A brief History of Foreign Guestworkers in America

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Name: ________________________ Date: ___________________________
English 7, Period: _________ Ms. Skolnik/Mr. Koondel/Ms. Harwood
Sentries (Chapters 5-8): Connected Reading and Writing 2 Quiz
A Brief History of Foreign Guestworkers in America
Foreign-born workers have been significant contributors to the U.S. economy for centuries.

From the early 1800s until the outbreak of World War I, millions of European immigrants — Irish, British, Germans, Italians, Scandinavians, Russians, Hungarians and others — arrived in the United States, and their labor helped fuel the country’s economic and geographic expansion. For most of this period, under the Naturalization Act of 1790, the borders were open and there were no numerical limits on immigration. The first major attempt to regulate or stem the flow of these workers came in 1882, when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to ban the employment of Chinese laborers.

During the latter half of the 1800s, following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, tens of thousands of migrant workers from Mexico began arriving. Unlike their European and Asian counterparts, they were able to move freely across the border to temporary jobs in ranching, farming, mining and other industries, and then, in many cases, back home again. The establishment of the U.S. Border Patrol in 1924 made access to jobs in the United States more difficult for Mexican workers, however, and for the first time they were seen as “illegal aliens.” But there remained no numerical limits on legal immigration from Mexico until 1965.

World War I brought migration from Europe largely to a halt and created a greater demand for Mexican labor. Soon afterward, the Great Depression arrived and Mexican workers were seen as a threat to American jobs. More than 500,000 people, including some United States citizens, were forcibly deported.

The onset of World War II created another labor shortage, and Mexican workers were again called upon to fill the void.

In 1942, the U.S. State Department reached a bilateral agreement with Mexico creating the bracero program, which Congress later approved. To assuage critics, proponents of the program asserted that Mexicans, who had been deported en masse just a few years earlier, were easily returnable. This program was designed initially to bring in a few hundred experienced laborers to harvest sugar beets in California. Although it started as a small program, at its peak it drew more than 400,000 workers a year across the border. A total of about 4.5 million jobs had been filled by Mexican citizens by the time the bracero program was abolished in 1964.

Interestingly, the program had many significant written legal protections, providing workers with what historian Cindy Hahamovitch, an expert on guestworker programs, has called “the most comprehensive farm labor contract in the history of American agriculture.” Under this program:

  • Employers were required to have individual contracts with workers under government supervision;

  • Workers had to be provided housing that would comply with minimum standards;

  • Workers had to be paid either a minimum wage or prevailing wage, whichever was higher;

  • If employers failed to pay the required wages, the U.S. government would be required to support the workers;

  • Employers had to offer at least 30 days of work; and

  • Transportation costs were to be shared by the workers, the growers and the government.

But the bracero program did not look so rosy in practice. Mexican workers, who generally did not read English, were often unaware of contractual guarantees. And there were numerous reports of employers shortchanging workers — just as in today’s H-2 guestworker program.

The Mexican workers, who were called braceros, also had 10% of their pay withheld, ostensibly to pay for a Social Security-type pension plan. The money was to be deposited into a Mexican bank on behalf of the workers. It was never paid, however. Several lawsuits have been filed to recover what is now estimated to be hundreds of millions of dollars owed to Mexican workers.

In 1956, labor organizer Ernesto Galarza’s book Stranger in Our Fields was published, drawing attention to the conditions experienced by braceros. The book begins with this statement from a worker: “In this camp, we have no names. We are called only by numbers.” The book concluded that workers were lied to, cheated and “shamefully neglected.” The U.S. Department of Labor officer in charge of the program, Lee G. Williams, described the program as a system of “legalized slavery.”

The availability of braceros undermined the ability of U.S. workers to demand higher wages. During the 1950s, growers brought in braceros when their U.S. workers either went on strike or merely threatened to do so. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Cesar Chavez mounted farmworker protests over the program and later said that organizing the United Farm Workers would have been impossible had the bracero program not been abolished in 1964. The grape strike in which the union was born, in fact, began the following year.

The bracero program is now widely believed to have contributed greatly to patterns of unauthorized immigration to the United States from Mexico.

After the bracero program was dismantled in 1964, foreign workers could still be imported for agricultural work under the H-2 sections of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The H-2 program had been created in 1943 when the Florida sugar cane industry obtained permission to hire Caribbean workers to cut sugar cane on temporary visas. The appalling conditions experienced by sugar cane cutters have been well-documented. In one well-publicized incident, on November 21, 1986, Caribbean H-2 sugar cane cutters stopped work on a large sugar plantation in south Florida, objecting to the work conditions. Workers reported that the company had tried to pay a rate lower than what was promised in the work contract, and more than 300 workers refused to go to work as a result. The company called in the police, who used guns and dogs to force workers onto buses, on which they were removed from the camp and deported. This incident became known as the “dog war.” It has come to symbolize for many people the potential for extreme abuse in a guestworker program that permits employers to control the worker’s right to remain in the United States.

