A Brief History of Guestworkers In America

Foreign-born workers have been significant contributors to the U.S. economy for centuries.

From the early 1800s until the outbreak of World War I, millions of European immigrants — Irish, British, Germans, Italians, Scandinavians, Russians, Hungarians and others — arrived in the United States, and their labor helped fuel the country’s economic and geographic expansion. For most of this period, under the Naturalization Act of 1790, the borders were open and there were no numerical limits on immigration. The first major attempt to regulate or stem the flow of these workers came in 1882, when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to ban the employment of Chinese laborers.

During the latter half of the 1800s, following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, tens of thousands of migrant workers from Mexico began arriving. Unlike their European and Asian counterparts, they were able to move freely across the border to temporary jobs in ranching, farming, mining and other industries, and then, in many cases, back home again. The establishment of the U.S. Border Patrol in 1924 made access to jobs in the United States more difficult for Mexican workers, however, and for the first time they were seen as “illegal aliens.”5 But there remained no numerical limits on legal immigration from Mexico until 1965.

World War I brought migration from Europe largely to a halt and created a greater demand for Mexican labor. Soon afterward, the Great Depression arrived and Mexican workers were seen as a threat to American jobs. More than 500,000 people, including some United States citizens, were forcibly deported.

The onset of World War II created another labor shortage, and Mexican workers were again called upon to fill the void.

The Braceros

In 1942, the U.S. State Department reached a bilateral agreement with Mexico creating the bracero6 program, which Congress later approved. To assuage critics, proponents of the program asserted that Mexicans, who had been deported en masse just a few years earlier, were easily returnable.7 This program was designed initially to bring in a few hundred experienced laborers to harvest sugar beets in California. Although it started as a small program, at its peak it drew more than 400,000 workers a year across the border. A total of about 4.5 million jobs had been filled by Mexican citizens by the time the bracero program was abolished in 1964.

Interestingly, the program had many significant written legal protections, providing workers with what historian Cindy Hahamovitch, an expert on guestworker programs, has called “the most comprehensive farm labor contract in the history of American agriculture.”8 Under this program:

  • Employers were required to have individual contracts with workers under government supervision;
  • Workers had to be provided housing that would comply with minimum standards;
  • Workers had to be paid either a minimum wage or prevailing wage, whichever was higher;
  • If employers failed to pay the required wages, the U.S. government would be required to support the workers;
  • Employers had to offer at least 30 days of work; and
  • Transportation costs were to be shared by the workers, the growers and the government.

But the bracero program did not look so rosy in practice. Mexican workers, who generally did not read English, were often unaware of contractual guarantees. And there were numerous reports of employers shortchanging workers — just as in today’s H-2 guestworker program.

The Mexican workers, who were called braceros, also had 10% of their pay withheld, ostensibly to pay for a Social Security-type pension plan. The money was to be deposited into a Mexican bank on behalf of the workers. It was never paid, however. Several lawsuits have been filed to recover what is now estimated to be hundreds of millions of dollars owed to Mexican workers.

In 1956, labor organizer Ernesto Galarza’s book Stranger in Our Fields was published, drawing attention to the conditions experienced by braceros. The book begins with this statement from a worker: “In this camp, we have no names. We are called only by numbers.” The book concluded that workers were lied to, cheated and “shamefully neglected.” The U.S. Department of Labor officer in charge of the program, Lee G. Williams, described the program as a system of “legalized slavery.”

The availability of braceros undermined the ability of U.S. workers to demand higher wages. During the 1950s, growers brought in braceros when their U.S. workers either went on strike or merely threatened to do so. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Cesar Chavez mounted farmworker protests over the program and later said that organizing the United Farm Workers would have been impossible had the bracero program not been abolished in 1964. The grape strike in which the union was born, in fact, began the following year.9

The bracero program is now widely believed to have contributed greatly to patterns of unauthorized immigration to the United States from Mexico.

After the bracero program was dismantled in 1964, foreign workers could still be imported for agricultural work under the H-2 sections of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The H-2 program had been created in 1943 when the Florida sugar cane industry obtained permission to hire Caribbean workers to cut sugar cane on temporary visas. The appalling conditions experienced by sugar cane cutters have been well-documented.10 In one well-publicized incident, on November 21, 1986, Caribbean H-2 sugar cane cutters stopped work on a large sugar plantation in south Florida, objecting to the work conditions. Workers reported that the company had tried to pay a rate lower than what was promised in the work contract, and more than 300 workers refused to go to work as a result. The company called in the police, who used guns and dogs to force workers onto buses, on which they were removed from the camp and deported. This incident became known as the “dog war.”11 It has come to symbolize for many people the potential for extreme abuse in a guestworker program that permits employers to control the worker’s right to remain in the United States.

The H-2 program was revised in 1986 as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which divided it into the H-2A agricultural program and the H-2B non-agricultural program. There are no annual numerical limits on H-2A visas. The annual limit on H-2B visas is currently 66,000.12 In 2011, the last year for which data are available, the United States issued about 55,000 H-2A visas and about 51,000 H-2B visas. The countries sending the most workers to the United States under these programs were Mexico, Jamaica and Guatemala; about 80% are Mexican.13

As will be shown in this report, this current guestworker system is plagued by some of the same problems as the discredited bracero program.