Migrant Labor Made America Great – History Behind the US-Mexico Border Crisis

By: Bennett Siems
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The US Humanitarian Border Emergency, Part Two



The suffering of children at US Border Patrol detention facilities has understandably drawn intense media attention worldwide. Yet the plight of detained adults is equally troubling, and reveals much about the root causes of the humanitarian crisis at the US-Mexico border.

Recently, US Vice President Mike Pence visited detention facilities in the border town of McAllen, Texas. He encountered men crowded into cages, who motioned that they do not receive adequate food and demonstrated the cramped conditions under which they are expected to sleep:

During the two and a half years of the Trump presidency, problems at the US southern border have escalated to a point where almost everyone agrees that an emergency exists. However, the underlying issues are not new. Debates over how to best reform immigration policies have raged on in the US for decades.

One way to investigate why those debates have produced so little meaningful action is to abide by an old guideline of American journalism: When in doubt, follow the money.

For-profit private prison companies cashing in on the crisis

The detention of so many individuals and families who have crossed the US-Mexico border is costing US citizens millions of dollars per day. Not all of that money stays in government hands, however.

While overcrowded Border Patrol and ICE detention facilities tend to capture most of the headlines in media coverage, many detained immigrants are actually being held in private prisons. These facilities have long been controversial in the US, since they effectively attach a profit motive to criminal convictions and the detention of migrants. During his final year in office, President Barack Obama took steps to end private prison use in the country.

However, shortly after President Trump was inaugurated, his administration reversed the Obama policy. The American Conservative reports that US immigration enforcement agencies now have $700 million worth of contracts with two major US private prison firms. The CEO of one of these companies, CoreCivic, described the current situation to investors as “the most robust kind of sales environment we’ve seen in probably 10 years”.

As jarring as it might be to hear hungry men and crying children in cages described as a “sales environment”, the remark accurately sums up the grim business that these companies are in. More detentions mean higher profits. And private prison companies have donated millions to the re-election campaigns of key members of the US Congress to keep the business coming.

These companies are not the only ones whose fortunes are tied to the chaos and suffering at the US-Mexico border, however. Previously, we looked at how American gun traffickers reap big profits by contributing to Central American violence, which in turn drives many women and families to seek asylum in the US. Yet even their financial gains represent just a tiny fraction of the money being made off of border crossings.

Widespread economic impact of migrant labor

While asylum requests from Central Americans fleeing violence have increased dramatically in recent years, most of the men Pence encountered represent an entirely different group of migrants – laborers who came to the US to find work. In order to fully grasp how much money rides on US immigration policies, it is critical to understand the central role migrant labor has played in building the modern American economy.

If the US was at the peak of its greatness in the 1950s, as Trump has asserted, then a large share of the credit for that greatness belongs to workers who entered the US via the southern border. To follow the money in the present, The Millennial Source tracked it deep into America’s past.

Origins of the US Border Patrol: The “Chinese Problem”

When the first version of the US Border Patrol came into being in the early 1900s, Americans were not particularly concerned about Mexican or Central American immigrants. Primarily, the “mounted guards” (as patrolling agents were originally called) focused on apprehending Chinese immigrants, who had begun to use Mexico as a “back door” entry to the US in the wake of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

Signed by President Chester A. Arthur, this law prohibited new Chinese workers from entering the US, and denied the possibility of citizenship to Chinese immigrants already in the country. Seven years earlier, the Page Act had denied US entry to almost all Chinese women. Together, the two laws marked the end of the age of open borders for the US. To this day, Trump and other American politicians use the phrase “open borders” to stoke fears among the public.

Less than a decade before the US adopted this aggressive anti-Chinese stance, tens of thousands of Chinese laborers played a central role in the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. The project was a transformative event for the US economy, making it possible to ship over $50 million in freight annually from coast to coast by 1879.

Railroad work in the 1800s was arduous and dangerous, especially in the mountains. As US-born and European-born railroad workers began walking off the job or demanding higher wages, both the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies hired Chinese immigrants to take their places. Many of these immigrants had originally come to the US during the California Gold Rush of 1848-1855.

Central Pacific went on to recruit thousands of additional workers directly from China. By the time the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, Chinese laborers represented 90% of Central Pacific’s workforce.

In spite of the economic importance of the railroad, the workers who built it endured ongoing discrimination for decades. Rather than being celebrated as heroes, they were viewed as a threat to the livelihoods of native-born US citizens. In response to public fervor for stepped-up enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Act and other, newly enacted anti-immigrant laws, the US Border Patrol became a permanent government agency in 1924. 

