[The below was written while rumors were circulating in Dalton, Georgia that ICE (INS, Migra, etc) agents were in town. Although there actually were agents present, they were here for 100 unfortunate undocumented immigrants working at Pilgrim's Pride in Chattanooga, TN.]
There are 200 immigration agents in town right now. That is what is being told in every corner of Dalton, Georgia’s Hispanic community. Whether it is true or not, one thing is certain: Right now Hispanics are conspicuous in their absence. Illegal Hispanics are afraid to leave their homes and communities for fear of arrest and deportation. Legal Hispanics stay home to avoid harassment and to not draw attention to their neighborhoods.
Dalton, Georgia is the seat of Whitfield County, Georgia, which is 22.1 percent Hispanic, and has the largest per capita Hispanic population in Georgia, according to the US Census Bureau’s 2000 census. Dalton is also the “Carpet Capital of the World,” where over 70 percent of the carpets are produced in the entire carpet industry, according to conservative figures.
The relationship between the two statistics is not an accident. Hispanics were drawn to Dalton by the large number of available jobs in the carpet industry. Shaw and Mohawk, the two largest carpet manufacturers, are also by far the largest manufacturing employers in Georgia. Shaw had 19,000 factory jobs and Mohawk had 17,186 as of October 2006, according to the state of Georgia Department of Economic Development. No other manufacturer in the state employs more than 8,000 people.
But that was then. Now, the carpet mills are cutting jobs, reducing shifts, and closing plants. Unemployment in Northwest Georgia is higher than in the rest of the state and the population of Dalton feels that impact quite acutely. The Hispanic workers that started coming in the early 1990s and “largely remedied any labor shortages,” according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Georgia are now part of a very significant labor surplus.
Finding a relationship between the presence of immigration agents and a surplus of Hispanic labor should be as easy as opening a history book. It’s not that the relationship doesn’t exist; it’s that it doesn’t appear in history books. At least not in American ones.
Mexican immigration into the United States was pretty much perceived as a good thing, up until the Great Depression. Although there were border restrictions, there wasn’t any significant enforcement. Mexican laborers came and went, sometimes seasonally, sometimes in a manner that more or less resembled what today would be called commuting. Both Mexican laborers and American farmers were content with the arrangement. Yes, it was technically illegal entry, but until 1929 it wasn’t even a punishable crime.
Immigrants from many other countries, however, were not viewed quite so favorably. Chinese were already prohibited from entry by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Japanese were kept out by the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907. With the addition of the 1917 Immigration Act, also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, entry of virtually all immigrants from Asia was prohibited, including any immigrants who were:
"idiots, imbeciles, epileptics, alcoholics, poor, criminals, beggars, any person suffering attacks of insanity, those with tuberculosis, and those who have any form of dangerous contagious disease, aliens who have a physical disability that will restrict them from earning a living in the United States..., polygamists and anarchists, those who were against the organized government or those who advocated the unlawful destruction of property and those who advocated the unlawful assault of killing of any officer."
The 1917 Immigration Act also included provisions for a literacy test. Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, an advocate of the literacy test, felt “that the test would prevent immigration of many Italians, Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Greeks, and Asians,” as well.
The Immigration Act of 1924 probably put Senator Lodge’s fears to rest, in that it limited the number of immigrants from any country to 2% of the number of people from that country who were already living in the United States in 1890. Mexico and the rest of Latin America, however, were not included in the restrictions.
Immigrants from Mexico were given a further break. Farmers and railroads persuaded the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to suspend the literacy test for Mexican workers until 1921. America was at war, and her labor pool was in Europe. Somebody needed to work in the fields and at many other menial tasks—“picking the beans,” metaphorically speaking—and those “somebodys” were Mexicans. This exclusion from the act is what became known as the first Bracero Program.
It makes sense that Mexico would be excluded from all the acts imposing immigration restrictions. It was the beginning of the “Roaring Twenties,” and the economy was booming. America was in a period of prosperity (if one discounts the brief depression in 1921 which has been attributed to the implementation of the Federal Reserve System), and still needed cheap labor. Lots of beans would need picking.
