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A Bitter Harvest: Immigration Law and Migrant Farm Labor

Posted on: June 30, 2021

In the light of the new Farm Workforce Modernization Act passed in the U.S., Kristen Anderson, author of Immigration in American History, examines the recent history of Mexican migrant farm labor in the U.S. She explores changes in U.S. immigration policy and looks at how these decisions have impacted the treatment of workers.

In March of 2021, the House of Representatives passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. The bill seeks to rationalize the system of migrant farm labor, creating a pathway to permanent legal residence for farm workers already in the United States, while also updating the H-2A visa program for temporary agricultural workers in an attempt to ensure that enough workers are able to enter the country legally to meet labor needs. In the past, the demand for migrant farm labor has frequently outstripped the supply of visas, meaning that many migrant farm laborers are in the country illegally. As a result, despite the important role they play in the nation’s economy, they live a precarious life, vulnerable to exploitation and deportation.

The need for migrant farm labor plays a major role in debates over U.S. immigration policy today, but this is hardly a new issue. The labor needs of large agricultural employers have shaped U.S. immigration policy throughout the 20th century, with the needs of the laborers themselves often being of secondary concern, when they were considered at all. In particular, policies towards migrant farm laborers have fluctuated wildly, with migration being encouraged during good economic times, and discouraged during bad. This is particularly evident in the experiences of migrant farm laborers from Mexico. At times, government programs incentivized immigration from Mexico to fill farm laborer positions. At other times, Mexican American workers were vilified, or even deported. The government proved responsive to the needs of large agricultural employers in this regard, but paid little attention to the experiences of the workers whose lives were upended by such policies.

The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924

The influence of large agricultural employers on U.S. immigration policy can be seen during the creation of the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, a law which established a highly restrictive set of immigration quotas, designed both to reduce the number of immigrants entering the U.S. and to ensure that more of those who did enter came from northwestern Europe. By the early 20th century, there was a general desire in the U.S. to restrict immigration, mostly based on fear that the racial composition of the nation was changing. Immigrants were increasingly coming from countries in southern and eastern Europe, whose residents were perceived as being less white and more culturally different than previous immigrants from northern and western Europe. As a result of these fears, the Johnson-Reed Act set quotas for each nation to ensure that “whiter” nations could send more immigrants, nations that were less white fewer, and some, like countries in Asia, none at all. Quotas were not applied to Western hemisphere nations, but it was not because they were perceived as unproblematically “white” and culturally similar to the U.S. Their exclusion from the quota system was due instead to the need of large agricultural employers across the West for seasonal farm labor. These employers had traditionally relied on workers from Mexico and Asia (including Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino workers) to supply this labor. As immigration from Asia was increasingly restricted due to anti-Asian hostility in the U.S., Mexican workers became increasingly important to their operations. As a result, these farmers lobbied not to have the bill apply to the Western hemisphere, despite the nativists who would have preferred to limit or forbid Mexican immigration.

The Great Depression

Attitudes towards Mexican workers in the U.S. changed dramatically during the Great Depression. As white workers became more desperate for work, they also became more willing to take jobs that they previously avoided, including migrant farm labor. There was a lot of racially-based anger against Mexican Americans during the Depression, with some accusing them of taking white men’s jobs and driving up unemployment. There was also concern that Mexican immigrants would be drawing on new government relief programs, and using white tax dollars to pay their bills.

As a result, many Mexican Americans, including many who were naturalized citizens or even native-born Americans, were encouraged to go “back” to Mexico during the Depression. In some cases, the only government relief they were able to get was a free train ticket to Mexico. As one Mexican American man who repatriated from Indiana Harbor, Indiana, remembered, “actually they weren’t forcing you to leave, they gave you a choice, starve or go back to Mexico.”1  This was obviously a very disruptive experience, as people uprooted their lives to move—in some cases to a country they had never seen. The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce estimated that perhaps as much as sixty percent of the people “repatriated” from that county were children who were native-born American citizens. In many cases, they had never been to Mexico and might not even be fluent in Spanish, given the efforts made by public schools to promote the sole use of English. We do not know exactly how many Mexican Americans were deported during the Depression, but most estimates range from five hundred thousand to one million.

World War II and the Braceros

When World War II started, the labor situation in the United States was transformed almost overnight. There was a sudden transition from high unemployment to a labor shortage, as men enlisted in the armed forces and as industrial output ramped up to produce the goods needed for war. A number of government programs attempted to address the labor shortage, such as the Rosie the Riveter campaign that sought to draw married women into the workforce. One such effort that focused on immigration was the Bracero Program, which brought in guest workers from Mexico to fill positions in agriculture and in railroad construction and maintenance. The program was focused on temporary guest workers, not permanent immigration. As a result, only men were eligible and they were required to leave their families behind in Mexico while they worked in the United States.

Although their labor was desperately needed, braceros were not always treated well by their employers. To qualify to hire people in the program, employers were required to demonstrate both that they had a need for additional labor and that they would meet certain minimum standards for pay and accommodations. Despite those assurances, pay was low and accommodations were often quite poor. Although in theory employers could be inspected by government agents to make sure they were abiding by the terms of the agreement, this seldom brought any changes to workers’ conditions. In some cases, aggrieved braceros considered skipping out on their contracts in an attempt to find better living conditions or higher paying work, despite the fact that this would have endangered their legal status, since they were only approved to be in the U.S. so long as they were part of the program.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act

In this fashion, Mexican immigrants have experienced diametrically opposed attitudes towards their presence in the U.S. throughout the twentieth century, with some Americans perceiving them as a crucial component of the workforce (albeit one that was not going to be compensated commensurately with their importance), and others seeing them as a potential danger that threatened to take American jobs or change the linguistic, cultural, and racial face of the nation. They have thus been caught in a tug of war between those who want strict immigration laws, making it harder for migrants to enter, and those who want to hire them, providing incentives for illegal entry. Throughout, Mexican migrants have struggled with this dichotomy, building lives for themselves and their families and fighting for a work life that involves more security and dignity.

Hopefully this new legislation can be a step towards a more equitable treatment of Mexican American laborers, recognizing the contributions of those whose labor has been enriching America for years by legalizing their status, and creating opportunities for those who want to work in America, and whose work is so needed, to do so legally. But some immigration activists question the design of the bill. It would allow anyone who had performed at least 180 days of farm labor in the past two years to apply for “certified agricultural worker status,” making them eligible for permanent legal residence after completing another eight years of farm labor. If a worker can document that they have performed at least ten years of farm labor in the U.S., they would only have to work another four to be eligible. Some immigration advocates worry that these conditions are too stringent, and might be difficult for some to achieve. Older workers might find it challenging to complete even another four years in the fields, giving them no reward for the many years of farm labor they had performed. And not all workers can easily document work that was performed while in the country illegally, making it potentially challenging to prove that they have performed enough days of farm labor to qualify. Others worry that increasing the H-2A program for temporary workers, who are not free to seek other work and have to leave the country when their visa expires, would increase the power of agricultural employers over their workforce, resulting in further exploitation as “temporary” workers are brought in to do what are actually “permanent” jobs. But others remain hopeful that this bill, if passed, could potentially be a first step towards a pathway to citizenship and a more secure life for the migrants who perform this essential agricultural labor.


1Quoted in Roger Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005), 64.