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Immigrants in Agriculture: Exploitation as the Foundation of Success

From the very beginnings of its international recognition as a leading global force, the powerhouse economy of the United States of America has its vast, tenacious immigrant population to thank for its status and success. From contract labor on the annexed Hawaiian islands to contemporary immigrant industrial labor, history paints an honest picture of the building of the modern American agricultural economy by its steadfast immigrant communities. This article describes the manifestations of two of the largest immigrant labor influxes in contemporary United States history: those from Asia and Mexico.


Labor immigration from Asia (1850-1920)


The annexation of the Hawaiian islands marks a turning point in the history of the American agricultural economy with the subsequent influx of immigrant laborers, particularly from Asia, contracted to work the plantations. Chinese were heavily recruited first by planters in the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society, mainly to harvest sugarcane. By 1890, Chinese were almost 19% of the total Hawaiian population, and Asians overall comprised 32% (Lee, 2016, pp.102). After President Chester A. Arthur signed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act into legislation, recruiters focused more on luring other Asian populations, such as Japanese, Koreans, and later, Filipinos. Overall, more than 300,000 Asians arrived in Hawaii between 1850-1920.


Plantation work, in addition to its exploitative nature, was also racially discriminatory. Despite convincing and coercing Asian immigrants with empty promises of wealth and meaningful employment to make the move in order to fill the labor shortage, European overseers kept their laborers in cramped, unsanitary conditions doing back-breaking work. Authorities led their laborers with cruelty, such as exorbitant fines and even whippings as punishment for actions as innocuous as talking or “pausing to stretch.” Those who fled the unbearable conditions before their contracts expired, or “deserters,” could even be jailed. Laborers began to engage in many means of resistance, from pretending to work and drinking or smoking on the job to organizing strikes. In 1920, Japanese organizers, the largest Asian ethnic group in Hawaii, joined in solidarity with Chinese, Filipino and Spanish laborers in the first interethnic labor strike before establishing the first multiethnic labor union (Library of Congress), a firm and successful assertion of interethnic solidarity which garnered some concessions for higher pay.


Most of those who did not flee ahead of their contracts refused to stay once they expired. Occupying a “partly colored” middle ground, Asian immigrants had more freedom of movement to become entrepreneurs or horticulturalists. Many searched for other agricultural work in the continental United States. Japanese found their niche in farming and leased tillable land throughout the West. With a steady water supply and increasing demands for fresh produce, the ensuing distribution system “helped fuel an agricultural revolution” in California (Lee, 2016, pp. 117). Chinese laborers went on to grow various fruits and vegetables on their own small farms for distribution into cities and small towns alike. They also grew and harvested grapes for Napa and Sonoma valleys’ wine industries. By 1900, 95% of the Chinese population in the Sacramento and San Joaquin delta regions worked as farmers, fruit packers, or in other agriculture-facing occupations.


Many of these horticulturalists achieved feats integral to American agriculture as we understand it today. The nationwide distribution of the orange, for instance, easily recognizable as the pride symbol of the state of Florida, is due entirely to the creativity and perseverance of Chinese-American Lue Gim Gong (pictured right). During an exceptionally cold winter, Gong successfully cross-pollinated an orange much more resistant to lower temperatures, known today as the Valencia orange (USDA, 2017). After winning the American Pomological Society’s distinguished Wilder Medal for his success in growing a “juicy, hearty orange that could be shipped countrywide in large quantities,” he went on to grow various strains of grapefruits as well (Lee, 2016, pp. 74-75). Those who knew of Gong’s groundbreaking discoveries lovingly remembered him as the “citrus wizard” after his death in 1925.


Labor immigration from Mexico (1910-2015)


As U.S. corporate interests in the agriculture industry rose, labor opportunities also increased for other prospective immigrants, especially following the labor shortage of World War I. American agricultural and industrial expansion coupled with increasing restrictions on Asian immigration led southwestern employers to consider Mexicans “the ideal solution to their labor problem” (Smith, 1981, pp. 240). Encouraged by decent wages and driven to escape violence and landlessness during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), tens of thousands comprised a large-scale influx of transient migrants over the Mexican border to the American southwest.


Second only to the railroads, the sugar beet industry and other agricultural work was the dominant employer of the migrant workers. Mexican laborers in agriculture were concentrated in the plains states (including Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota), comprising “75-90% of the beet field hands in the north central states” by 1927 (Smith, 1981, pp. 245). There is no doubt that the advancement of the American railroad and sugar beet industries at this time were due to their migratory, versatile Mexican populations. Many Mexican laborers also found employment in the meat-packing and coal mining industries as well as other forms of agribusiness, such as harvesting cotton and wheat.


Whites’ racialized hostility towards economic competition rose to a peak during the Great Depression of the 1930s, largely targeting the very laborers “eagerly recruited” or coerced onto American plantations just a decade earlier. Now, the U.S. government initiated a program of “repatriation,” a euphemism for deportation. Some laborers accepted the free train ride back to their homeland; close to a million more were “forced out of the U.S.,” 60% of whom were legal U.S. citizens (Gross, 2015). Despite the influx of contract laborers again during World War II, known as braceros, likewise exploited to fill a wartime labor shortage, it would be decades before the number of Mexican immigrants would reach its peak again. More than 16 million Mexican migrants came to the U.S. between 1965-2015, many in search of work and/or asylum, Pew Center Research reports, “more than from any other country” (Lantigua-Williams, 2015).


In recent years, America’s Hispanic populations have faced persistent, violent crackdowns on illegal immigration unseen since the Great Depression. The U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), established by President Bush in 2003, declared its support of a president-elect for the first time in 2016. During his time in office, President Trump took the “handcuffs off” the agency, enabling ICE to enforce a “zero tolerance immigration regime” (Foer, 2018). ICE abuse captured media attention in national controversy as immigration officers “took children from their parents” crossing the border in search of asylum. Freed of many restrictions as a result of the Trump administration’s vehement anti-immigration rhetoric, ICE’s racial profiling alone has initiated countless arrests. Notably, a 2018 lawsuit against ICE following the mass arrests of dozens in Chicago proves as many as 70% of the arrests were “collateral,” or without a warrant (Zamudio, 2020). This lawsuit also shed light onto the Trump administration’s tactical raids on so-called “