Mexican Migrant Workers: Nuisance or Necessity?

Every morning, Luis Arriega wakes before dawn to make the two-and-a-half-hour trek from his small Mexican village to Sinaloa de Leyva, where he works as an auto mechanic. His wife Maria stays home with the children and earns what she can, selling baskets at the local market. Maria and her oldest daughter weave the baskets from twigs that have been collected by the younger children. In addition to their daughter and the two children attending school, the Arriegas have a four-year-old son named Miguel who was born with a cleft palate.

One Tuesday at the body shop, a rich-looking man overhears the mechanics speaking of Miguel. He tells Luis how to go about getting documentation that will allow him to work in the U.S. as a farm laborer. The papers will cost him only $500. Luis is guaranteed to earn at least $6,000 if he works through the apple-picking season in a place called “Pen-seal-vahn-ya”. Late into the night, Luis and Maria lie on their mat whispering about the pros and cons of taking the rich man up on his offer. Even as one of the most well-to-do families in their village, the Arriegas boast a combined annual income of just $5,000. It seems that $500 and a few months apart is a small price to pay for more than a year’s wages. Maybe this is the way the Virgin Mary has chosen to answer their prayers about Miguel’s much needed surgery. The following day Luis takes an early lunch break to find the rich man. After three years of saving up, he hands over nearly all the money that had been buried in a hole in the dirt floor under the couple’s bedroll. Two weeks later, the man returns to Luis’ place of work with an envelope containing identifying papers and written instructions on how to go about crossing the border into the United States. He bids farewell to his wife and children that Saturday morning.

Opinions and Realities

Over 40 years later, it is now common knowledge that immigrants entering our nation face resentment from many Americans. In many areas, Mexicans who do not speak fluent English are treated comparably to 1940’s blacks. Why is this? Some believe that they knowingly enter the country illegally, then “make certain to have U.S.-born children almost immediately” (S. Barker, personal communication, July 7, 2009). One Pennsylvania woman considers them to be “leaches to our society… [who] suck away valuable tax dollars that our country desperately needs” (J. Lindsey, personal communication, July 6, 2009). Many Americans agree with this notion of the parasitic nature of an “illegal” Mexican, asserting that they have no right to put their children in our schools or receive any sort of governmental benefits such as medical care.

While it is true that over half of the Mexican migrating to the United States are unauthorized (Pew Hispanic Center 2009), we must take into account the overall impact they have on the economy. In 2006, farms in Adams County, Pennsylvania sold close to 330 million pounds of apples and over 18 million pounds of peaches. Nearly 100% of the workers harvesting these crops are Mexican immigrants, whose hard work yields between $45 and $50 million annually (R. Runyan, personal communications, June-July 2009). A television series entitled The Border touches on the important role these men and women have played in our nation’s history:

The Mexican work force was critical in developing the economy and prosperity of the United States. The Mexican workers in numerous accounts were regarded as strong and efficient. As well, they were willing to work for low wages, in working conditions that were questionably humane. (Espinosa Productions, 2009).

They make up about one-fifth of our nation’s civilian labor force (Diaspora News, 2008) and have greatly contributed to growth in the workforce over many years (Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, 2003).

As a teenager, Hannah Huettner feared the tan-skinned men she passed in Biglerville, PA. Their silent stares made her feel “like a meal ticket into the country.” But now that she works at farm where many of these men are employed, Hannah knows them to be “very hard workers, and great at what they do” (H. Huettner, personal communication, July 7, 2009). Hard workers, indeed, the average farmworker puts in at least five and-a-half days of 10 to 12 hours each, according to Roddy Runyan. Runyan is the director of Fruitbelt Farmworker Christian Ministry, a nonprofit organization that caters to the needs of seasonal farmworkers in the Adams, Cumberland and Franklin counties in Pennsylvania by providing items such as blankets and sweatshirts to those who arrive in the area unprepared for the weather. He elaborates on the men’s resolve, saying, “The work is tedious and tiring and usually requires much climbing up and down ladders.” While picking, workers carry the fruit in a sack that weighs in at around 80 pounds when full. Runyan has heard it said that these immigrants are here to pilfer jobs, but he has yet to meet an American who can last in the same position for more than six months. “The grower’s children often work in the orchards for a short time, but they quickly take over the easier jobs, such as driving tractors” (R. Runyan, personal communication, June-July 2009).

