Mexican dairy workers in vermont benjamin g. Jastrzembski dartmouth college

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The exclusion of Asian and European immigrants, the need for labor in the growing southwest region, and political upheavals within Mexico lead to massive Mexican migration to the United States in the early 20th century. From 1900 to the Great Depression, approximately one-tenth of Mexico’s population migrated north to the United States; in 1930, the U.S. Census counted 640,000 Mexican-born people living in the U.S., compared to 103,000 in 1900 (Acuña 1998a: 90; Gibson and Lennon 1999).

Restrictive immigration laws the late 19th and early 20th centuries barred many Asians and European from migration to the United States, but these laws did not restrict legal migration from Mexico. Chinese migrants, who like Mexican migrants, were drawn to the American west by the opportunities for gold mining and railroad work, were the first ethnic or national group to be comprehensively barred from U.S. immigration. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the upshot of a hostile nativist campaign against the supposed “yellow peril,” ended most Chinese migration into the United States. After the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act, employers shifted to recruiting Japanese workers instead, but a second restrictive immigration law, the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” of 1907, ended Japanese migration as well. The Quota Acts of 1921 and 1924 further restricted migration by setting low quotas for “racially-inferior” southern and eastern Europeans and virtually ending migration from Asia (Acuña 1998a: 87; Chavez 1992: 9; Fry 2001: 152; Hong 2001; Mize 2001).

In the early 20th century, economic need protected Mexicans from migration restrictions. The growth in the western United States demanded cheap labor for the coal and copper mines, the fields of the Imperial and Central valleys in California, and construction projects in new cities. Workers were needed, and business interests were willing to fight to protect open migration from Mexico, regardless of nativist ideas many held about Mexicans. From 1917 to 1921, labor shortages due to World War I actually induced the U.S. government to permit recruitment of temporary Mexicans for agricultural work in the southwest. During this period, employers recruited as many as 72,000 Mexican workers in a temporary worker program that served as a model for the later Bracero Program (Alanís Enciso 1999; Chavez 1992: 9; Pitts 2001: 1141). In the 1920s, the State Department acted as another force that protected unregulated migration for Mexicans in the face of nativist calls for restrictions. The State Department believed that restrictions on Mexican migration would diminish its capacity to negotiate favorable conditions for U.S. businesses in Mexico and the rest of Latin America (Acuña 1998a: 87-89).

Nativism also contributed to Mexican exemption from restrictions. The pseudoscientific nativism of the time saw Mexicans as “half-breeds” or “not much more than a group of fairly intelligent collie dogs.” Some Anglo social scientists justified the bracero role of Mexicans by commenting that Mexican “peons” were already accustomed to living in debt peonage on the oligarchy’s estates in Mexico: “The Mexican comes as a laborer and remains a farm laborer” (Reisler 1976: 237). Perceived as lacking Puritan virtues such as ambition and thrift, Mexican “unprogressives” could never compete economically with their employers and would consequently make ideal workers (Chavez 1992: 9; Nevins 2002: 106; Reisler 1976: 233-236). As a 1911 federal report explains, the proximity of Mexico was also believed to encourage migrants to return to Mexico: “While they are not easily assimilated, this is of no very great importance as long as most of them return to their native land. In the case of the Mexican, he is less desirable as a citizen than as a laborer” (Nevins 2002: 104). For those who feared that migrants would threaten the purity of their Anglo, Protestant, English-speaking imagined community, Mexican migrants that returned home like “homing pigeons” were preferable to European or Asian migrants who would need to cross oceans at considerable expense to return home (Acuña 1998a: 87; Chavez 1992: 9).

In addition to the omission of Mexicans in restrictive immigration laws, political developments in Mexico also encouraged migration in the early 20th century. Under the modernization plan of Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911) 5 million rural Mexican campesino farmers lost their land rights and became mobile wage earners. These former farmers, many from the densely populated Central Mexican states of Michoacán, Jalisco, and Zacatecas, rode the new railroad north to look for work. Migration continued after the fall of Díaz, as refugees fled the violence of the Mexican revolution and the Cristero rebellion between 1910 and 1930 (Chavez 1992: 8; Nevins 2002: 31-33).

The early 20th century saw an enormous increase in Mexican migration to the United States, stimulated most importantly by the demand for cheap and disposable labor in the rapidly growing American West. Mexican migration was especially widespread during this period due to laws that curtailed migration from other parts of the world. These restrictionist immigration policies reflected nativist resentment towards migrants. Although Mexican migration remained unrestricted, Mexicans were not spared from nativism. Arguments to protect open migration from Mexico depended on demeaning stereotypes of Mexicans. In the coming Great Depression, Mexicans would suffer the full brunt of nativist resentment and their disposable status would become painfully known.

