Significance of Mexican
Immigration and its Relationship to the Agricultural Community
The New Immigration
Newcomers continued to flow into modern America. They washed ashore in waves
that numbered nearly I million persons per year in the 1980s and 1990s-the
heaviest inflow of immigrants in America's experience. In striking
contrast to the historic pattern of immigration, Europe contributed far fewer people
than did the teeming countries of Asia and Latin America, especially Mexico.
prompted this new migration to America? The truth is that the newest
immigrants came for many of the same reasons as the old. They typically left
countries where populations were growing rapidly and where agricultural and
industrial revolutions were shaking people loose from old habits of
life-conditions almost identical to those in nineteenth-century Europe. And they came to America, as previous immigrants had
done, in search of jobs and economic opportunity.
Southwest, from Texas to California, felt the immigrant impact especially
sharply, as Mexican migrants-by far the largest contingent of modern
immigrants-concentrated heavily in that region. By the turn of the century,
Latinos made up nearly one-third of the population in Texas, Arizona, and California, and almost half in New Mexico-a population shift that
amounted to a demographic reconquista of the lands lost by Mexico in the war of 1846.
size and geographic concentration of the Hispanic population in the Southwest
had few precedents in the history of American immigration. Most previous groups
had been so thinly scattered across the land that they had little choice but to
learn English and make their way in the larger American society, however much
they might have longed to preserve their native language and customs. But
Mexican-Americans might succeed in creating a truly bicultural zone in the
booming southwestern states, especially since their mother culture lies just
next door and is easily accessible-another factor that differentiates this
modern immigrant community from its nineteenth-century European and Asian
Some old-stock Americans
worried about the capacity of the modern United States to absorb these new
immigrants. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 attempted to choke
off illegal entry by penalizing employers of undocumented aliens and by
granting amnesty to many of those already here. Anti-immigrant sentiment flared
especially sharply in California in the wake of an economic
recession in the early 1990s. California voters approved a ballot
initiative that attempted to deny benefits, including education, to illegal
immigrants, though courts blocked the effort. Congress in 1996 restricted
access to some welfare benefits for legal
immigrants who arrived after that year.
Today Mexican food is handed
through fast-food drive up windows in all fifty states, Spanish language
broadcasts fill the airwaves, and the Latino community
has its own telephone book,
the Spanish Yellow Pages. Latinos send representatives
to Congress and mayors to city hall, record hit songs, paint murals, and teach
history. Latinos, among the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. population, include Puerto
Ricans, frequent voyagers between their native island
and northeastern cities; Cubans, many of them refugees from the communist dictatorship
of Fidel Castro, concentrated in Miami and southern Florida; and Central Americans,
fleeing the ravages of civil war in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
the most populous group of Latinos derives from Mexico. The first significant
numbers of Mexicans began heading for El Norte ('`the North") around 1910, when the upheavals of the
Mexican Revolution stirred and shuffled the Mexican population into more or
less constant flux. Their northward passage was briefly interrupted during the
Great Depression, when thousands of Mexican nationals were deported. But
immigration resumed during World War II, and since then a
steady flow cf legal immigrants has passed
through border checkpoints, joined by countless millions of their undocumented
countrymen and countrywomen stealing across the frontier on moonless nights.
the most part, these Mexicans came to work in the fields, following the
ripening crops northward to Canada through the summer and autumn
In winter many headed back to Mexico, but some gathered instead in
the cities of the Southwest-El Paso, Los Angeles, Houston, and San Bernardino. There they found regular
work, even if lack of skills and racial discrimination often confined them to manual
labor. City jobs might pay less than farm labor, but the work was steady and
offered the prospect of a stable home. Houses may have been shabby in the
barrios, but these Mexican neighborhoods provided a sense of togetherness, a
place to raise a family, and the chance to join a mutual-aid society. Such
societies, or Mutualistas, sponsored
baseball leagues, helped the sick and disabled, and defended their members
Mexican immigrants lived so
close to the border that their native country acted like a powerful magnet,
drawing them back time and time again. Mexicans
returned to see relatives or visit the homes of their youth, and 'relatively
few became U.S. citizens. Indeed, in many
communities, it was a badge of dishonor
to apply for U.S. citizenship.