Not only is the work physically burdensome, the living conditions leave much to be desired, as well. State regulations do require the housing to pass a yearly inspection. However, there is no enforcement of those conditions throughout the picking season. Nearly all the local migrants live in camps located smack-dab in the middle of the farm by which they are employed. These camps are most often barracks-style compounds, which typically house four men or an entire family to a room. Others have trailers or even old farm houses. All migrant camps feature a communal kitchen and bath. (R. Runyan, personal communications, June-July 2009).

But at least the compensation is good; after all, that is why they come here instead of working in Mexico - right? According to the National Population Council of Mexico, one in ten families depends on money sent home from the United States as their primary source of income (McGinnis & Palos, 2002). In fact, remittance comes in third, after petroleum and tourism, bringing Mexico’s people six to eight billion dollars per year (McGinnis & Palos, 2002). Still, it would be hard to find a U.S.-born American willing to do what the Mexicans do for the same amount of pay. While Pennsylvania law requires minimum wage, it is usually paid only for short periods of time. Instead of a set income, workers are paid according to how many 25-bushel bins they fill, usually at a rate of around $16 per bin. This is an instance of Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory: the hardest workers thrive, those who cannot or will not do the work go home with their tails between their legs.

Most farmers will hire anyone willing to harvest their crops. But, as this photo shows, a crew of willing workers is primarily composed of Mexican immigrants.
Most farmers will hire anyone willing to harvest their crops. But, as this photo shows, a crew of willing workers is primarily composed of Mexican immigrants.

A Brief History of Mexico-U.S. Migration

The United States currently receives up to 1.5 million immigrants per year, a drastic increase since 1976, when the annual average was just 600,000, says Jim Ludwick of the Oregonians for Immigration Reform (Diaspora News, 2008). The need for Mexican laborers in the U.S. was realized as early as the 1800s, when they comprised 60% of western railway crews (Marentes, 1997). By the time World War II was in full-swing, a million rural employees had either entered the military or had gone to work in factories to make supplies for the war effort. In 1942, the federal government was forewarned of impending “harvest-time disaster,” due to a lack of workers (The Dallas Morning News, 2002).  That same year, The United States and Mexico signed the Bracero Treaty, which recruited Mexican citizens as U.S. laborers. The need was so intense that the U.S. government offered to pay for transportation and moving expenses for any worker willing to relocate temporarily (Messersmith, 1942). The Treaty ended in 1963, and shortly thereafter began the now common distaste for Mexican immigrants.

Border Issues

As we have seen, laws were once set in place to allow Mexican workers to migrate across that border without affect. Over the last two decades, though, things have taken a turn for the worst. In 1994, the Immigration and Naturalization Service set into place Operation Gatekeeper, greatly increasing the amount of border patrol personnel and equipment spanning the line between the United States and Mexico. But regardless of laws and enforcement, local farmers continue to employ Mexicans, and Mexicans try to answer their call. Many sneak through the desert or over mountains, a sad truth that has caused the number of in-migration deaths to increase by over 600% since Operation Gatekeeper began. In the year 2000 alone, 329 people died due to dehydration, heat stroke, drowning, hypothermia, or a rancher’s gun. In 2001, Mexican President Vicente Fox, along with many members of Congress, pushed for a guest worker program similar to the Bracero Treaty (McGinnis & Palos, 2002). Such a bill would grant safe travels to the men, women and children who will inevitably attempt to enter the United States in search of agricultural labor jobs. However, the Bush Administration quickly tossed the issue aside after September 11.

Life Without Migrant Workers

As the Mexico – U.S. border laws become increasingly difficult to negotiate, employers are contemplating how they might continue to run their businesses without migrant workers. This is an issue which David Mas Masumoto, a Californian farmer who employs Mexican seasonal workers, can identify with all too well:

Last year for one day, no one came to work in my peach orchard. A row of ladders stood empty. This was my day without immigrant labor. Without workers, I cannot farm. If I cannot farm, my organic heirloom peaches and raisins won't reach people's dinner tables.

Without passage of immigration reform, I can't get enough help to harvest my fruits. This work is transient and something most Americans won't do, even with higher wages. Under the current system, which gives so many immigrants illegal status, good workers from south of the border are forced to hide in the shadows, constantly fearful of deportation. (2007).

Imagine walking into the supermarket in hopes of buying a bag of Granny Smith apples to bake a pie. A quick glance through the store reveals that the produce section has been discontinued. This does not sound so far-fetched to a person who fears that immigration law will become even stricter than it already is. Without willing workers, crops cannot be harvested. Growers in Adams County, Pennsylvania “say that there is absolutely no way whatsoever that they could harvest these crops without the Mexican migrant workers” (R. Runyan, personal communication, June-July 2009).