During the labor surpluses of the Great Depression from 1929 to 1942, Mexican migration halted, and hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were expelled or left the United States. Estimates of the number of emigrants range from 400,000 to 2 million. Some of these migrants returned to Mexico voluntarily, as there was little work available in the U.S. Depression or violent nativism forced out others. The U.S. government denied legal hearings to most of the deported, and many were in fact lawful residents or citizens (Carrasco 1998: 79-80; Pitts 2001: 1142). Los Angeles alone expelled over 80,000 people, who were identified largely by their Spanish last names or “Mexican” appearance (Olivas 1998: 256). One Los Angeles County supervisor justified expulsions on the grounds that Mexicans were responsible for the economic crisis: “If we were rid of the aliens who have entered this country illegally since 1931, our present unemployment problem would shrink to the proportions of a relatively unimportant flat spot in business” (Nevins 2002: 110).

One deportation tactic during the Great Depression involved denying welfare to Mexican recipients. Government officials considered denying public assistance to be a “fair and humane” means of slashing budgets and encouraging Mexicans to return home. Social workers also lied to government officials, claiming that Mexican migrants actually wanted to return home. This method of deportation avoided the fees associated with legal deportation hearings. Violence was another means to force Mexicans to flee; mobs threatened to torch the Latino homes in Oklahoma and violently expelled Mexicans from railroad jobs in Indiana (Carrasco 1998: 79-80; Gonzales 1999: 146-148).

While Mexicans avoided some of the restrictive immigration laws during the boom years of the early 20th century, they suffered the full blunt of nativist attack during the Great Depression. The discrimination against Mexicans during the 1930s, demonstrates how nativism emerges during times of labor surplus to force migrants out.


Perceived World War II labor shortages generated a want once again for cheap, exploitable Mexican workers in the agricultural industry of the southwest. Beginning in 1942 and continuing long after the war, the U.S. government administered a series of programs that brought as many as four million male braceros legally from Mexico for temporary, contract agricultural work in the United States. The term “bracero,” which I apply widely to the status of Mexican migrants even outside of the Bracero Program, was used to describe authorized Mexican contract workers from 1942 until 1964. The Bracero Program provided a joint U.S.-Mexican recruiting system as well as some guarantee for humane wages and living conditions. These protections were ignored more often than not. In this testimony, a bracero explains how the labor contract was ineffective in offering real human rights protection:

If you want to know how useless is the contract, try to see somebody about it. This is the first time we had talked with anybody who has listened to us. The sheep over there in that field are better than we are. They have a shepherd to watch the flock and dogs that protect them instead of biting them. Here in the camp it is one bite after another. They bite your wages and they bite your self-love (Galarza 1956: 18).x
As the testimony illustrates, employers often withheld the minimum pay of thirty cents a day and failed to provide adequate food and housing (Calavita 1992: 1-27; Carrasco 1998: 79-81; Pitts 2001: 1136).

After the end of the war, soldiers came home to work and the apparent need for foreign agriculture workers diminished. The Bracero Program subsequently expired in December 1947, but Mexicans continued to enter the United States and find work in the agricultural industry as unauthorized migrants. Uneasy with this growth in unauthorized migration, the U.S. and Mexican governments quickly enacted a new Bracero Program in August 1949. The new agreement included a provision that attempted to curb future unauthorized migration by legalizing unauthorized Mexicans already working in the United States. xi Legalization, which continued until 1954, was referred to as “drying out the wetbacks.” “Wetback” (mojado) is an epithet for Mexicans “wet” from swimming across the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande to enter the United States without authorization. For some years during this period, more unauthorized migrants in the United States were legalized than braceros were recruited from Mexico. In 1950, for example, the United States legalized 96,00 unauthorized migrants, while recruiting only 20,000 braceros from Mexico (Carrasco 1998: 82; Mize 2001: 623-625).

The legalization program inadvertently increased unauthorized migration, as potential workers had little incentive to wait at Mexican recruitment centers when they might easily cross the border and find work themselves without consequence. The number of unauthorized Mexican migrants in 1954 is estimated at over 1 million, compared to only 182,000 unauthorized Mexicans in 1947, when the legalization program began (Calavita 1992: 28-32; Lorey 1990: 214).

