Latino Studies Migrant Workers
Kathleen Mapes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0071


By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Mexican and Mexican American migrant workers played an increasingly important role in the growing American economy. Recruited primarily to work in agriculture, especially in the Southwest and, by the World War I era, the Midwest, migrant workers faced low wages, exploitive working conditions, poor living conditions, and often hostility from the surrounding rural communities. Although migrant workers often moved back and forth across the border and between states with relatively little interference during the early 20th century, the passage of the 1917 Immigration Act, which included a literacy clause and head tax, threatened to block this movement. Responding to the demands of Southwestern growers, during World War I the federal government exempted Mexican workers from the literacy clause and head tax and even helped to recruit workers, thereby initiating the United States’ first guestworker program. After this program disbanded in 1921, Mexicans and Mexican Americans continued to toil as migrant workers in the nation’s fields. During the Great Depression, Mexican migrant workers faced increasingly hostile conditions. Not only were they excluded from the New Deal legislation passed to protect the nation’s workers—the National Labor Relations Act (1935), the Social Security Act (1935), the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938)—but many were also repatriated back to Mexico. In spite of these hostile conditions, the 1930s witnessed a wave of labor organizing and protest. As the global economy recovered and the United States joined World War II, the nation’s growers once again clamored for a controlled labor force. Beginning in 1942 and lasting until 1964 (with various agreements), over four million Mexicans came to work in the United States under the Bracero Program. This program came to an end in 1964, because of the growing criticism of labor unions and civil-rights groups that protested the poor treatment of Mexican nationals as well as the vulnerable status of domestic farmworkers. The demise of the Bracero Program did not lead to the end of migrant labor. By the mid-1980s, large numbers of domestic and undocumented migrant workers were joined by Mexicans coming in under the auspices of the federal government’s H-2A visa program. The mid-1980s also saw the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (1986), which sought to tighten the border while offering amnesty to Mexican nationals and especially migrant workers who had long toiled in the United States. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, which in theory was supposed not only to promote free trade but also to lower emigration rates, to increase wages in Mexico, and to help create a more stable and democratic Mexico, has instead led to increased profits for corporate interests on both sides of the border, leaving Mexican farmers and farmworkers to pay the costs with lost jobs, rural depopulation, and increased emigration. Rather than tying the two nations together in an equal embrace, NAFTA has further undermined Mexico’s most vulnerable population.

General Overviews

Carey McWilliams is often considered the “founding father” of migrant labor studies. Working as a journalist and lawyer, McWilliams played a central role in bringing to public light the rise of industrial agriculture and hardship and racism suffered by migrant workers in general and Mexican and Mexican American workers more specifically. McWilliams 1976 (originally published in 1942) called into question romanticized notions of rural America and the myth of the agricultural ladder. McWilliams’s work, however, was preceded by other scholars, including economist Paul S. Taylor, who spent the late 1920s and early 1930s traveling throughout the Southwest and parts of the East and Midwest as he documented the plight of Mexicans and collected data that have proved essential to succeeding generations of scholars (Taylor 1928–1934). By the 1970s and 1980s, a number of important scholarly works on migrant workers appeared, including Reisler 1976, a historical study of immigration and immigration politics, and Majka and Majka 1982, an overview of agribusiness and migrant labor in California. In the latter work, the authors explore not only the experiences of Chinese and Japanese agricultural workers and the Industrial Workers of the World but also the experiences of Mexican workers from World War I through to the 1970s, including discussions of the Bracero Program and the rise of the United Farm Workers (UFW). Shifting the focus to the ways that Mexican officials, both in Mexico and in the United States, perceived and reacted to the migration of Mexican nationals, Cardoso 1980 offered a more international and dynamic explanation of Mexican migration, migrant labor, and ensuing politics. Similarly, the Bustamante, et al. 1992; Durand and Massey 2004; and Overmyer-Velázquez 2011 edited volumes provide interdisciplinary historical and sociological overviews and analyses of the creation of the rise of a binational labor market.

  • Bustamante, Jorge A., Clark Winton Reynolds, and Raúl A. Hinojosa Ojeda, eds. U.S.-Mexico Relations: Labor Market Interdependence. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992.

    An important edited volume, with nineteen chapters that explore US/Mexican labor interdependence in the 1980s and the rise of a binational labor market. Highlights views of undocumented immigration, remittances, the impact of migration both on US and Mexican communities, and the impact of immigration reform.

  • Cardoso, Lawrence A. Mexican Emigration to the United States, 1897–1931: Socio-economic Patterns. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1980.

    Using both US and Mexican sources, provides an in-depth discussion of the attitudes and policies of Mexican and US officials to Mexican migration and highlights efforts to slow down and regulate labor migration. A scholarly work, the book uses oral histories and corridos (ballads or folk songs) that make it accessible.

  • Durand, Jorge, and Douglas S. Massey, eds. Crossing the Border: Research from the Mexican Migration Project. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2004.

    On the basis of the data gathered via the binational Mexican Migration Project, the editors and contributors challenge myths regarding Mexican immigration, stress the importance of a culture of immigration, and criticize US immigration and trade policies.

  • Majka, Linda C., and Theo J. Majka. Farm Workers, Agribusiness, and the State. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.

    Using a structural Marxian theoretical perspective, the authors describe the rise of industrial agriculture in California and the shifting and contentious relations between and among the state (local, state, and federal), corporate agricultural interests, and labor unions.

  • McWilliams, Carey. Ill Fares the Land: Migrants and Migratory Labor in the United States. New York: Arno, 1976.

    One of the first and most comprehensive exposés of migratory labor. Using evidence collected by the Tolan and LaFollette Committees, as well as his own observations, lawyer/journal activist McWilliams challenged the myth of the agricultural ladder by highlighting the power of large-scale industrial agriculture and the low wages and exploitive working and living conditions experienced by the nation’s growing migrant labor force. Originally published in 1942 (Boston: Little, Brown).

  • Overmyer-Velázquez, Mark, ed. Beyond La Frontera: The History of Mexico-U.S. Migration. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    Edited collection that addresses both historical and modern issues, including labor migration from 1876 through 1924; repatriation of the 1930s and Mexican nationalism; the Bracero Program; race and recent migration to the US South; and law, gender, and cultural representations of Mexican migration.

  • Reisler, Mark. By the Sweat of Their Brow: Mexican Immigrant Labor in the United States, 1900–1940. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1976.

    An overview that explains why Mexicans came to the United States, how they were received, settlement patterns, and debates over Mexican immigration restriction. Relies heavily on US sources but is a readable account that provides an insightful discussion of the role of business interest groups, the importance of the World War I guestworker program, and the 1920s.

  • Taylor, Paul S. Mexican Labor in the United States. 3 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1928–1934.

    Working with progressive Edith Abbott (b. 1876–d. 1957), Paul S. Taylor traveled extensively throughout the United States in the late 1920s and early 1930s as he documented the experiences of Mexican migrants. Specific volumes cover the Imperial Valley; Valley of South Platte, Colorado; Dimmit County, South Texas; Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; and the Chicago and Calumet areas, as well as migration statistics.

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