Mexican government, likewise influenced by the proximity of the two countries,
intervened in the daily lives of its nationals in America, further discouraging them
from becoming citizens of their adopted country. As Anglo reformers attempted
to Americanize the immigrants in the 1910s and 1920s, the Mexican consulate in
launched a Mexicanization program. The consulate
sponsored parades on Cinco de
Mayo ("Fifth of May"),
celebrating Mexico's defeat of a French army at
the Battle of Puebla in 1892, and opened special
Spanish-language schools for children. Since World War II, the American-born
generation has carried on the fight for political representation, economic
opportunity, and cultural preservation.
Fresh arrivals from Mexico and from the other Latin
American nations daily swell the Latino communities across America. The census of 2000 revealed
that Latinos are now the largest minority group in the United States, surpassing African-Americans.
As the United States heads into the twenty-first
century, it is taking on a pronounced Spanish accent, although Latinos'
reticence to vote in elections has retarded their influence on American
Immigration to the United
States is generated primarily by the demand
for labor in this country. Nowhere is this fact better demonstrated than in the
dependence of California
agribusiness on immigrant labor. Various factors are involved in the
agriculture-immigration relationship: the role of state and federal policy, the
nature of the agricultural industry itself, and the domestic consumption
patterns of California and global
labor markets. This analysis will focus on the agricultural labor demands
internal to California, such as
the increased demand for perishable crops, particularly fresh fruits and
vegetables, and the resulting implications for the labor. Another important
factor that needs to be analyzed is the role played by state
policy-specifically, provisions in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act
(IRCA)-in the labor needs of agribusiness. Understandably, poverty
and/or oppression contribute to immigration and migration practices, but the
economic forces that "attract" or "pull" immigrants into
the United States
also need understanding. Knowledge of the labor demands reveals the connections
between immigration and California
agriculture, while shedding light on debates on immigration, especially the
controversy over Proposition 187.
Dependency on immigrant labor characterizes many California
industries. In addition to the agricultural sector, the service and
manufacturing industries rely heavily on cheap immigrant labor. These
industries provide and account for over half of the jobs held by legal and
illegal immigrants. The agricultural industry, however, most dramatically
illustrates the internal demand for Mexican labor and the measures taken by the
state to fulfill this demand. The significance of Mexican immigrant labor for California
agriculture has roots that go back to the turn of the century. This analysis
clearly demonstrates the ongoing significance of Mexicans in agriculture.
has led the nation in farm production and income for almost five consecutive
decades, producing half of the nation's fruits, nuts and vegetables. Gross farm
income is now over $20 billion annually. Agriculture supports, directly or
indirectly. 1.2 million jobs in California,
and exports over $11 billion worth of crops annually. Thus, the significance of
exploitable Mexican labor for California agriculture ensures lower production
costs and higher profits, this cost-efficiency measure has contributed to
California's distinctive competitiveness and economic success. Mexican immigrant
labor is most important in the specialty/perishable crop industry. It was
precisely the recognition of immigrant labor's significance that guided the
drafting of special provisions in IRCA intended to assure a reliable supply of
legal immigrants for the perishable crop industry.
agriculture needs to stay competitive both nationally and internationally
because it must he integrated into the global economy. California
must keep specializing in foreign trade if it wants to continue profiting economically,
because about "10 percent of all U.S.
agriculture exports are shipped by California
farmers," and expanding trade will ensure U.S.
economic growth and stability. Recognizing the great profit potential, California
has established a strong agricultural export market since the 1960s. California
agribusiness exports primarily to the Pacific Rim, but
has been expanding trade with Canada
under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). California's
exports to agricultural markets abroad consisted of 52 percent to the Pacific
Rim, 0.2 percent to the European community, 9.6 percent to Canada,
receiving a relatively small 1.3 percent and other countries accounting
for the remaining 17.6 percent. This global picture has great implications for
the expansion of California
agriculture, specifically as the demands for fresh fruits and vegetables
continues to increase.
crops demand labor-intensive work, especially at the time of harvest, and more
so for so-called specialty crops such as strawberries, avocados, melons,
almonds and cauliflower. These crops are highly perishable and require a
predictable source of labor in order to be marketed properly and profitably.
Acreage for these crops has historically been high and has increased in recent years .
The development of modern Californian agriculture can be viewed by
following the rising demand for fresh fruits and vegetables, especially for
specialty/perishable crops the
increased acreage devoted to these crops and the increased demand for labor.