The increased presence of unauthorized workers stirred up a tide of anti-migrant sentiment that culminated in “Operation Wetback.” Operation Wetback was a militarized government crackdown aimed at deporting unauthorized Mexican migrants. In reality, Operation Wetback resembled the deportations of the Great Depression. Operation Wetback forcefully expelled at least 1 million Mexicans between 1954 and 1959, although some estimates put the number as high as 4 million. The U.S. government offered deportation proceedings to only 63,500 people, while the rest were intimidated into pseudo-voluntarily deportation. Although the majority of deported individuals were unauthorized migrants, many of the deported were legal U.S. citizens or residents, expelled only because of their supposed Mexican appearance (Carrasco 1998: 83; García 2002: 39; García 1980: 227-229).

As Operation Wetback rounded up Mexicans for deportation, the U.S. government made modifications to the Bracero Program in an effort to make the authorized labor program more attractive to employers accustomed to hiring the unauthorized workers being deported. Provisions that provided for wage protections were removed, and recruitment centers were shifted closer to the border in order to reduce transportation costs for employers. Mexico accepted these unfavorable revisions because government officials had come to count on the Bracero Program as a critical “safety valve” that relieved the pressure they felt to address unemployment problems domestically (García y Griego 1996: 59-64).

Through the 1950s, the number of braceros continued to rise, as did opposition to the Program. Unions complained that braceros weakened domestic organization efforts, and small farmers who did not use braceros opposed the program because it made it more difficult for them to compete with larger operations. Many Mexican-Americans opposed the Bracero Program too, as they saw the increased competition of braceros as damaging their already tenuous economic and political condition. In the early 1960s, opposition in Congress mounted, spearheaded by senators George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy who represented family farmers in the Midwest. Congress finally ended the Bracero Program in 1964 (García y Griego 1996: 67-70; Gonzales 1999: 170-175; Gonzalez 2006: 176-180).

The Bracero era continued the precedent set in the 19th and early 20th century that Mexico would provide disposable labor to the United States. The temporary status of braceros allowed the U.S. economy to profit from migrant labor without risking the cultural and economic effects of actually welcoming migrants into the United States. Through the Bracero Program and Operation Wetback, the U.S. government also made an effort to maintain state control over migration flow, preserve the power to deport migrants, and keep migrants disposable and powerless. Proposals for temporary worker programs today address this same desire for disposable labor by attempting to realize the benefits of migrant labor while allaying nativist fears of permanent migration.

At the end of the Bracero Program in 1964, Congress also reformed immigration laws. First, the United States set an annual quota of 120,000 migrants (reduced to 20,000 in 1976) for the western hemisphere, with preference given to family members of those already in the United States. Second, many Mexicans in the borderlands received permission to cross the border temporarily and work as commuters for days, weeks, or months in the United States. Commuting Mexicans often worked in similar jobs and circumstances as workers had in the Bracero Program. Third, the H-2 labor program began, which lawmakers designed to provide temporary or seasonal foreign workers for employers if domestic workers could not be found. This program continues to provide workers, especially Jamaicans, for apple picking and other seasonal sectors of Vermont agriculture today. Vermont dairies are usually ineligible for H-2 workers since the work is not seasonal (Garcia 1998: 84; Pitts 2001: 1142).

Despite these measures at asserting state control, unauthorized migrants continued to work in the western agricultural industry, which had become dependent on their labor after twenty-two years of the Bracero Program. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) arrests of unauthorized migrants increased from 1 million in the 1960s, to 8 million in the 1970s, and 12 million in the 1980s (Calavita 1992: 167; DHS 2007b: 91; Pitts 2001: 1142).xii The 1982 Mexican debt crisis, which caused high inflation and unemployment, also contributed to the increase in unauthorized migration through the 1980s (Dent 2002: 88; Martin 2005: 446).

Besides the continued growth of unauthorized migration, the post-Bracero Program period saw a shift in the demographics of Mexican migrants. Nearly all braceros had been male, but beginning in the 1960s, women began to make up a significant portion of the Mexican migrant population. This gender shift both influenced and affected several other changes in the experiences of Mexican migrants. First, the migration of women, and subsequently children, encouraged “settling-out”—the establishment of more permanent migrant communities. Mexican migrant women often act as advocates for resettlement because they usually enjoy more autonomy and more equitable relationships with men while in the United States.xiii Second, the expanded presence of women was concurrent with a diversification of employment for Mexican migrants. In the post-Bracero Program period, Mexican migrants moved into they service industry, doing restaurant, hotel, cleaning, and childcare work—jobs that are often more assessable to women. Third, as Mexicans took on new jobs, they also expanded geographically, living not only in Texas and the southwest, but also across the entire United States (Hondagneu-Sotelo 1994: 23-25, 194-196; Pessar 2003: 27-29; Pitts 2001: 1142).