Attempts were made to get Mexico included on the list of limited countries. The most notable attempt was made in the House of Representatives by John C. Box, a democrat from east Texas, who in 1926 proposed what became known as “The Box Bill.” The bill ran into heavy opposition by lobbyists and was defeated.
One of those lobbyists was Samuel Parker Frisselle, a farmer who owned five thousand acres of land in California. He said if the Box Bill became law, it would “mean the end of agricultural development in the West.” He said that crops in the west required large numbers of laborers to harvest, and that “white men would not or could not do the work,” and the only source of labor came from Mexico.
Then in October of 1929 the stock market crashed.
Mexicans NOT Welcome
In 1929 the unemployment rate was 3.2 percent. Within four years it had skyrocketed to 24.9 percent, the highest level of unemployment ever recorded in the United States. People desperate for jobs found themselves willing to do work they would have turned their noses up at four years earlier. They were even willing to pick beans. The only problem was that Mexicans were already doing all the bean-picking.
The answer to this problem came in the form of the Mexican Repatriation Act. Over the course of the decade-long depression, an estimated 500,000 Mexicans or people of Mexican descent were either deported or “voluntarily” returned to Mexico. Over half of them were U.S. Citizens, born right here in the U.S. of A.
The extent to which voluntary return was actually “voluntary” is difficult to ascertain. Sociology Professor Norman D. Humphrey of Wayne State University at the time said “[The Mexican] Repatriation as a voluntary measure may well conform to the best standards of case work procedure, but actually, in the carrying out of the program, untrained case workers exerted undue pressure in some instances, and in others actually violated clients’ rights.”
Sociologist Emory S. Bogardus, who founded the first sociology department at the University of Southern California in 1915, commented: “Many Mexican immigrants are returning to Mexico under a sense of pressure. They fear that all welfare aid will be withdrawn if they do not accept the offer to take them out of our country. In fact, some of them report that they are told by relief officials that if they do not accept the offer to take them to the border, no further welfare aid will be given them and that their record will be closed with the notation, “Failed to cooperate.”
Los Angeles District Director of Immigration Water E. Carr described it as “a movement to relieve the unemployment situation but which as it was actually handled was designed primarily to scare aliens, especially Mexicans, out of this community.”
However the whole repatriation thing was working, according to Coordinator Charles P. Visel, Director of the Los Angeles Citizens Committee on Coordination of Unemployment Relief. He said “There is no question in the writer’s mind that the aliens, mostly deportable, who have already left this vicinity, have released many hundreds of jobs, which of course will automatically go to those legally in the country and help our situation just that much.”
Apparently there were collateral benefits. Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Supervisor John R. Quinn said “If we were rid of the aliens who have entered this country illegally since 1931, our present unemployment problem would shrink to the proportions of a relatively unimportant flat spot in business. In ridding ourselves of the criminally undesirable alien we will put an end to a large part of our crime and law enforcement problem, probably saving many good American lives and certainly millions of dollars for law enforcement against people who have no business in this country.”
LA Chief of Police Roy E. Steckel agreed with Supervisor Quinn, saying “Most of our crime problems are caused by aliens without respect for the laws of the country.”
In spite of all the support for getting rid of these “criminally undesirable aliens,” some had reservations.
James H. Batten, Claremont College professor, said “That the Mexican is the most dependable common laborer of the Southwest does not admit of any debate. In depleting this supply we may be riding for a fall when normal conditions return. White men are doing work today that they will not do when other work is available.”
AG Arnoll, general manager of the LA Chamber of Commerce, said “The American White is not physically capable to undertake many tasks in either the fruit or truck crop industry as well as cotton-picking.”
Dr. George P. Clements, manager of the LA Chamber of Commerce’s agricultural department, agreed with Arnoll, saying the tasks of agriculture were those “to which the oriental and Mexican due to their crouching and bending habits are fully adapted, while the white is physically unable to adapt himself to them.”