The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, with the US Senate officially apologizing for this “regrettable chapter” in US history. The repeal and apology came just as a new era of migrant laborers making America great – and enduring widespread abuse in the process – was dawning. 


Immigration from Mexico to the US, 1890s-1930s

For most of the 1800s, Mexican immigration to the US was uncommon. Border crossing did occur with some frequency in Texas, which shares a 3100 km boundary with Mexico. However, the flow went both ways, with a number of people of Mexican heritage migrating to Mexico after Texas became a US state in 1845. After the US Civil War ended in 1865, white Americans also emigrated to Mexico, an event known as the “Southern Exodus”.

Later in the 1800s, as US mining and agricultural activities increased near the border, a greater number of Mexican laborers began coming north to work. From the 1890s through the 1920s, Mexican immigration to the US went through cycles of ebb and flow, depending on conditions within Mexico.

Most notably, the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 spread violence across the Mexican countryside, displacing many peasant farmers. Refugees and political exiles fled north. When the US economy boomed in the 1920s, greater numbers of Mexican workers left ravaged rural areas of their homeland to seek jobs on US soil. (Immigration from Central America was rare at this point due to sheer distance – countries to the south of Mexico are over 2500 km from the US border.)

A stretch of the Texas-Mexico border today, with US-maintained fence

Yet in spite of this increase in Mexican immigration, and rising discomfort among the US public with new immigrants generally, Mexicans and all North Americans were exempted from strict immigration quotas imposed by the US Congress during the 1920s.

Library of Congress historian Julia Young notes that many Americans viewed Mexican laborers more positively than other immigrant workers, partly because most of them stayed in the US only temporarily. Perhaps more importantly,

US farmers lobbied aggressively in the 1920s against limiting immigration from Mexico, claiming that they could not harvest crops without Mexican labor.

While many Mexican migrant workers entered the US through legal processes during this era, others came without documentation. For the most part, farmers and large-scale agricultural operations made little distinction between the two groups. However, as anti-immigrant sentiment rose nationwide, some US citizens began referring to undocumented Mexican migrants as “wetbacks”, a slur referring to the Rio Grande river crossing many of them undertook to enter Texas.

Rio Grande river

With the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the tide turned against migrant workers. Huge swaths of US farmland, including in the southwestern states of Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, were destroyed by drought and dust storms, and unemployment skyrocketed nationwide. Undocumented immigrants became a convenient scapegoat for widespread misery.

As the depression deepened, many Mexican laborers returned home voluntarily due to grim employment prospects in the US. Hundreds of thousands of others were deported by US government agencies in actions referred to as the Mexican Repatriation. Evidence suggests that over half of those deported were actually Mexican-Americans born on US soil, which made them US citizens under the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution.

However, it did not take long for the US to reverse course once again.

Less than a decade after the mass deportation of Mexican workers, the US government would engage in a monumental recruitment effort to bring them back.


A wartime labor force: The age of the Braceros begins

When the US entered World War II in 1941, the departure of millions of young men for battlefields overseas raised concerns about a potential labor shortage at home. The most famous American worker recruitment effort of the era was the Rosie the Riveter campaign, which brought millions of women into the US workforce, primarily in the defense industry.

However, the question of who would work the fields during the war prompted US eyes to turn southward to Mexico. Many Mexicans doubted the legitimacy of the US agricultural labor shortage, believing that US officials were exaggerating the crisis in order to legalize the exploitation of Mexican laborers. These suspicions were driven in part by memories of a 1917-1921 US-Mexico guest worker program that left many migrant workers penniless.

Regardless of whether the US was engaging in intentional deception, any shortage of farm labor in the 1940s was at least partly a result of the Mexican Repatriation of the previous decade.

When Mexico entered World War II in 1942, traveling to the US to work came to be seen as one of the most important contributions Mexicans could make to the war effort. After tense negotiations between the US and Mexican governments, the largest two-nation worker exchange program in world history was born. Officially, the arrangement was called the Mexican Farm Labor Program, but it would always be known as the Bracero program.

Literally meaning “one who uses his arms”, bracero is the Spanish word for a manual laborer. US residents understood the word as a reference to “strong arms” that would keep the nation fed during the war. Promoters of the program sometimes also referred to the workers as soldados del campo – soldiers of the field.

The Bracero program was officially launched in 1943, under an agreement that at least seemed to guarantee fair treatment of workers. The law prohibited discriminatory treatment of Braceros and required that they be provided with free transportation to and from work sites, free housing during their time of service, and adequate meals.