The H-2 program was revised in 1986 as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which divided it into the H-2A agricultural program and the H-2B non-agricultural program. There are no annual numerical limits on H-2A visas. The annual limit on H-2B visas is currently 66,000. In 2011, the last year for which data are available, the United States issued about 55,000 H-2A visas and about 51,000 H-2B visas. The countries sending the most workers to the United States under these programs were Mexico, Jamaica and Guatemala; about 80% are Mexican.

Sadly, this current guestworker system is plagued by some of the same problems as the discredited bracero program.

Until the 1960s, most Mexicans and Mexican Americans were migrant farm workers. The transition to permanent residency and the civil rights movement changed this status for many, and more Mexican Americans have received a college education and have joined the ranks of professionals as educators, bankers, insurance and real estate agents, lawyers, doctors, journalists, and engineers. The vitality of Mexican American communities can also be seen in the explosion of numerous businesses such as taquerias (fast food eateries), restaurants, bakeries and tortillerías (tortilla factories), and tienditas (small grocery stores that stock Mexican and other Latino ethnic foods). Mexican American entrepreneurial achievement is also represented in the abundance of businesses in lawn care and landscape services and auto repair shops throughout America. Perhaps a more powerful indicator of the social and economic impact of the Mexican American presence is the proliferation of numerous Spanish-language newspapers, radio stations, and television programs that cater to Spanish-speaking audiences.

Today, Mexican American communities are still in process of formation as new immigrants continue to come to the region. Since 1970 record numbers of Mexicans have entered the United States, and many of these have entered without legal documentation. They have joined Mexican Americans in established communities such as Sunnyside in Washington’s Yakima Valley, Woodburn in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, and Caldwell in western Idaho, and constitute the majority in some small rural communities such as Wapato, Washington. They are also settling in urban and remote, isolated areas previously unpopulated by Mexicans or Mexican Americans. Prior to 1970, a small population, low levels of education, and discrimination kept Mexican Americans from any meaningful political participation in the communities where they resided. Mexican Americans and Mexicans will continue to shape politics and culture as more of them become U.S. citizens and more second-generation descendants obtain an education, vote, develop businesses, and contribute to the cultural life of their regions.

Extra Credit Extended Response:

What were some of the negative and positive outcomes of foreign guestworkers in America?

In your answer, be sure to

    • Describe and explain some of the negative outcomes of foreign guestworkers in America

    • Describe and explain some of the positive outcomes of foreign guestworkers in America

    • Use details from the passage to support your answer

Extended Response Rubric (28 Points Total)

If the prompt requires two texts and the student only references one text, the response can be scored no higher than a 2.



Response Features

4 Point

Clearly introduces topic compellingly and follows logically from the task

Demonstrates insightful analysis of the text(s)

Develops the topic with relevant, well-chosen facts, definitions, details, quotations, or other information or examples from the text(s)

Exhibits clear organization with appropriate and varied transitions to create a unified whole and enhance meaning

Maintains a formal style, using sophisticated language and notable voice

Provides a logical concluding statement or section that is compelling

Demonstrates command of conventions with few errors

3 Point

Clearly introduces topic and follows logically from the task

Demonstrates grade-appropriate analysis of the text(s)

Develops the topic with relevant facts, definitions, details, quotations, or other information or examples from the text(s)

Exhibits clear organization with appropriate transitions

Maintains a formal style, using precise language

Provides a logical concluding statement or section that follows from the topic

Demonstrates grade-level command of conventions with occasional errors

2 Point

Introduces topic and follows generally from the task

Demonstrates a literal comprehension of the text(s)

Partially develops the topic with some relevant textual evidence

Exhibits some attempt at organization with inconsistent use of transitions

Fails to maintain a formal style, with inconsistent use of language/vocabulary

Provides a concluding statement/ section that follows generally from the topic

Demonstrates grade-level command of conventions with occasional errors

1 Point

Introduces topic in a manner that does not logically follow from the task

Demonstrates little understanding of the text(s)

Demonstrates an attempt to use evidence; develops ideas minimally/irrelevantly

Exhibits little attempt at organization and may be irrelevant to task

Lacks a formal style, with imprecise/inappropriate use of language/vocabulary

Provides a concluding statement/section that is illogical or unrelated to topic

Demonstrates a lack of command of conventions with frequent errors

0 Point

Demonstrates a lack of comprehension of the task

Demonstrates a lack of comprehension of the text(s)

Provides no evidence or irrelevant evidence

No evidence of organization

Uses language that is incoherent or simply copied from the text

Does not provide a concluding statement/section

Demonstrates no command of conventions

Total Score

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