The Working Stiff Journal
Vol. 2 #8, October 1999
by Jackie Dana
Negative stereotypes have always plagued immigrant workers, and many people have tried to deny immigrants access to employment, housing, and other opportunities U.S. citizens take for granted. In the nineteenth century, many immigrants, particularly working-class Irish, were portrayed as dirty, stupid, and lazy. Newspaper cartoons portrayed Irishmen as looking like apes, and it was acceptable to openly discriminate against them. Many window signs advertising work noted, “No Irish Need Apply.”
Throughout Texas, Mexicans and immigrants from other countries south of the U.S. border have faced the same anti-immigrant hostility. In contrast to the Irish experience, however, such attitudes have not diminished after well over a century. Austin recently witnessed such attitudes with the relocation of the day labor site. Before the First Workers site opened its doors, several residents of the surrounding neighborhood protested at Austin City Council meetings and sent letters to local papers. On opening day, a few residents picketed the new site at 4916 N. Interstate 35, waving U.S. flags and carrying signs suggesting that foreign-born workers were not welcome in their neighborhood.
With anti-immigrant sentiments still alive today, we as workers should be aware of the obstacles workers from Mexico in particular have faced for the past century from the government as well as from some of their fellow workers.
At the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848, few expected a sizable Mexican immigration. At that time fewer than 0.5% of U.S. citizens were of Mexican ancestry. Fifty years later, however, political and economic conditions in Mexico, as well as expanding employment opportunities north of the border, led to sizable immigration of both temporary and permanent workers. By the early 1900s, over 70% of western railroad laborers were Mexicans; they also worked in agriculture and mining, and many moved to the Midwest to find jobs in factories and slaughterhouses alongside European immigrants.
The rising numbers of Mexican workers nationwide led to the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, criminalizing thousands of Mexicans and other legal immigrants and leading to widespread deportations without benefit of court hearings. Also in 1924 Congress created the Border Patrol, initially assigning 450 men to protect the U.S-Mexico border.
With the onset of the Great Depression, unemployment skyrocketed. Many feared that Mexican immigrants would take jobs or other resources from U.S. workers. As a result, 500,000 Mexican-Americans were deported over almost two decades.
Not until World War II caused labor shortages did the U.S government finally reverse its policy towards Mexican workers. Under the 1942 Braceros Treaty signed with Mexico, more than 300,000 laborers were allowed to legally enter the United States over the next few years (a large percentage of the number that had been deported just a few years earlier), California being the state that received the most immigrants.
The treaty included the provision that “Mexicans entering the United States as result of this understanding shall not suffer discriminatory acts of any kind.” Not surprisingly, Texas was deemed to be too hostile towards Mexicans and was not allowed to bring workers into the state under provisions of the treaty. Mexican General Consul for Texas Raul Michel reported that, “as in other places, some restaurants in [Big Springs] have signs to prohibit the entrance of Mexicans,” while in Midland, “the food establishments don’t deny service to Mexicans, but when they are sold food, they are only allowed to eat it in the back of the kitchen.” To be sure, racism did exist elsewhere, and in many northern states signs were posted stating “No Mexicans. Whites Only.” In Texas, however, it was believed to be more overt and widespread.
After the war the additional Mexican work force was no longer needed. In 1954 the Immigration and Naturalization Service launched what was termed “Operation Wetback,” a massive effort to deport Mexican immigrants. In four years INS deported more than 3.8 million people of Mexican descent, including many U.S. citizens. As activist Roberto Martínez, 16 years old during Operation Wetback, recalled, “The Border Patrol would stop me on the street in downtown San Diego. Its officers would pull me out of my part-time jobs in restaurants and hotels and try to deport me, along with other unfortunate Mexicans they picked up along the way. . . . It didn’t matter that I was a fifth-generation U.S. citizen” (Latino/Hispanic Link News Service, 1999).
Since that time many policies have restricted the freedom of those who, although foreign-born, choose to reside in the United States. In 1965 the Immigration and Naturalization Act limited for the first time the annual number of immigrants from the Western Hemisphere. More recently, Californians attacked Spanish-speaking immigrants with the passage of Proposition 187 in 1994, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has reported a 20% increase in the number of hate groups in recent years, immigrants making up one of the main targeted groups. The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 allows local police to “cooperate” with the INS by making arrests for supposed violations of immigration law. In the past few years INS has stepped up the number of raids for undocumented workers, Latino workers being the primary target. Furthermore, bosses use the INS to frighten employees from organizing a union or other collective action to improve working conditions.
As workers, we cannot be complacent about the way immigrant workers are treated. It is important to recognize that immigrants, documented or not, rarely take jobs otherwise held by native-born workers, but instead, as in the case of day laborers and migrant farmworkers, they tend to do the most demanding and difficult jobs. Neither legal status nor lack of English skills should give employers the right to discriminate against immigrants, nor should either become a wedge to undermine worker solidarity. Speaking a different language does not make one inferior or unintelligent; in fact, many immigrants possess college degrees or technical training.
We owe it to ourselves to support all workers’ efforts to organize themselves and demand better working conditions and wages, especially immigrant and migrant workers, who suffer the greatest exploitation. Organized labor in particular cannot afford to ignore this vital part of the working class. And at every opportunity we all must strike back against the anti-immigrant racism, both in the government and within our communities, that brands such workers criminals and undesirables.
A website dedicated to Los Braceros documents, to the origin of the border farmworkers, and to their contribution to society can be found at http://www.farmworkers.org/benglish.html
The Working Stiff Journal was a free community newspaper produced in Austin, Texas and distributed across town. All of the articles were available online on the UT Watch site for many years, but they are no longer available, so I am republishing my own work here (in 2014). You can still read back issues thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.