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“We Like Mexican Laborers Better”: U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Policies in Puerto Rican Farm Labor Migration

by Ismael García-Colón


Editor's Note: This article is adapted from the original version published in the Summer 2017 issue of the CENTRO Journal under the title, "'We Like Mexican Laborers Better': Citizenship and Immigration Policies in the Formation of Puerto Rican Farm Labor in the United States." To order the issue, click here.

The Puerto Rican experience in farm labor challenges our understanding of U.S. citizenship and its relation to U.S. immigration policies. A recent case illustrates the complexity of Puerto Ricans’ role in U.S. farm labor. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor announced charges against a farm in New Jersey for unlawfully rejecting Puerto Ricans who applied for employment. The farm showed preferential treatment to guestworkers and provided working conditions less favorable to Puerto Ricans in violation of the H-2A visa program’s regulations. U.S. law required farms hiring workers through the H-2A program to recruit U.S. workers first and offer them the same wages and working conditions as to H-2A workers. This case demonstrates how employers’ ability to deport guestworkers has rendered Puerto Ricans and other U.S. citizens less desirable for agricultural work.

Nowadays, Puerto Rican farmworkers are imperfect migrants for the majority of employers. Guestworkers and undocumented workers have become “perfect immigrants” for an agrarian labor regime characterized by a low-wage, deportable, and seasonal labor force. Being less desirable for agriculture does not imply that Puerto Rican workers are in a worse position than guestworkers or that being a guestworker is a privileged position. Rather, this article emphasizes the long history of ironies and contradictions in the ways that farmers and government officials acted in regard to farm labor.

Puerto Rican farm labor migration has grown and shrunk as a result of immigration policies. In 1948, the government of Puerto Rico created a farm labor program in charge of recruiting migrant workers for U.S. farms. By facilitating migration, the government sought to eliminate unemployment while feeding the demands of U.S. employers. Puerto Rican farmworkers constituted more than 60,000 workers per year at the peak of their migration during the late 1960s and early 1970s. They migrated because of their desire to earn a living. Still, despite discrimination and shrinking numbers, contemporary Puerto Ricans continue their quest for employment by working in U.S. agriculture.

The U.S. colonial status offered an important tool to the government of Puerto Rico to shape the migratory flows and the formation of Puerto Rican communities. Colonialism allowed the insertion of Puerto Rico’s officials in the structures of the U.S. Department of Labor, the creation of the Migration Division as a Puerto Rican agency operating in the United States, and lobbying on behalf of Puerto Rico by congressional representatives and officials of the Office of Territories and its preceding agency, the Bureau of Insular Affairs. North American governors in Puerto Rico, such as Rexford G. Tugwell (1941-1946), sought to persuade the federal government to hire Puerto Ricans when growers wanted to bring guestworkers. Puerto Rico’s officials collaborated with federal officials by overseeing the hiring, transportation, and performance of migrant farmworkers.

The use of Puerto Ricans in U.S. agriculture depended greatly on their membership status within the U.S. nation. After the Spanish-American War, Congress allowed the incorporation of Puerto Ricans into the U.S. labor market by defining them as U.S. nationals with limited rights and protections. Between 1899 and 1917, Puerto Ricans migrated to U.S. territories such Hawaii and Cuba. Colonial labor migration began as an alternative to lower the labor costs of U.S. sugar corporations. Employers used them to replace labor migrants that the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Foran Act prohibited. Temporary migration of colonial subjects also represented an alternative for employers who were trying to circumvent anti-immigrant regulations. Since colonial migrants could qualify for welfare, it provoked the objections of local authorities and residents who fear that they would become a burden for government agencies. In 1927, an official of the Fruit Growers of California stated that:

"…we cannot handle them like Mexicans. A Porto Rican has much right to stay as we have…The Mexicans can be deported if they become county charges, but the others are here to stay and they are less efficient."

Gatekeeping practices and the deportation regime shaped, not only the categories of immigrants and citizens, but also the colonial subjects who occupy an in-between space.

