By David Bacon
November 25, 2019
Originally posted at The American Prospect
Ramon Torres, president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, the new independent union for farmworkers in Washington state, says his experience helping H2-A workers protest labor violations makes him doubt the bill will change their situation. “Employers will continue to have the power to punish and deport these workers if they resist,” he says. “We know they’ll do this because it’s what they’re doing now. Growers complain they can’t find enough workers, but the reason they can’t is that conditions and wages are so bad we have people living in garages and sleeping under trees. Organizing the union is the only thing that has worked to change conditions here for the better, but there is no protection for the right to organize in this bill.”
In Chicano and Mexican families, the grandfathers who came to the United States as braceros (and almost all braceros were men) are mostly gone now. These farmworkers were considered only temporary migrant laborers, yet despite being denied the right to settle in this country and raise families, thousands of them eventually did just that. Their perseverance created homes and communities throughout the Southwest. From the program’s inception in 1942 to its abolition in 1964, bracero labor produced enormous wealth for the growers who employed them.
That wealth had a price. Braceros were almost all young men, recruited into a program that held them in labor camps, often fenced behind barbed wire, separate from the population around them. When their contracts ended, they were summarily shipped back to Mexico. Growers used braceros to replace local farmworkers, themselves immigrants from Mexico and the Philippines, in order to keep wages low and often to break strikes. To bring their families here, braceros had to work many seasons for a grower who might finally help them get legal status. Others left the camps and lived without legal status for years.
In 1958, economist Henry Anderson charged in a report, (for which growers got the University of California to fire him) that, “Injustice is built into the present system, and no amount of patching and tinkering will make of it a just system … Foreign contract labor programs in general will, by their very nature, wreak harm upon the lives of the persons directly and indirectly involved, and upon the human rights our Constitution still holds to be self-evident and inalienable.”
Anderson’s call helped lead to the abolition of the bracero program, but his warning cannot be buried safely in the past. Today, contract labor in agriculture is mushrooming again, with workers brought mostly from Mexico, but also from Central America and the Caribbean. States are beginning to pass laws to deal with its impact, and a new bill in Congress does what Anderson cautioned against—expand the contract labor program for agricultural labor—in exchange for the promise of legal immigration status for some undocumented farmworkers.
Debate over today’s contract labor program unfolds in a virulently anti-immigrant atmosphere, much like that of the 1950s. Many supporters of proposals to benefit undocumented migrants believe that only major concessions can give such proposals a realistic chance of enactment. But the bracero program’s history, during a similar period of deportations and nativist hysteria, may provide an idea of what the future might look like if such compromises become law.
In the Cold War era of the 1950s and early 1960s, the U.S. government mounted huge immigration raids. Farm labor activists of that era charged they were intended to produce a shortage of workers in the fields. Fay Bennett, executive secretary of the National Sharecroppers Fund, reported that in 1954, “the domestic labor force had been driven out … In a four-month period, 300,000 Mexican illegals [sic] were arrested and deported, or frightened back across the border.”
All told, 1.1 million people were deported to Mexico that year, in the infamous “Operation Wetback.” The bracero program, begun in 1942, was already in place, organizing the recruitment of contract laborers in Mexico for U.S. farmers. As the raids drove undocumented workers back to Mexico, the government then relaxed federal requirements on housing, wages, and food for braceros.
In 1956 alone, 445,197 braceros were brought to work on U.S. farms, 153,000 just in California. They made up almost a quarter of the 2.07 million wage workers on U.S. farms that year, according to the Department of Agriculture. “The availability of braceros held down farm worker earnings,” says University of California, Davis agricultural economist Philip Martin. In the decade of the 1950s, median farm wages rose from 85 cents an hour to $1.20, while wages in the cities took a bigger jump, from $1.60 to $2.60.
By law, bracero wages were not supposed to undermine wages for resident workers, and growers were supposed to offer jobs to local workers before they were allowed to bring in braceros. But activists “accused certain large growers of offering wages lower than domestic migrants will accept, in order to create an artificial labor shortage and justify a request for Mexican nationals,” wrote H.B. Shaffer in a 1959 report. The bracero program “tends to displace those [resident] workers rather than meet real labor shortages.”
Bennett agreed: “The alleged domestic labor shortage in the [rural] area is artificially created by pay rates too low for decent living.” The activists of those years who protested included future leaders of the United Farm Workers Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Larry Itliong, as well as leading community organizers Bert Corona and Ernesto Galarza.
Today’s labor picture on U.S. farms has changed surprisingly little from that of the 1950s. Industrial agriculture in the Southwest and along the Pacific coast relies on Mexican labor, as it has for a century. About 2.4 million people presently work for wages in U.S. agriculture, a slight increase from 1956. Mexicans made up the majority of farmworkers then, and today are two-thirds of the workforce. U.S. immigration law and its enforcement have never eliminated Mexicans from the workforce, but indirectly control the conditions under which they live and work. Mexican academic Jorge Bustamante argues that a primary purpose of U.S. immigration law historically has been—and still is—to regulate the price of Mexican labor in the United States.