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.

What 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.

The 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.

The 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 antecedents.

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.

The Latinos


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.

But 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.

For the most part, these Mexicans came to work in the fields, following the ripening crops northward to Canada through the summer and autumn months.

 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 against discrimination.

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

 frequently returned to see relatives or visit the homes of their youth, and 'relatively few became U.S. citizens. Indeed, in many Mexican-American

communities, it was a badge of dishonor to apply for U.S. citizenship.

      The 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 Los Angeles 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 politics.


     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.

     California 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.


     California 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 and Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). California's 1989 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, with Mexico 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.


     California's 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.

     California agriculture's economic importance can be seen in 1994-1995, when the nine leading agricultural counties (Fresno, Tulare. Kern, Monterey, Merced.

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.

     Clearly, 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 immigration.


     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.


      Most Americans 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.

     The popular 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 policy.