The produce section of our favorite grocery store is evidence that Mexican immigrants come in and out of our nation consistently, many on a yearly basis. Some have achieved legal status, but others have not. In fact, as many growers might anonymously confess, at least half of the seasonal fruit pickers in Adams County, Pennsylvania first enter the United States with falsified papers or no papers at all. Those who strongly support Immigration Reform will boldly declare that these illegal aliens have no right to work here, nor should they be allowed to acquire citizenship after having entered the country by such objectionable means. On the other hand, the residents of the orchard towns in this Adams County will undoubtedly declare the importance of allowing those Mexican men and women to work their seasonal jobs. For without them, the bulk of the crops will perish. But is it fitting to bypass immigration laws for farm workers? Is having fresh produce worth the cost of breaking the rules and opening up our nation’s southern border to Mexican peasants? If these laws were better enforced, would the Mexicans stop trying to migrate north? And if they did, who would pick the apples? Who would harvest the peaches? Would Adams County’s farms survive?

Comments 18 comments

Kathryn Plasencia profile image

Kathryn Plasencia 3 years ago from USA Author

You sound angry. Perhaps your experience has been bad. I, personally, have had bad experiences with Cajuns from Louisiana. Does that mean I should think poorly of all Cajuns or everyone from that state? No! In the same way, one should not look down on all Mexicans simply because of a few isolated events.

(By the way, Louisiana was originally a part of Mexico. It was the ancestors of your "apologist leaders" who took it from them.)


Southern Louisiana 3 years ago

I'll get by with more expensive fruit, THANKS!!

Obviously nobody's hometown has been turned into a dangerous ghetto directly as a result of the swelling Mexican population. I've been tailgated, intimidated, verbally assaulted, and threatened with physical violence -- all completely unprovoked. And what of the drugs? There's a growing number of Mexican nationalists, who are so anti-American that it's scary. They have come to lease/own(?) a lot of property around here, and make no attempt to become a "citizen"; they instead are turning it basically into an extension of Mexico.

Here is not so much a "seasonal" labor area such as farmland, but is mainly oilfield work that is not going anywhere soon. Maybe it's big business that I should be taking offense with, but it is difficult to keep a level head when every single time you go to town, you feel singled out for being a law abiding young American.

My case may be an extreme example, but an example none the less, of where we may be heading. I'm afraid, and a little embarrassed for my apologist leaders who have no backbone to stand up for its real citizens. Why should I care, when nobody cares about us?


lilipad 4 years ago

Thank you for shining a light on such a sad and true reality, I see first hand the hatred and the abuse this poor people endure when they come to this country. Thank you for all the information.


Kathryn Plasencia profile image

Kathryn Plasencia 4 years ago from USA Author

No, I did not, have not, will not plagiarize.


Kathryn Plasencia profile image

Kathryn Plasencia 4 years ago from USA Author

Thank you!


jimmy 5 years ago

i loved your essay. did you plagiarize any? do you have any other plagiarize?:0


jimmy 5 years ago

good writer


francisid 5 years ago

thank you for bringing out to us your positivity..im glad that i read this.if we all just open our eyes,we'll all see the goodness in every person,in every situation.


primardie profile image

primardie 5 years ago from Texas

I love your hub! I totally believe that if immigrants stop working the fields to bring in the fruit and vegetables to put on our tables, our country's farms will suffer and prices will go through the roof. I work with farm-worker teens on a daily basis. Some are undocumented, but the majority are legal residents and citizens of the U.S. What many people do not realize is that many migrants were born in the United States and have been migrating for generations. Unfortunately, the cycle many times repeats itself. I have included links to your hub. You can check it out and let me know what you think. http://hubpages.com/hub/2011-Year-of-the-Farmworke... Our migrant club students helped create the video using their own photos. I hope you enjoy it.


trenton young 5 years ago

Mexicans are awesome they can come help me build stuff


VAMPGYRL420 profile image

VAMPGYRL420 6 years ago from The Eastern Shore of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, U.S.A.

Beautiful, beautiful Hub, Kathryn!!! :) I hope you don't mind that I have placed a link into one of my Hubs for readers to refer to for more information. If so, I will remove it. My daughter and I worked in the tomato fields here in Virginia last summer with the migrants. I will most likely be editing my Hub in the future for more details. However, for what it's worth you can check it out at http://hubpages.com/hub/My-Summer-as-a-Tomato-Pick... People really don't understand how rough it is out there. Thank you for sharing this Hub :)

Love & Light,

Windy Grace


Kathryn Plasencia profile image

Kathryn Plasencia 7 years ago from USA Author

Mr. Happy and Tackle: thank you!!