During the late 1960s national attention the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam diverted national attention from immigration issues, but the 1970s saw a rise of anti-migrant sentiment and calls for restrictive immigration law. The anti-migrant trend in public opinion that began in the 1970s has continued largely uninterrupted into the 21st century. Beginning in the 1970s, the media became key in constructing the idea that unauthorized migration was a “problem” or “crisis” necessitating a response by the state. Uncritical reports that the “silent invasion” or “human flood” of Mexican migrants created crime, poverty, and unemployment established the crisis mentality surrounding unauthorized migration that remains prevalent today (Gutiérrez 1996: 180; Nevins 2002: 62-64).

The 1970s began with an economic recession that turned attention once again towards the potential of deporting Mexican migrants accused of stealing jobs from U.S. citizens. In 1972 and 1973, the INS responded to the recession and the subsequent restrictionist sentiments by conducting highly publicized raids to deport unauthorized Mexicans. Mass deportation served to reestablish the status of Mexican unauthorized migrants as disposable (Gutiérrez 1996: 180-195).

In addition to increased deportations and anti-migrant sentiment, the early 1970s also saw the emergence of the Chicano movement. Lead by Mexican-American students, the movement stirred a renewed pride in Mexican southwest culture, protested discrimination and the Vietnam War, and rejected assimilationist models of incorporation into U.S. society. Unlike many previous Mexican-American organizations, the Chicano movement aligned itself in solidarity with unauthorized Mexican migrants. Previously, Mexican-American opinions on migration had been largely restrictionist, Mexican-Americans saw newcomers competing for employment and slowing assimilation efforts. The support of the Chicano movement for unauthorized migrants, however, intensified restrictionist opinion as a fear of an “American Quebec” ethnic separatist movement in the southwest grew among Anglos (Gutiérrez 1996: 180-195; Nevins 2002: 62-64).

In 1980, the dramatic Mariel Boat Lift out of Cuba, in which 120,000 Cubans fled to Florida, exacerbated the calls that had grown over the previous decade for the U.S. government to reassert control over the migration “crisis.” Unlike the earliest post-revolutionary Cuban exiles who largely came from the white business class, many of the Mariel migrants were poor Afro-Caribbeans whose race and class probably contributed to their negative depiction in the U.S. media. The Mariel Boat Lift symbolized the lack of state control over migration and linked migrants to crime and welfare. The fallout from the Boat Lift combined with the anti-migrant sentiment that had grown throughout the 1970s generated the political will to rewrite immigration law (Mirabal 2003: 371-373; Nevins 2002: 66).


The post-Bracero Program period from 1965 to 1985 had seen a major shift in the Mexican migrant population from authorized to unauthorized Mexican migrants. As Kitty Calavita explains, unauthorized migrants presented a problem for the state, as they were not as readily disposable as the old braceros: “… unlike braceros, the supply can not be turned on and off at will. By the 1980s, the perception was widespread that millions of illegal immigrants had made a permanent home in the United States” (Calavita 1992: 168). The effort to reform immigration law in the wake of the post-Bracero Program period aimed in part to reestablish the status of migrants as a disposable source of labor.

The calls for reform of immigration law that climaxed after the Mariel Boat Lift resulted in the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. IRCA, the last major immigration reform effort in the United States, was a contradictory law that actually legalized thousands of migrants but was also promoted as a restrictionist law. The Act legalized a total of about 2.3 million unauthorized Mexican migrants who could prove residence in the United States since the beginning of 1982, or, for agricultural workers, 90 days between May 1985 and May 1986. At the same time, the law attempted to stem further unauthorized migration by increasing border security funding and fining employers for hiring unauthorized migrants. IRCA is ineffective as a restrictionist measure because employers are only required to ask for documentation and are not burdened with determining whether the documents are valid. Since IRCA increased funding for immigration enforcement, it is consistent with the bracero model because it reinforces the capacity of the state to keep Mexican migrants disposable. At the same time, the law affirms the place of Mexican migrants as a source of bracero labor through its legalization provisions (Calavita 1992: 168-169; Massey, et al. 2002: 91; Pitts 2001: 1142).

