government.

Specifically, he complained about Congress' failure to control the borders. He pointed to specific areas in which his city will no longer be receiving funding from the federal government because of congressional reforms. He also linked the growing social and budgetary impact of massive legal and illegal immigration to the unprecedented ballot initiative to deny public benefits to illegal aliens, known as Proposition 187. At the same time, however, he expressed support for an agricultural guestworker program.

Both he and all other elected officeholders interested in this public policy issue, including Congress, may wish to ask themselves if we as a society can have it both ways. In other words, can we lament the consequences of the expansion of the low-skill, low-wage labor supply and then turn around and lobby for the admission of still more of that labor?

It may make political sense in areas and states where agriculture is a powerful industry, but does it stand the test of common sense? Does it make budgetary sense? Is it in the national interest?

In truth, a gamut of publicly-funded costs must be considered by policymakers who seek to ascertain the impact of legislating an expansion of foreign agricultural labor. Assuming for the sake of argument that the workers in question and their families do not access the welfare system, policymakers should consider costs relating to basic services, such as running water and waste water, street maintenance, police and fire services, public health services, publicly-funded housing, the administration of justice, food and shelter for prisoners, public education, heightened unemployment and underemployment, and the consequent utilization of unemployment and other benefits by displaced citizens and other legal residents.

In Fresno alone, huge increases in waste water flows have obligated the city to build a $200 million expansion to the city's waste water treatment facility. After investigating the heightened demand, city authorities routinely found examples of families with ten, twelve, and even fifteen children, and a total of twenty or thirty people living in one- or two-bedroom apartments, according to Mayor Patterson.

Also, Congress should consider that just because it is difficult to put a price tag on a concept, such as the dilution of quality of life stemming from overcrowding, that does not mean that such a price is not being paid.

When one takes into consideration the gamut of costs that U.S. citizens and legal residents are paying as a direct result of the large-scale presence of foreign agricultural workers, illegal and legal, the residents of an individual community, such as Fresno, are not the only ones who are being impacted. Other agriculture-based communities, the citizens of California as a whole, and the citizens of the United Sates also pay for such costs to one extent or another.

Agricultural work is by definition seasonal. Yet, regardless of theory, the fact remains that even after the harvest season is over, the agricultural laborers often remain. Congress should fully understand the implications of too easily acquiescing in demands for massive influxes of additional foreign agricultural labor, ex ante--that is, before there is evidence of need--instead of ex post.

Regardless of whether inexpensive alien agricultural labor helps keep the costs of fruits and vegetables down for consumers, it must be weighed against the costs that are external to the economic activity in agriculture itself. When the gamut of associated public costs are taken into consideration, such additional costs can only be perceived, in my opinion, as a labor market subsidy paid for by the public to the agricultural employers. I have not ventured to estimate the size of that subsidy. But surely it is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Agribusiness routinely talks about the high quality of its produce. At that real-world price, it had better be very good indeed. Whatever else one may say about this situation, I consider it to be fundamentally antithetical to the principles of a free market. When the economics of agricultural labor is weighed in its totality, there is reason to ask whether agribusiness today is privatizing the profit while commonizing the cost.

Social Consequences

For about a quarter century now, the United States has been experiencing what immigration experts have called the Fourth Wave of American Immigration. In 1965, Congress reintroduced mass immigration after a hiatus of some forty years.

All evidence indicates that it did not understand the consequences of the new policy. Indeed, the history of modern U.S. immigration policy is the history of dealing with the unintended consequences of each new policy shift.

The current wave of immigration is the first one to occur in America's postindustrial era. Similarly, it is the first one to occur since the creation of the modern American welfare state. Both these facts have enormous consequences for our society.

This is not the place to explore the factors related to socioeconomic polarization in the United States today. Suffice it to say that labor experts routinely note that the prospects of upward mobility in the country today are not what they once were. Prospects are best for people with relatively high levels of skills and education and, logically, they are worse for people with few or no skills and little or no education.

More to the point, the jobs being created today are in the higher end, not the lower end. Simultaneously, immigration today accounts for about 40 percent of labor force growth and about 40 percent of population growth. Against this backdrop, Congress should ask itself whether expanding the supply of low-skill and often uneducated labor is advisable.

The proponents of a revived agricultural guestworker system or of the expansion of an existing program such as H-2A will likely argue that such observations are irrelevant to their case. After all, they say, the introduction of low-skill labor they are calling for is "temporary." Moreover, the proponents of such programs have also suggested that the revival of "Bracero" or the expansion of H-2A will in fact serve to diminish the pressures of illegal immigration.

To be sure, seasonal cross-border migration by young male agricultural laborers does exist. At the same time, however, it is also true that all guestworker programs have seen the refusal of substantial numbers of workers to return to their homelands. Many have either resettled their families in the United States or have established families here after having arrived.

The growers may call it "temporary" labor. Congress may call it "temporary" labor. But that does not mean that a substantial portion of that labor will in fact turn out to be anything other than permanent. In fact, this is the clear and consistent record of the Bracero Program and indeed of all "temporary" worker programs in Western countries.

As for the possibility that expanding the number of agricultural guestworkers will reduce illegal immigration, the historical record simply does not bear this out. Contrary to the recently published Pollyannish opinions of Professor Julian Simon and others, history indicates that the Bracero Program actually paved the way for higher levels of illegal immigration and dug the channels deeper.