Tackle This profile image

Tackle This 7 years ago

I've lived in Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Florida. I've yet to have a negative experience with a person from Mexico. I love them -- I love them all. To them I say, come. To New Yoricans, and there often papi-of-the-world attitude, I say stay -- if you are so proud of New York. To South Americans and Africans I say, "Come!"

You are an amazing writer.


Mr. Happy profile image

Mr. Happy 7 years ago from Toronto, Canada

I am quite sure Mexican workers are needed. Good article.


Kathryn Plasencia profile image

Kathryn Plasencia 7 years ago from USA Author

Thanks, Peggy. After writing this I actually found an article about a program that is "in the works" that resembles the Bracero Treaty. I haven't been able to find much information on it, though, and it hasn't yet been established as anything other an idea, from what I've gathered.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

We definitely need to have a program in place like the Bracero program that functioned well in the past. Why not give those who want to work here picking crops temporary work visas?

As you aptly pointed out...there are few Americans who want to do the back breaking work that these willing Mexicans do for us and it would be of mutual benefit.

And with legal work visas, we could keep better track of who is in this country legally.

Thanks for this excellent hub.


Kathryn Plasencia profile image

Kathryn Plasencia 7 years ago from USA Author

What a wonderful story, Ralph!! Thank you for sharing!


Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 7 years ago

My attitude toward Mexican immigrants is affected by my mother's experience in the last months of her life. She had been helped at home during the day time for a year or so by a very nice legal immigrant Mexican woman. It worked out well for my mother and the Mexican woman who had two small children which she brought with her to my mother's house. My mother enjoyed having the children so it was a plus for both parties. A time came when my mother needed round-the-clock care. She tried a nursing home but didn't like it and returned home after a week or so. The situation was solved when her Mexican caretaker invited her two sisters to come to the the United States to help provide the care my mother needed. I don't know how the sisters got into the U.S. illegally. What I do know is that they cared for my mother round the clock until she died as if she were their own mother. After her death the two undocumented sisters returned to Mexico. The wonderful care these sisters provided for my mother was a lifesaver for my sister who lived nearby but had a full time job which she couldn't afford to quit in order to care for our mother. Based on this personal experience and the practical considerations outlined in your excellent Hub, I don't like to hear nasty criticisms of undocumented Mexican immigrants.

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    References

    1 in 7 Mexican workers employed in the U.S. (2008, December 6). Diaspora News. Retrieved June 14, 2009 from http://www.despardes.com/Diaspora/2006/20061206-mexicans.htm (no longer available)

    Corchado, A. & Sandoval, R. (2002, January 27). Program once seemed like perfect fit but abusive employers, poor conditions, fatal accidents led to its end. The Dallas Morning News. Retrieved from http://nl.newsbank.com/nl-search/we/Archives?p_action=list&p_topdoc=11

    Espinosa, P. (Producer). (1999). The Border. (Documentary). San Diego: KPBS TV.

    Marentes, C. (1997). Los Braceros. Retrieved June 4, 2009, from http://www.farmworkers.org/benglish.html

    Marentes, C. (1997). [Photograph of workers on a truck]. Mexican Migrant Workers. Retrieved June 27, 2009 from http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/migrants-2.htm

    Masumoto, D. (2007, May 22). The day without farm workers. Common Dreams.org. Retrieved June 4, 2009, from http://www.commondreams.org/archive/2007/05/22/1364

    McGinnis, E. & Palos, A. (2002). Beyond the border – Más allá de la frontera. (Television Series). Washington, DC: Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

    Orrenius, P. (2003). U.S. immigration and economic growth: putting policy on hold. Southwest Economy, 6. Retrieved June 22, 2009 from http://www.dallasfed.org/research/swe/2003/swe0306a.html

    Pew Hispanic Center. (2009, April 15). Mexican immigrants in the United States, 2008. Fact Sheet. Retrieved June 24, 2009 from http://pewhispanic.org/files/factsheets/47.pdf

    United States Government. (1942, August 4). Agreement between the United States of America and Mexico respecting the temporary migration of Mexican agricultural workers. Retrieved June 18, 2009 from http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/immigration/bracero-agreement-1942.pdf

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