The granting of naturalized U.S. citizenship in 1917 facilitated the recruitment of Puerto Ricans, but also began to mark their undesirability. By 1941, for example, their new status as “native-born” intensified the lobbying of Puerto Rico’s officials for their inclusion in the wartime effort to sustain agricultural production. In 1947, the government of Puerto Rico enacted Public Law 89 requiring contracts and government approval when hiring workers in its jurisdiction. Using the experiences of the Bracero Program, the government designed the Farm Labor Program under the Department of Labor. The government also approved Public Law 25, creating the Bureau of Employment and Migration with its Migration Division. The Migration Division took charge of the Farm Labor Program. One of the most significant roles of the Migration Division was to lobby the federal government to encourage the recruitment of Puerto Ricans in preference to guestworkers. However, it was only in the 1950s that Puerto Ricans became fully recognized as domestic workers for purposes of labor market regulations contained in the Wagner-Peyser Act.

Despite these efforts, officials continuously confronted the fact that employers opposed Puerto Ricans because they were citizens and immigration authorities could not send them back. In a 1950 congressional hearing, Keith Mets, president of the Imperial Valley Farmers’ Association, stated that:

"In our area we feel that Puerto Rican labor would not be practical. We like Mexican laborers better… when it is over they go back home, to Mexico, don’t furnish a social problem of relief."

A district attorney in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania complained to Puerto Rico’s officials in 1952 that migrant workers would stay in the state after the harvest; he wanted the government to send them back to Puerto Rico. U.S. colonialism and citizenship created in practice an ambiguous status for Puerto Ricans when citizenship still meant being White and Anglophone. Discrimination against Puerto Ricans because of their “foreignness” continued to occur even though Congress passed the Nationality Act of 1940 and an amendment to it in 1948 clarifying the “native-born” citizenship status of people born in Puerto Rico.

The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 (INA) officially classified workers from Puerto Rico as domestic, giving them preference over guestworkers. Under the INA, the H-2 visa program (H-2A after 1986) required employers who wished to hire workers from other countries to demonstrate that there were not domestic workers available. The end of the Bracero Program in 1964 and restrictions on H-2 workers increased the hiring of Puerto Ricans. The Farm Labor Program rose to more than 20,000 workers in 1969.

In 1975, the government of Puerto Rico attempted to negotiate the hiring of migrant workers with apple growers’ associations. Growers took the position that the contract was onerous and went to court. In the case of Galan v. Dunlop, the court ruled in the growers’ favor. In 1976, the Migration Division attempted to accommodate to growers’ demands. However, apple growers who hired Puerto Ricans fired them on the grounds that they did not know how to pick apples.

Although lack of experience was a factor that growers used against hiring Puerto Ricans, Legal Services in the Northeast and Puerto Rico filed class action lawsuits against the growers on behalf of workers with apple picking experience. Puerto Ricans were not new in apple picking. Since the 1950s, growers hired them for the apple harvests. Growers not grouped in associations were still using Puerto Rican workers with no problems.

Another argument against Puerto Ricans expressed by growers was racial. In a Boston Globe article by Anne Kirchheimer (September 29, 1976), an apple farmer said that, “Puerto Ricans aren’t able to do apple-picking work…They are physically too small to do this work…The men are used to more low-level work, such as picking berries.”

In the case Hernandez Flecha et al. v. Quiros, the U.S. First Circuit established that Puerto Ricans were not available if they did not accept the wages offered by growers through the H-2 visa program. The apple growers succeeded in maintaining their preference for H-2 workers.

All these developments in the Farm Labor Program resulted in its demise. Court cases crippled the standing of the government of Puerto Rico before growers and the federal government. The fact that growers would not have to prefer Puerto Ricans over H-2 workers meant that the courts dismantled the most important pillar of the program. In 1993, the Roselló González administration eliminated the Department of Puerto Rican Community Affairs in the United States, the successor of the Migration Division, thus ending the Farm Labor Program. The Glassboro Service Association in New Jersey, the largest employer of Puerto Rican farmworkers since 1948, replaced Puerto Ricans with Mexicans.

The history of Puerto Rican farmworkers shows that U.S. agriculture has developed a labor regime in which the perfect worker for farmers is an immigrant that authorities can deport. Puerto Rican farm labor is imperfect for employers because U.S. citizenship provides them with rights. However, one cannot explain fully how citizenship, race, and immigration policies shaped Puerto Rican farm labor migration without understanding U.S. colonialism. Because of the colonial relationship and not transnationalism, Puerto Rico’s officials were able to insert themselves within the structures of federal government and place the Farm Labor Program within the implementation of labor and immigration laws. Puerto Ricans, as distinctive U.S. citizens and colonial subjects, show the particular place that colonial populations occupy between minorities and immigrants within modern agrarian labor regimes and immigration policies.

© Ismael García-Colón. Published by permission in Centro Voices 23 August 2017.