The supply of farm labor has become one of the most significant issues in U.S. immigration policy. During the early twenty-first century, the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Worker Survey reported that 77 percent of all workers on American crop farms had been born abroad, that almost half the foreign-born workers had been in the United States for fewer than five years, and that more than half were not legally authorized to work in the United States.
Commercial farms in the western United States have long depended on workers from other countries. Most foreign farmworkers stay only long enough to earn target amounts of money and then return to their home countries. Some do remain in the United States, but their American-educated children rarely follow their parents into the fields. Consequently, much of the American agricultural industry has remained on a immigration treadmill, needing constantly to recruit new foreign workers willing to accept seasonal jobs.
Farmworkers have loomed large in U.S. immigration debates. During the mid-twentieth century, the U.S. government two made exceptions to policies blocking the entry of low-skilled foreigners in order to admit Mexican farmworker in the
From the mid-1990’s into the early twenty-first century, about one-half of workers employed on American crop farms have not been legally authorized to work in the United States. After 2000, both farm employers and worker advocates agreed that the best way to deal with unauthorized workers in agriculture would be to legalize their immigration status and simultaneously make it easier for farmers to hire temporary foreign workers legally. In 2006, a bill called the
During the late nineteenth century, as irrigation transformed the valleys of the western states into open-air greenhouses that produced fruits and vegetables, finding enough people to work the fields became a problem. Most leaders expected some of the immigrants then coming to the United States from eastern and southern Europe to travel by rail to California and other western states to become family farmers. Some did; however, most of the farmworkers in western states during the late nineteenth century were immigrants who were barred from most nonfarm employment. These included Chinese immigrants who had helped to construct the transcontinental railroad, only to be driven out of cities afterward.
During World War I, farmers persuaded the U.S. government to exempt Mexicans from restrictions imposed by the Immigration Act of 1917 to slow European immigration. On May 23, 1917, the U.S. Department of Labor, which then included the Bureau of Immigration, approved the request of western farmers “to admit temporarily otherwise inadmissible aliens” to work in agriculture and on railroads. This began the first
In 1931, as the Great Depression was worsening, many Mexicans who had settled in the United States were sent back to Mexico in order to open jobs for American workers. The reduction of Mexican workers in the West and dust bowl conditions in midwestern states brought a new wave of migrant farmworkers to the western states. For the first time, most newcomers to the western agricultural labor force were English-speaking American citizens. Their experiences as seasonal farmworkers would be memorialized in
Mexican farmworkers leaving Chihuahua City, Mexico, to work in the bracero program in Texas during the 1950’s.
Farm labor reformers were divided between those such as University of California economist
The standoff among farm labor reformers met strong opposition from farmers who opposed both land reform and labor laws. Meanwhile, American entry into World War II in 1941 set the stage for a new bracero program to supply farmworkers as Americans mobilized for war. The new program began on a small scale during the war years but eventually expanded to admit almost 500,000 Mexican workers a year into the United States during the 1950’s. Operation Wetback slowed unauthorized migration in 1954-1955, so the federal government made it easier for farmers to hire legal bracero workers.
In 1964, the U.S. Congress ended the bracero program, convinced that bracero workers were holding down wages and retarding opportunities for American farmworkers. That view appeared to be vindicated in 1966, when the Mexican American farmworker
Chávez then helped found the
UFW leaders thought that the 1986 immigration reform law would strengthen their union as previously undocumented immigrant workers would become union supporters in return for union assistance. However, the UFW helped only a few of the one million foreigners whose immigration status was legalized the 1986 law’s agricultural provisions. The new upsurge of unauthorized immigration that accompanied IRCA doomed union efforts to raise wages. IRCA’s
By the time of
The pattern of farmworker advocates blocking farm employer requests for a new guest worker program continued through the year 2000. In response to the election of Mexican president
U.S. immigration and enforcement policies have played a major role in determining the composition of the agricultural workforce and the wages of farmworkers. Farmworkers have continued to be mostly relatively recent arrivals from abroad. Most of them have seen working for wages on American farms as their first step up the American job ladder. Few immigrant farmworkers who have remained in the United States have been able to rise to the middle class. Their hope has been that their children, educated in the United States, will eventually achieve the upward mobility that originally drew them to the United States.
Ganz, Marshall. Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. A former UFW organizer, Ganz credits the UFW’s “strategic capacity” for winning contracts with grape and lettuce growers during the late 1960’s, using marches, fasts, boycotts, and espousing nonviolence to win the struggle with growers. He credits Chávez for union victories during the 1960’s and 1970’s but also blames him for the union’s decline during the 1980’s. Gonzalez, Gilbert G. Guest Workers or Colonized Labor? Mexican Labor Migration to the United States. Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm, 2005. Historical study of Mexican farmworkers in the United States that examines the subject in the context of American dominance over Mexico. Martin, Philip. Importing Poverty? Immigration and the Changing Face of Rural America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009. An up-to-date study of the employment of foreign-born workers in American agriculture, this volume explores the effects of such workers in selected states, assessing efforts to enact immigration reforms between 2000 and 2009. _______. Promise Unfulfilled: Unions, Immigration, and Farm Workers. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003. One of the fullest studies of the rise and fall of the UFW, this volume stresses that the changing structure of agriculture and rising unauthorized migration in the 1980’s were likely more important than changing UFW leadership and the shift from Democrats to Republicans in making appointments to California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board. Nahmias, Rick. The Migrant Project: Contemporary California Farm Workers. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008. Richly illustrated book capturing the lives and labors of modern migrant farmworkers. Pawel, Miriam. The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in César Chávez’s Farm Worker Movement. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009. History of the UFW emphasizing the union’s decline after the early 1980’s. Also explores links among the many UFW organizations run by Chávez’s children and relatives. Shaw, Randy. Beyond the Fields: César Chávez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the Twenty-first Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. Study of the UFW emphasizing the union’s importance as a training school for a generation of activists.
El Paso incident
Mexican deportations of 1931
United Farm Workers