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Farmworkers Need Families, Not Deportation and Exploitation

April 9, 2021
Americas Program

David Bacon and Anuradha Mittal

During the Trump administration, the U.S. deported an average of 275,725 people per year, almost the same number of workers — 257,667 — brought by growers last year to labor in U.S. fields. Contract laborers on H2-A visas now make up is a tenth of the U.S.’s total agricultural workforce — an increase of more than 100,000 in just six years.

Deporting people while bringing in contract farm labor is not new. In 1954, during the bracero program the U.S. deported 1,074,277 people in the infamous “Operation Wetback, and brought in 309,033 contract workers. ” Two years later 445,197 braceros were brought to work on U.S. farms.

Farmworkers already living in the U.S. were replaced by contract labor when they demanded higher wages. Farmworker advocates accused the government of using deportations to create a labor shortage, and force workers and growers into the bracero program. Braceros were abused and cheated, they argued, and deported if they went on strike.

In response, civil rights and labor leaders of that era, including Cesar Chavez and Ernesto Galarza, pushed Congress to end the bracero program.

After ending the bracero program in 1964, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. A preference system for family immigration replaced the growers’ cheap labor supply scheme. By no accident, the grape strike which began the farmworkers’ union movement in Delano started the same year.

Today the Biden administration is seeking ways to undo the damage to immigrants and workers wrought by Trump’s executive orders. For farmworkers the worst of those orders came last April, when an infamous tweet suspended all the processing of family preference visas, effective ending the program won by the civil rights movement. At the same time Trump tried to cut the wages of today’s braceros, the H2-A workers, and expand the program by making it even more grower-friendly.

In one positive move, Biden rescinded Trump’s wage cut. But a deeper choice remains.

The H2-A program is even more abusive than the old bracero program. An opaque system of private recruiters and contractors brings in workers, extorting bribes for visas. Once in the U.S. these workers suffer wage theft and systematic labor violations. During the pandemic their barracks and bunk beds have become centers for spreading infection, and several have died. When workers protest conditions and go on strike they are fired and sent back to Mexico, and blacklisted for future employment.