Bracero recruitment centers opened on the Mexican side of the border, with the largest in Chihuahua and Ciudad Juarez, both near the US city of El Paso, Texas. They were soon overwhelmed with applicants who endured a series of humiliations in the hope of being selected for the journey north.

Conditions endured by Bracero program applicants & workers

At the regional recruitment centers in Mexico, applicants were required to pay registration fees and present their birth certificates, along with two letters of recommendation – which were not easy for manual laborers to obtain. They were then interviewed and inspected. Those selected to continue the application process received an Alien Laborer Identification Card, commonly called a mica.

The mica entitled a worker to report to US inspection stations across the border. There, prospective Braceros were X-rayed for tuberculosis, stripped naked and sprayed with the highly toxic (and now banned) pesticide DDT. Further inspections by US labor contractors followed, along with additional interviews. With final acceptance came a second mica that granted a Bracero the legal right to remain in the US for the duration of his contract.

Photograph by Leonard Nadel, 1956, National Museum of American History.

Rejection from the program had devastating consequences. Many applicants had expended all their resources just to make it through the application process, and lacked the means to return home. With the stakes so high, bribing inspectors to obtain contracts became commonplace. Historians also estimate that for every Bracero, another Mexican worker entered the US without documentation and was hired “off the books”.

In spite of the legal protections they were guaranteed, life did not get any easier for Braceros once they reached job sites. Reports rapidly surfaced of overt discrimination, unpaid wages, inadequate meals and substandard living conditions. The work itself, known as “stoop labor” because of the posture it required, was exhausting and painful. Many workers developed back problems, partly from being forced to use short-handled hoes instead of standard-length tools.

Bracero worker stooping to use a short-handled hoe
Photograph by Leonard Nadel

The hardships reached levels at which many Braceros became willing to risk their livelihoods by going on strike.

Mexican reservations about the Bracero program

From the beginning, the Mexican government expressed concern about the Bracero program negatively affecting life south of the border. In addition to problems caused by family separations and the depletion of Mexico’s own labor force, Mexican officials worried about maltreatment of Braceros and the chaos that another Mexican Repatriation could unleash. However, many Bracero program applicants viewed the US with greater trust, often blaming the Mexican government for the poverty that drove them to apply.

Above all, Mexico feared unconstrained emigration to the US, and resulting US exploitation of undocumented workers. Mexican representatives repeatedly demanded assurances from the US government that the Bracero program would not exist in parallel with unregulated hiring of migrants without mica credentials, and US representatives repeatedly dodged the issue.

The situation worsened in 1946. With the war over, there was a movement in the US to end the Bracero program. Once again, however, the powerful agricultural lobby persuaded the government to continue supporting the use of Mexican labor. The program did go forward, but now with lax regulation and most management responsibilities left in the hands of individual employers.

As former Bracero Jaun Zacate relates in the 2007 documentary Harvest of Loneliness, conditions became so bad that many workers would eat banana peels, melon rinds, and even newspapers. In response to these realities, which sparked a rising number of Bracero worker strikes, Mexico officially withdrew its support for the program around 1948.

It was not until the US Congress passed Public Law 78 in 1951, with Mexican government approval, that the Bracero program fully returned to official status. The law included several new assurances of worker protections, including a requirement that Braceros be paid the prevailing wage of the region in which they worked. However, the law also prohibited Braceros from unionizing, striking or negotiating for higher wages.

Furthermore, the US never honored Mexico’s demand for sanctions against employers who bypassed the Bracero program to hire undocumented workers. A 1952 US law made it a federal felony to “harbor or conceal” undocumented immigrants. However, the law’s Texas Proviso stated that hiring these immigrants as workers did not constitute “harboring or concealing” them.

In 1954, initially with support from the Mexican government, US law enforcement engaged in Operation Wetback, another large-scale deportation of Mexican migrant workers. Yet the employers who had illegally hired the uncertified workers went largely unpunished.

In spite of all the controversy and abuse, the Bracero program would continue for another 10 years. Over the life of the program, 4.6 million work contracts were signed, with perhaps 1.5 million different workers participating. The number of additional, undocumented Mexican laborers who were hired illegally is not known.


US concerns about the Bracero program

Many US residents had objections of their own to the Bracero agreement, primarily centered on the potential impacts of the program on US-born workers. In addition to its wage regulations, Public Law 78 contained language prohibiting the use of Braceros to replace striking farm workers. Yet in spite of these rules, the US public suspected that agricultural employers hired Braceros specifically to keep farm wages low, and to prevent newly forming farm labor unions from gaining power.