Despite IRCA, unauthorized migration continued to rise, as measured by arrests of unauthorized migrants. Some of this increase might be explained by family members of newly legalized Mexicans who were encouraged to migrate without authorization in the hope of later legalization. IRCA’s failure to curb unauthorized migration and an economic recession in the early 1990s induced a new anti-migrant sentiment in the United States. This sentiment was most pronounced in California where Governor Pete Wilson centered his 1994 reelection campaign on a ballot initiative that sought to deny unauthorized migrants public education, social services, and health care. In 1994, California reelected Wilson and passed Proposition 187 with 59% of the vote. A federal court later struck down the Proposition. Some aspects of the legislation, such as the call to deny unauthorized children their right to education because of their parents’ decision to migrate, are discriminatory. Proposition 187 testifies to the continued power of nativism in the contemporary United States. Many of the proponents of Proposition 187 saw Mexican migrants as braceros who ought to be forced out by all means necessary when they begin to cost taxpayers money via medical, social service, or educational costs (Garcia 1998: 118; Gonzales 1999: 230-231; Johnson 1998b: 12; Massey, et al. 2002: 91; Nevins 2002: 84; Nieves 1999).

In addition to Proposition 187, the anti-migrant movement of the 1990s instigated a series of enforcement initiatives that sought to reestablish state control of the Mexican-U.S. border. These “operations” such as “Operation Hold-the Line ” in El Paso (launched in 1993) and “Operation Gatekeeper” in San Diego (1994) brought increased financial, technical, and human resources to the Mexican-U.S. border in an attempt to stem unauthorized migration and drug trafficking. Efforts at increased border security pushed migrants into crossing in more remote and dangerous desert sectors of the border. This shift towards the desert raised the cost of crossing for migrants, made them vulnerable to criminal activity, and increased the number of deaths by dehydration and exposure. In addition, greater border security encouraged migrants to stay in the United States for longer periods, as the risk and financial cost of crossing the border multiple times increased (Kelly-Fernández and Massey 2007: 111; Massey, et al. 2002: 112-114, 128-133; Nevins 2002: 2-4, 144-145, 195).

Emilio, an eighteen-year old self-described morro (young, inexperienced guy), who crossed the border in summer 2007, is one of the millions of migrants who have crossed in the desert rather than in more assessable sections of the border because of the increased enforcement that began in the 1990s. Emilio, who now works on a Vermont dairy, spent three days and two nights walking across remote desert to reach Arizona from Sonora. Guided by a pollero (smuggler), Emilio slogged across the desert at night and rested under whatever shade he could find during the day.xiv On the second night, Emilio ran out of liquids to drink. Fellow migrants from Tabasco offered him water and saved him from dangerous dehydration: “At about four in the morning on the second night, I was finished. No water, no Gatorade, no Red Bull, nothing. I thought, ‘No more. I’ll stay here and they will find me in the morning.’ The others still had a gallon, and with this gallon we kept walking. The four of us that were left, we continued.” Emilio’s experience speaks to the danger that migrants face in border crossings due to increased enforcement. Although the U.S. Border Patrol has saved the lives of many unauthorized migrants in the desert, government policies that shifted crossings to the desert show an indifference towards the lives of migrants. The increased border deaths that have resulted indicate that such policies reinforce the disposability of Mexican migrants.

In addition to the launch of Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, 1994 also marked the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Canada, Mexico, and the United States. NAFTA opened up investment between the three countries and created the largest trade pact in the world by eliminating tariffs on industrial and agricultural goods over a fifteen-year transition period. Unlike the European Union, which coupled labor and trade integration, NAFTA did not include any plan to sanction migration between the pact countries. During the negotiations of the treaty, however, proponents of NAFTA argued that it would reduce unauthorized migration by improving the economic situation in Mexico (Fernández-Kelly and Massey 2007: 9; Gonzales 1999: 231; Hills 2004: viii-ix).

As Table I shows, unauthorized migration has continued unabated since the enactment of NAFTA. In part, the privatization of ejido communal land in Mexico and the termination of Mexican agricultural subsidies that accompanied NAFTA explained continued unauthorized migration. These processes forced small farmers, especially from southern Mexico, to search for alternative employment in Mexico and abroad. The majority of Mexicans working on Vermont dairy farmers are from the southern Mexican states hit hardest by the NAFTA reforms, such as Chiapas. Unlike the post-IRCA fallout, the presence of unauthorized Mexican migrants after NAFTA did not garner an outcry of anti-migrant sentiment. Low unemployment and a high demand for labor during the boom years immediately following NAFTA’s enactment probably tempered anti-migrant sentiment (Massey, et al. 2002: 99, 104; Martin 2005: 449; Bean and Lowell 1997: 264, 278).

The period from 1986 to 2000 demonstrates the continued disposability of Mexican migrants in the contemporary era. The post-IRCA nativist movement of the early 1990s aimed at expelling migrants occurred during an economic recession, while the relative welcoming of migrants after NAFTA may be linked to economic growth in the late 1990s. These trends suggest that the United States continues to invite Mexican migrants in times economic growth and reject them in times of economic stagnation.
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