Migrant Workers

Kathleen Mapes

in Latino Studies

ISBN: 9780199913701
Published online March 2013 | | DOI:
Migrant Workers

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  • History of the Americas
  • US Cultural History


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By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Mexican and Mexican American migrant workers played an increasingly important role in the growing American economy. Recruited primarily to work in agriculture, especially in the Southwest and, by the World War I era, the Midwest, migrant workers faced low wages, exploitive working conditions, poor living conditions, and often hostility from the surrounding rural communities. Although migrant workers often moved back and forth across the border and between states with relatively little interference during the early 20th century, the passage of the 1917 Immigration Act, which included a literacy clause and head tax, threatened to block this movement. Responding to the demands of Southwestern growers, during World War I the federal government exempted Mexican workers from the literacy clause and head tax and even helped to recruit workers, thereby initiating the United States’ first guestworker program. After this program disbanded in 1921, Mexicans and Mexican Americans continued to toil as migrant workers in the nation’s fields. During the Great Depression, Mexican migrant workers faced increasingly hostile conditions. Not only were they excluded from the New Deal legislation passed to protect the nation’s workers—the National Labor Relations Act (1935), the Social Security Act (1935), the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938)—but many were also repatriated back to Mexico. In spite of these hostile conditions, the 1930s witnessed a wave of labor organizing and protest. As the global economy recovered and the United States joined World War II, the nation’s growers once again clamored for a controlled labor force. Beginning in 1942 and lasting until 1964 (with various agreements), over four million Mexicans came to work in the United States under the Bracero Program. This program came to an end in 1964, because of the growing criticism of labor unions and civil-rights groups that protested the poor treatment of Mexican nationals as well as the vulnerable status of domestic farmworkers. The demise of the Bracero Program did not lead to the end of migrant labor. By the mid-1980s, large numbers of domestic and undocumented migrant workers were joined by Mexicans coming in under the auspices of the federal government’s H-2A visa program. The mid-1980s also saw the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (1986), which sought to tighten the border while offering amnesty to Mexican nationals and especially migrant workers who had long toiled in the United States. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, which in theory was supposed not only to promote free trade but also to lower emigration rates, to increase wages in Mexico, and to help create a more stable and democratic Mexico, has instead led to increased profits for corporate interests on both sides of the border, leaving Mexican farmers and farmworkers to pay the costs with lost jobs, rural depopulation, and increased emigration. Rather than tying the two nations together in an equal embrace, NAFTA has further undermined Mexico’s most vulnerable population.

Article.  7036 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; US Cultural History

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