Professor Simon has attempted to buttress his argument by citing examples of very low levels of illegal immigration in the 1950s. Yet, for whatever reason, he has refused to acknowledge the year 1954, in which more than one million apprehensions of illegal aliens occurred. More to the point, during the 22 years of the Bracero Program, when approximately 4.6 million braceros were admitted into the United States, no fewer than 5.3 million apprehensions of illegal aliens took place. [See accompanying table.]

Congress may judge for itself whether the Bracero Program reduced illegal immigration in the past. As for the future, it may wish to consider this question in the context of the current economic turmoil in the largest source of illegal alien agricultural labor to this country, Mexico.

If history is any guide, substantial numbers of temporary guestworkers will in fact become permanent members of our society. Sometimes, this may even occur regardless of their own initial intent. Such vagaries will only increase the difficulty of assimilating low-wage, low-skill Americans of all backgrounds into the social and economic mainstream. Given that the coincidence of race and poverty is one of the most challenging issues facing the United States today, Congress may wish to consider the long-term consequences of importing more unskilled labor.

Consider the following example: Recently, the tri-counties of Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo in California were granted a Job Training Partnership Act grant of $511,605 to retrain farmworkers. One local expert whom I have interviewed told me that the application stated in part: "Since IRCA was passed in 1986 the ranks of farmworkers have dramatically increased. . . . The population eligible to receive these benefits (unemployment insurance) is estimated to exceed 76,500 workers" in the three counties cited.

The cost of retraining all 76,500 farmworkers in just three counties would be a staggering $466 million. Yet, the Department of Labor has only $82 million available nationwide to retrain farmworkers throughout the United States.

I am not here to argue for greater appropriations for job training programs. But I am suggesting that Congress consider the real-world costs of expanding the agricultural labor supply in terms of such factors as heightened unemployment and the heightened demand for social services. Without entering into the debate over devolution, I would suggest that Congress also consider this factor.

American Values

As Congress considers reviving or expanding guestworker programs, it may wish to ask itself a number of basic questions. Here are a few for your consideration:

If a guestworker is tied by law to one employer, what is the range of limitations on the freedom of that guestworker? What happens if the agricultural guestworker wishes to leave the agricultural sector and work elsewhere in the U.S. economy? What happens if the guestworker falls in love and wishes to marry a legal resident? What happens if a guestworker should become the parent of a child born on U.S. soil, even if the guestworker is single?

Who, exactly, is responsible for ensuring that such guestworkers do not go into other labor sectors? What, exactly, is the penalty for failure to comply with any such responsibility? Who, exactly, is to oversee the enforcement of any such rules, regulations, and law? Exactly what resources will Congress afford those given that mission?

A failure to carefully answer these and many other questions would, I believe, represent a failure on the part of Congress to ensure truth in advertising. That is to say, if Congress proposes to legislate a temporary guestworker arrangement, then Congress, in my view, has the responsibility to ensure that it is temporary. The litmus test for any guestworker program is whether that program contains mechanisms to ensure the return of the guestworker.

If, upon due consideration, Congress wishes to grant full and permanent legal status to foreigners willing to work in agriculture, then Congress should do that. But to promise one thing, while failing to ensure that the promise is kept, will only intensify the already deep frustration felt by the American people over an immigration system most of them consider to be in shambles, according to poll after poll.

Finally, when the United States went to war in the Persian Gulf a few years ago, we as a nation were hugely embarrassed when, upon liberating Kuwait, we discovered that country's exploitative guestworker system. In Kuwait, guestworkers were seen as being good enough to do the dirty work of their hosts, but not good enough to become full members of the polity. Indeed, they were often treated with a disdain that recalled some of the worst features of nineteenth century American slavery.

Filipino domestic servants, for example, were found to have no legal rights whatsoever, their passports were found to have been seized upon admission, they represented unfree labor tied explicitly to their employers, and they were often subjected to physical and even sexual abuse. All of these excesses are exactly the kinds of things Americans have been trying to erase from their nation for decades.

But the plain fact of the matter is that agricultural guestworker programs are themselves affronts to human dignity and freedom to one degree or another. In no western liberal democracy has such a program been successful. All of them have experienced troubling consequences. Congress may wish to consider the droll observation of one European observer of the guestworker experience: "We wanted workers, but we got people instead."

I commend you for studying this complicated and challenging issue. I fully realize the pressures you face. I wish you Godspeed. But please allow me to help you make up your mind one way or the other by taking a clear stand in my testimony here today: I cannot and will not recommend the Kuwait model of guest labor for the United States.

Thank you again for your courtesies and for inviting me to testify.

Apprehensions During the Bracero Years
YearApprehensions
194211,784
194311,175
194431,174
194569,164
194699,591
1947193,657
1948192,779
1949288,253
1950468,339
1951509,040
1952543,535
1953885,587
1954*1,089,583
1955254,096
195687,696
195759,918
195853,474
195945,336
196070,684
196188,823
196292,758
196388,712
196486,597

*Operation "Wetback"

Total of 5.3 million apprehensions during the 22-year period, while approximately 4.6 million braceros were admitted.


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