Others feared that Braceros would stockpile US currency and carry it out of the country at the end of their contracts, weakening the US economy. These concerns were widespread enough that the California Growers Association distributed a promotional documentary film called Why Braceros? in 1959. The film attempted to bolster support for the Bracero program by highlighting the value of Bracero labor to the US economy as a whole.

The Braceros and the Green Revolution Economic Boom

As controversy over the Bracero program simmered in the 1950s, the US was coming to the forefront of the global Green Revolution. This was not a pro-environment, conservation-centered movement, as today’s usage of the word “green” might suggest. Rather, it was an era of dramatic growth in the productivity of farmland, in large part due to increased use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

With rapidly rising crop yields came a greater need for farm laborers, making the work of Braceros more valuable than ever. As economist Justin Yifu Lin points out, food production plays a critical role in transforming national economies. During the 1950s, the US achieved a level of food security that the world had never seen, helping to power the nation’s rise to decades of global economic dominance in manufacturing and technology.

Behind it all stooped the Braceros, working almost invisibly across America’s endless acres of farmland. Some of the many migrant workers who suffer discrimination and threats of deportation in the US today – including some of the men called “illegal” and held in cages – are the children and grandchildren of Braceros.

The original Braceros at 80

Now in their 80s, some former Braceros have never given up the fight to attain both the recognition and the compensation that they fairly earned. They point out that funds were deducted from their Bracero paychecks, purportedly to provide them with retirement benefits and to fund savings accounts that would be made available to them upon their return to Mexico.

Having never received the money, they are now demanding “restitution of wages unlawfully stolen from them by the Mexican and US governments”. Still, many of them look back on their service as “soldiers of the field” with pride, in spite of all the hardships. Former Bracero Jesus Jacinto talks about how much he liked his US employers, even though when the day’s work was done, “The rest of the day you cried. You were in such pain.”

Indeed, many Braceros who were fortunate enough to gain legal US residency or citizenship after their contracts ended express gratitude to the country that profited so greatly from their labors:

1964 – Bracero program ends, US laborers refuse the work

By the mid-1960s, the US was readying itself for a large expansion of its homegrown labor force. The older members of the postwar baby boom generation were graduating from high school, with tens of millions of younger siblings soon to follow. As fears rose that there would not be enough jobs available for the baby boomers, US public sentiment against the Bracero program reached a tipping point. After 22 years in existence, the program officially ended in 1964.

Yet in spite of the promise of millions of native-born US workers becoming available to them, food growers still lobbied to extend the program. As they had in the 1920s, they claimed that their crops would rot in the fields without Mexican labor. The same complaint still surfaces in the US today anytime that large-scale deportation of undocumented immigrants is proposed.

Responding to these objections, US Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz launched the 1965 A-TEAM project: Athletes in Temporary Employment as Agricultural Manpower. The project involved recruiting boys in their late teens, especially those with athletic prowess or aspirations, to work as crop pickers across the US.

Over 18,000 boys signed up for the program initially, but fewer than 3,500 of them ever worked the fields. Most of those who did stoop to harvest strawberries, lettuce and other crops did not last long at it; many walked off the job after just a few days. Former US President George W. Bush has said repeatedly that migrant laborers do “the jobs that Americans won’t do.” The dismal failure of the A-TEAM project is a case in point. The program was cancelled after less than a year.

One of the few living Americans who worked the fields during the A-TEAM’s year of existence was Hollywood director Randy Carter. In an interview with NPR, Carter had harsh words for President Trump and anyone else who might demonize today’s migrant workers:

“We went through something that you can’t explain to anyone, unless you were out there in that friggin’ heat. It could only be lived. There’s nothing you can say to us that [migrant workers] are rapists or they’re lazy. We know the work they do. And they do it all their lives, not just one summer for a couple of months. And they raise their families on it. Anyone ever talks bad on them, I always think, ‘Keep talking, buddy, because I know what the real deal is.’”

Aftermath of the Bracero program shutdown

Once again, hundreds of thousands of Mexican laborers had been sent out of the US. And once again, the booming industry that they helped to build wanted them back. Now, however, there was no hope of a legally sanctioned guest worker program gaining approval in both the US and Mexico.

By 1966, a new age of widespread unauthorized border crossing, and widespread exploitation of undocumented migrant workers, had dawned in the US.


Up Next: US dependence on migrant labor continues and expands across multiple industries, PLUS how history shaped the modern era of failed policies, controversial ICE raids and a border emergency.