The period from 1960 to 1989 is characterized by a 200 percent
increase in the acreage devoted to the fruit and vegetable industry. There has
been a steady upward trend in acreage increase for vegetables, fruits such as
melons, and nut crops. Much of this expansion occurred between 1981 and 1990
due to the increasing national and international demands for these crops. From
1987 to 1990 there was an increasing trend in acreage harvested for vegetables
and melons, and 1988 marked a peak in acreage harvested for fruit and nut
crops. Unquestionably, the more acreage devoted to specialty crops, the more
labor is needed. Bear in mind that these specialty crops yield high profits
nationally and internationally.
agriculture's economic importance can be seen in 1994-1995, when the nine
leading agricultural counties (Fresno,
Tulare. Kern, Monterey,
Stanislaus, San Joaquin. Riverside
and San Diego) reported at least $1
billion in annual farm-product sales, and 33 of the 58 California
counties had an agricultural output greater than $100 million.14l. As in the
rest of California, these nine
counties received their share of legal and illegal immigrants since the passage
of IRCA. Given the changing demographics attributed to IRCA's
agricultural legalizing provisions, the significance of Mexican-horn workers in
various industries, particularly in agriculture, are evident. Even before IRCA,
the agricultural industry has been absorbing the highest percentage (more than
40 percent) of Mexican immigrants.
As evident in the 1987 IRCA Hearings in California,
farmers reported that IRCA would create more labor shortages, greatly damaging
the perishable crop industry. For this reason, IRCA's
Special Agricultural Worker (SAW) program and the Replenishment Agricultural
Worker (RAW) program were measures the state took to ensure that farmers
received an adequate labor supply during the peak of intensive labor seasons.
Consequently, politicians acknowledged a dependency of California's
agribusiness on immigrant labor for its continual operation and success.
Because past and present immigration reforms have had the profound effect of
attracting so many immigrants to the agricultural sector, it becomes easier and
more convenient for the state and the industry to continue these set patterns
and practices, which can be called "addictive." Thus, both growers
and other political interests recognized the need for a tremendous labor force,
especially for the harvest season. They understandably supported legislation
that assured the supply of a predictable and exploitable labor source.
immigrant labor is a crucial element to California's
success in agribusiness. The signing of IRCA acknowledges the significance of
and confirms California's
dependency on immigrant labor. Most importantly, when public pressure mounted
for lessening the flow of illegal aliens, farmers made sure that their needs
were addressed by facilitating the speedy legalization of illegal labor. California
agriculture is, as noted by Juan Vicente Palerm,
"addicted to immigration” because it needs immigration to
ensure the agricultural industry's continued profitability.
Legal immigration is crucial to a key
sector of California's economy,
and by extension, to the competitive position of U.S.
global economic interest. Therefore, greatly reducing or eliminating legal immigration ,would profoundly effect the U.S.
economy. For this reason, California
agriculture is "addicted" to the use of immigrant labor. Dick Armey
(R - Texas), recognized this point when he rhetorically said. "Should we
reduce legal immigration? Well. I'm hard-pressed to think of a single problem
that would he solved by shutting off the supply of willing and eager new
Americans. If anything... we should he thinking about increasing legal
The history of scapegoating immigrants has roots which extend to when California
became a state in 1850. For example, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act is
reminiscent of the present, anti-immigration Proposition 187. Proposition 187
fails to substantiate the alleged problems illegal immigrants bring to California's
economy. As this analysis has illustrated, illegal immigrants in California
are "pulled" by the agriculture industry and encouraged by the state.
Ignorance of the internal economic and political processes of California
agriculture has led to the misconception that immigrants are attracted by
welfare, health, and educational programs.
patriotically believe new immigrants come for the same "reasons that had
propelled their predecessors: to escape poverty, hopelessness or oppression, to seek economic opportunities
and to live in freedom. Similarly, they believe that "This huge influx of
people can be seen as the latest affirmation of American values, of the global
allure exercised by the ideals on which the nation was founded..” However, this fair-weathered sentiment has
recently shifted from moral acceptance of immigrants to emphasis placed on his
or her socioeconomic liability.
misconception of the roles played by immigrants in this country demonstrates a
profound ignorance of the "pull" economic forces that dictate California's
agricultural dependency on immigrant labor, and ultimately define immigration