Fred H. Bixby, representing a number of agricultural and cattle-raising interests throughout the Southwest and Midwest, got right to the point as he spoke of Mexican workers: "If I do not get Mexicans to thin those beets and to hoe those beets and to top those beets, I am through with the beet business. We have no Chinamen; we have not the Japs. The Hindu is worthless, the Filipino is nothing, and the white man will not do the work." Neither nice nor accurate things to say about some other nationalities, however he does make his very rude and blunt point in support of the Mexican worker.
The Mexican Repatriation of the 1930s left Mexicans with an intense distrust for their northern “neighbors” that continues to this day.
In 2005 California passed the Apology Act for the 1930s Mexican Repatriation Program, officially recognizing the "unconstitutional removal and coerced emigration of United States citizens and legal residents of Mexican descent" and apologizing to residents of California "for the fundamental violations of their basic civil liberties and constitutional rights committed during the period of illegal deportation and coerced emigration."
C’mon back, Mexicans
The end of the great depression bumped right into the beginning of World War II. The economy had already started healing its wounds and unemployment rates were dropping. With America’s entry into World War II, Americans went all over the world to fight fascism; so many so, that by 1944, unemployment in the United States had hit 1.2 percent, the lowest level ever recorded.
There were very few able-bodied men left in the U.S. So many were overseas, that women were playing baseball, “Rosie” was “Riveting,” and no one was picking the beans.
By the beginning of the summer of 1941, cotton and beet growers in the Southwest were pressing Washington for help. California alone needed 30,000 men in 1942. The orange and lemon growers wanted 50,000 Mexicans delivered at the rate of 10,000 a month. Even the railroad industry wanted Mexicans, the Southern Pacific Railroad petitioning for 5,000.
The United States and Mexico put their heads together and came up with a plan for bringing Mexican workers to America through a guest worker program that included such provisions as adequate housing and sanitary conditions, freedom from discrimination, and 10 percent of their wages being set aside in a savings fund payable to the worker upon his return to Mexico. This plan was the “second” Bracero Program. In a few instances, the housing and sanitary conditions were actually adequate. Less frequently the Mexicans were free from discrimination. Regrettably, none of the Mexicans saw any of the savings that were withheld from their wages.
The Bracero program ran from 1942 until 1964 when it was discontinued. Attempts were made by the State department to end the Bracero Program in 1946, but employers talked them into extending it until 1949. The program continued past 1949 until it officially ended in 1964. The year in which the most Braceros were contracted was 1956 when 445,197 Braceros were brought into the United States Government.
In the fall of 1953, Mexico and the United States couldn’t agree on how wages for the Braceros would be determined. Mexico felt the wage was too low, and American growers refused to budge. As a result, Mexico informed the United States they were going to discontinue sending Braceros. So America informed Mexico they would open up the border to anyone who would step across it and would sign them up as Braceros without the cooperation and consent of the Mexican government.
On January 15, 1954 a press release was issued jointly by the United States State Department, Justice Department, and the Department of Labor and published in Mexican newspapers that said beginning January 18 the border would be open. If you could step over the border, America would sign you up as a Bracero.
On January 23, 1954 hundreds of Mexicans stormed the American immigration post at Calexico. In some instances Mexican police were physically pulling Mexicans back into Mexico while the American Border Patrol was pulling them into America. Approximately 3,500 Mexicans broke through and were signed on as Braceros.
Throughout this period Mexicans who had entered the United States illegally without Bracero contracts supplemented the Bracero labor force, often working side by side in the fields. The United States government continuously worked to stem this illegal flow, but without much support or enthusiasm from American growers.
Mexicans go home again
Public sentiment toward the Mexicans who had entered the United States illegally had been growing increasingly unfavorable.
