In 1975, I volunteered for an organization called Migrants in Action. It was an advocacy group for the Mexican migrant workers who worked in the fields from Texas to Minnesota and all across the USA. This got me interested in learning more about these migrant workers. I was in college at the time and decided to apply for an independent study to write a research paper on migrant workers in the USA. It was approved and I spent six weeks doing research and writing the paper.
Part of my research took me to the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas. I don’t remember the details, there was a lot of legal jargon in my paper but it boiled down to: Things were not Good for the Mexican Migrant Worker. Here is a timeline:
- 1920: The Bracero Program is born. This was a contract that allowed for workers to bring their families with them, stated the pay rate, work schedule, where they would work and their legal status. Of course this contract was written in English.
- 1924: The US Border Patrol was created and the “Illegal Alien” is born
- 1942: World War II creates job vacancies. The Bracero Treaty was signed and this opened the door again to Mexican laborers. Between 1942 and 1964 four million Mexican farm workers came to the USA. Again the contracts were written in English and many braceros would sign them without knowing what their rights were or were not. At the end of their contract they had to return to Mexico. As World War II ended, the jobs were taken over by returning veterans or workers displaced from wartime industries. The program ended in 1964.
- 1966: Cesar Chavez leads a 250-mile march to Sacramento, California, to bring attention to the mistreatment of farm workers.
- 1975: The California Labor Relations Act was passed; it was the first law that protected the rights of organizations of farm workers.
Today many of migrant workers are second or third generation families who have their US citizenship. It is also possible to enter the country legally through the Guest Worker program. Sometimes people will stay after their contract ends hoping for additional work and a better life. In this way they open themselves up to all kinds of abuse and injustice because technically they do not exist. But even people with citizenship are living in poverty under horrible conditions.
There is a new documentary film called The Harvest/ La Cosecha which follows three children in a migrant worker family. There are 400,000 children in the USA who work long hours seven days a week picking the food that ends up on your table. The film in and of itself is an advocacy for this group of undervalued and mostly “invisible” people.