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  • Farmworker Advocacy through Guestworker Policy:Secretary of Labor James P. Mitchell and the Bracero Program

On November 21, 1960—the day after Thanksgiving—many Americans tuned their televisions to CBS to watch Harvest of Shame. Trusted broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow spent the next hour in a documentary exposé of farmworker conditions. The program opened with a farmworker crew shape-up in Florida, labor contractors hawking promises of good earnings. As a truck crammed full of twenty migrant workers drove off, Murrow quoted a farmer: "We used to own our slaves. Now we just rent them." After detailing migrant workers' hardships and highlighting the fact that those same workers harvested the food viewers ate the previous night for their feasts, Murrow closed the program with an appeal: "The migrants have no lobby," he said. "They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do."1

Although farmworkers lacked lobbying clout, they had an ally in James P. Mitchell, President Eisenhower's labor secretary. Over the objections of the congressional farm bloc and Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson, Mitchell worked to do what he could to improve the lives of the nation's farmworkers, and Murrow featured him in Harvest of Shame. Secretary Mitchell spoke movingly about the migrant workers' problems. Referring to farmworkers as "excluded Americans," Mitchell called their plight "a shame in [End Page 431] America." Toward the end of the program, he blamed "the pressures of the farm group" for his "inability to make any impact at all, in terms of either regulations or law that would help the farmworkers."

As Murrow concluded his final interview segment with Mitchell, the secretary voiced his aggravation with agricultural employers who opposed government action on behalf of farmworkers while simultaneously accepting crop subsidies. "We guarantee to the farmer no loss in certain crops," he said. "There, the farmer likes to participate in government largesse, but Lord help the fellow like myself who dares suggest that perhaps the government should do something about the workers that work on the farms." The secretary concluded, "As a citizen, in or out of this office, I propose to continue to raise my voice until the country recognizes that it has an obligation to do something for them."2 These were strong words coming from Eisenhower's Labor Department chief, more striking because the administration supported foreign guestworker programs that allowed farmers to import workers from Mexico and the Caribbean at predetermined wages and, given their deportability, with little threat of strikes.

Despite growers' control over guestworker programs, Secretary Mitchell's administrative authority over guestworkers gave him an opening to try to improve conditions for American farmworkers in the absence of protective legislation. This was especially the case with the Bracero Program,3 the guest-worker program for Mexican agricultural workers that operated in various guises from 1942 to 1964. As unionists, civil rights activists, and religious and reform organizations increasingly attacked the program in the late 1950s, Mitchell responded by channeling his frustrations into efforts to enforce and strengthen Bracero Program regulations in a bid to improve job prospects for American farmworkers. Leveraging guestworker policies to improve American farmworkers' conditions proved an imperfect strategy, but Mitchell's innovative approach helped make the program increasingly untenable for growers, politicians, and farmworker advocates.

a brief history of the bracero program and illegal immigration

Congress created the Bracero Program in 1942 as part of wartime mobilization. Growers claimed they needed Mexican guestworkers because farm labor shortages threatened the war effort. Born of wartime necessity, the program lasted through 1964. Over the course of its twenty-two-year duration, the federal government issued more than four million short-term work contracts to [End Page 432] Mexican workers seeking employment in U.S. agriculture. While growers made their arguments about labor shortages and the unwillingness of Americans to do farm work, critics in the labor, civil rights, and religious-reform communities argued these were flimsy pretexts for a program giving growers what they wanted: easily disposable laborers who could be paid low wages and deported if they protested. Critics claimed growers used braceros to hold down wages for American farmworkers and prevent unionization...


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