President Eisenhower demonstrated his sense of urgency about illegal immigration immediately upon taking office. In a letter to Sen. William Fulbright, Eisenhower quoted a report in The New York Times that said: "The rise in illegal border-crossing by Mexican 'wetbacks' to a current rate of more than 1,000,000 cases a year has been accompanied by a curious relaxation in ethical standards extending all the way from the farmer-exploiters of this contraband labor to the highest levels of the Federal Government."
Eisenhower’s concern led to the United States attempting a massive round-up in 1954 (same year they opened to border) officially called, “Operation Wetback.” Police went through Mexican-American neighborhoods and made random stops and ID checks of "Mexican-looking" people in a manner reminiscent of the earlier Mexican Repatriation. Fortunately it didn’t take a decade this time to recognize that human rights were being violated and the program was abandoned after only a few months.
Mexicans come back… but don’t get caught
Public sentiment regarding the illegal immigrant in recent years has been completely dependent on who you asked. Many farmers throughout the country and in particular the southwest depend upon illegal migrant workers to bring in their crops.
The warm, humid climate in southwestern Florida is uniquely suited for the cultivation of fruit, especially in winter, when the region produces more than 90 percent of tomatoes consumed in the United States. They are picked by migrant workers, and according to a recent study by the Urban Institute, approximately 80 percent of the migrants in Florida are illegal immigrants.
Many are brought in by labor contractors who charge them for their food, housing, and more. By “fronting” their goods and services, these contractors subject the migrant workers to an economic slavery, constantly having to work to pay off their debt. There have been convictions for involuntary servitude and in one instance, hundreds of migrant workers were held captive, worked without pay, and threatened that if they tried to escape their tongues would be cut off.
That these conditions would exist without the knowledge and consent of the tomato producers is extremely unlikely; therefore, it would be safe to assume that in southwestern Florida, illegal immigrants are welcome.
Conversely, the border between Mexico and the United States has been tightened up to the extent that Mexicans are attempting to cross in remote areas of the desert where the border is not so heavily patrolled. They make this attempt knowing full well that on average, one Mexican a day dies in that desert from heat stroke, dehydration, exposure, and more.
In campaign headquarters across America and in Washington DC, politicians are busy at work trying to spin the anti-immigration fervor to their benefit. Books by xenophobics such as Pat Buchanan and Jim Gilchrist have incited or exacerbated fear in the hearts of many Americans ignorant of the truths. And these truths remain unknown, such as the fact that economists have determined that the illegal immigrant actually add one percent to the national wealth by keeping prices down… such as the price of tomatoes.
Illegal immigration is not so favorably viewed in these areas throughout the country.
OK, Mexicans, we need your jobs again. Sorry.
So if the rumor that there are 200 immigration agents in Dalton is true, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The logic, supported by historical events, is simple: Many good “white people” jobs are gone… there are Mexicans holding down good jobs… let’s get rid of the Mexicans so we can have their jobs!
Why Mexicans would still want to come to a country that will so overtly mistreat them as disposable is a question only a Mexican could answer. The most probable answer would be “economics.” In Mexico, the minimum wage is around $5.00 a day depending on the exchange rate.
In southern Mexico 40 percent of the houses have dirt floors, 35 percent of homes do not have latrines, 60 percent lack sanitation, and 11 percent are without electricity, according to research from the Mexican government. In the southern states of Oaxaca, Chiapas and Guerrero, poverty rates remain as high as 86 percent.
For the Mexican head of household looking at his starving children playing on a dirt floor, stomachs distended from hunger, the threat of being labeled a “criminal” and deported is a very small deterrent to attempting to make it to America. If he survives the trip, he will actually be able to feed his family.
Mexicans should look to U.S. economic indicators rather than laws and policies for a true indication as to whether or not they will be welcome after crossing the border. They should consider keeping their bags packed at all times, because the U.S. economy is in the same fickle hands as those determining immigration policies. The welcome mat can be rolled out at a moment’s notice and without warning.
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services agents should be gentle while shoving the Mexican back into Mexico. Tomorrow their bosses might be telling them to reach out to the hands of those same Mexicans to pull them back across the border into the United States.
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