Life on the Fence: a long View of Guest Worker Programs Then and Now

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Life on the Fence: A Long View of Guest Worker Programs
Guest Worker Programs Then and Now

A bracero working in cotton described another typical management policy: “When we complain . . . we are told that if we don’t like it here we can go back home. Several of the men have gone back home . . . because they are robbed of pounds when they weigh in.” (Gonzalez 2006:36)

The previous guest worker programs provide historical precedents for demonstrating how a guest worker program for Mexican labor would likely play out. And contrary to the hopes of some, there is never such a thing as a “good” guest worker program. All share one thing in common: an efficient utilization of the cheapest labor available to work on a temporary basis. Or as Senator Gramm put it [in 2001], “you come, you work, you accrue the benefits of working, and then you go home.” (Gonzalez 2006:171)

An H2A guest worker’s authorization to be present and work in the United States is entirely dependent on his continued work for the particular employer whose work order secured the migrant’s visa. . . . By achieving a contract with both Mt. Olive Pickle Company and the NCGA [North Carolina Growers Association] in the fall of 2004, FLOC [Farm Labor Organizing Committee] began to bring the voice of organized Mexican workers . . . Within a month of FLOC’s signing the contract, more than one thousand grievances were filed by workers—the vast majority dealing with issues of priority in rehiring and the dismantling of the NCGA’s old blacklist (Smith-Nonini 2009:260, 270, 273).

It is possible to [discuss the economic benefits of migration] with data showing that immigrants actually contribute more to the public tax base than they take in services, that they are replenishing an aging workforce, and that they fill important labor niches—but this is not the same thing as constructing an alternative vision that makes it possible for new immigrants to be seen as “one of us” (Kretsedemas 2012:147).

The Image of Mexican Immigrants as “Hard Workers” Then and Now

Local whites on family farms in the Delta who hired the braceros cited the Mexicans’ work ethic and the need for workers as the primary motivation for their employment. Oftentimes these employers compared braceros to those African Americans who had traditionally worked the land. A West Memphis farmer lauded the braceros, commenting, “You show them what you want done and they do it. . . . They don’t run for the shade as soon as you turn your back.” . . . Because the work program came during a period in which younger African-Americans drifted northward, the remaining older generation often competed with the younger braceros (Gomez 2010:11, 13).

Our Latino immigrant interviewees who worked in construction [in Memphis in the early 2000s] tended to seek favor with Latino crew bosses and employers through long hours and high output on the job. Outperforming American workers of whatever race was a pragmatic strategy for maximizing the likelihood of retention and referral by employers, as well as a cultural posture that countered any disparagement attached to “immigrant,” “illegal alien,” or “Mexican” (Smith 2009:309).

Additional Resources on Braceros and/or Guest Workers

Ernesto Galarza (1956) Strangers in Our Fields. (1964) Merchants of Labor.

Kitty Calavita (1992) Inside the State: The Bracero Program, Immigration, and the I.N.S.

Gilbert G. Gonzalez (2006) Guest Workers or Colonized Labor?

David Griffith (2006) American Guestworkers.

Ronald L. Mize and Alicia C.S. Swords (2011) Consuming Mexican Labor.

Deborah Cohen (2011) Braceros.

Philip Kretsedemas (2012) The Immigration Crucible.

Sources that talk about the braceros’ experiences:

Maria Herrera-Sobek (1979) The Bracero Experience: Elitelore versus Folkore, especially Chapter 2, “An Oral History Interview with a Composite Bracero.”

Jose-Rodolfo Jacobo (2004) Los Braceros: Memories of Bracero Workers, 1942-1964.

Rocio Gomez (2010) “Braceros in the Arkansas Delta, 1943-1964,” The Ozark Historical Review, Vol. 36 (Spring 2010):1-18.

Contemporary Ethnographies about Latino immigrants:

Hannah Gill (2010) The Latino Migration Experience in North Carolina.

Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz (2011) Labor and Legality: An Ethnography of a Mexican Immigrant Network. (Includes a brief history of a bracero)

Marie Friedmann Marquardt, Timothy J. Steigenga, Philip J. Williams, and Manuel A. Vasquez (2011) Living “Illegal”: The Human Face of Unauthorized Migration.

Latino migration to Tennessee and the Southeast:

Fran Ansley and Jon Shefner, eds., (2009) Global Connections, Local Receptions: New Latino Migration to the Southeastern United States. Includes Chapters by:

Sandy Smith-Nonini, “H2A Guest Workers and the State in North Carolina.”

Barbara Ellen Smith, “Market Rivals or Class Allies? Relations between African American and Latino Immigrant Workers in Memphis.”

De Ann Pendry (2011) “Seeking to Understand the Politics of Immigration in Tennessee,” Norteamérica 6: 129-178.

Fran Ansley and Anne Lewis (2011) “Going South, Coming North: Migration and Union Organizing in Morristown, Tennessee,” Southern Spaces, May 19,


The Guestworker (2006), H2-A program on a North Carolina farm.

El Contrato/The Contract (2004), guest worker program in Canada.

Morristown (2007)

Welcome to Shelbyville (2010)

Special Thanks to: Luis Plascencia, Arizona State University, West Campus.
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