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Latino Workers  

Emiliano Aguilar

Since the U.S. acquisition of Northern Mexico in the 19th century, Latinas and Latinos have played an ever-growing role as workers in the United States. The continued migration from Latin American countries has increased the importance of Latinas and Latinos across various economic sectors. As diverse as the Latina/o community itself, the array of jobs Latinas/os/xs have held has been enormously varied. As an increasing demographic of workers, Latina and Latino workers have also played a pivotal role in the labor movement in the United States. Their labor activism has been a response to the persistence of oppression and marginalization in the workplace. The presence of Latinas/os/xs in a variety of occupations offers a glimpse into the overall transitions of the U.S. economy, from agricultural to manufacturing to service work. Their movement from farm to factory to service work is of course not universal, as Latinas/os/xs still have a considerable presence in agricultural and industrial employment. Yet the transition from one kind of work to another remains a useful way of understanding the history of Latina/o/x labor over time. Latinas/os/xs have often stood at the forefront of shifts in the economy as they have followed the need for workers into new industries, which has placed them among some of the most vulnerable workers in American society.

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The Context and Consequences of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA)  

Frank D. Bean and Thoa V. Khuu

The United States often views itself as a nation of immigrants. This may in part be why since the early 20th century the country has seldom adopted major changes in its immigration policy. Until 1986, only the 1924 National Origins Quota Act, its dismantlement in the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, and the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as the Hart-Celler Act, involved far-reaching reforms. Another large shift occurred with the passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) and its derivative sequel, the 1990 Immigration Act. No major immigration legislation has yet won congressional approval in the 21st century. IRCA emerged from and followed in considerable measure the recommendations of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy (1979–1981). That body sought to reconcile two competing political constituencies, one favoring the restriction of immigration, or at least unauthorized immigration, and the other an expansion of family-based and work-related migration. The IRCA legislation contained something for each side: the passage of employer sanctions, or serious penalties on employers for hiring unauthorized workers, for the restriction side; and the provision of a legalization program, which outlined a pathway for certain unauthorized entrants to obtain green cards and eventually citizenship, for the reform side. The complete legislative package also included other provisions: including criteria allowing the admission of agricultural workers, a measure providing financial assistance to states for the costs they would incur from migrants legalizing, a requirement that states develop ways to verify that migrants were eligible for welfare benefits, and a provision providing substantial boosts in funding for border enforcement activities. In the years after the enactment of IRCA, research has revealed that the two major compromise provisions, together with the agricultural workers provision, generated mixed results. Employer sanctions failed to curtail unauthorized migration much, in all likelihood because of minimal funding for enforcement, while legalization and the agricultural measures resulted in widespread enrollment, with almost all of the unauthorized migrants who qualified coming forward to take advantage of the opportunity to become U.S. legalized permanent residents (LPRs). But when the agricultural workers provisions allowing entry of temporary workers are juxtaposed with the relatively unenforceable employer-sanctions provisions, IRCA entailed contradictory elements that created frustration for some observers. In sociocultural, political, and historical terms, scholars and others can interpret IRCA’s legalization as reflecting the inclusive, pluralistic, and expansionist tendencies characteristic of much of 18th-century U.S. immigration. But some of IRCA’s other elements led to contradictory effects, with restriction efforts being offset by the allowances for more temporary workers. This helped to spawn subsequent political pressures in favor of new restrictive or exclusive immigration controls that created serious hazards for immigrants.

Article

Latino Labor in the US Food Industry, 1880–2020  

Lori A. Flores

If one considers all the links in the food chain—from crop cultivation to harvesting to processing to transportation to provision and service—millions of workers are required to get food from fields and farms to our grocery stores, restaurants, and kitchen tables. One out of every seven workers in the United States performs a job related in some way to food, whether it is in direct on-farm employment, in stores, in eating/drinking establishments, or in other agriculture-related sectors. According to demographic breakdowns of US food labor, people of color and immigrants (of varying legal and citizenship statuses) hold the majority of low-wage jobs in the US food system. Since the late 19th century Latinos (people of Latin American descent living in the United States) have played a tremendous role in powering the nation’s food industry. In the Southwest, Mexicans and Mexican Americans have historically worked as farmworkers, street vendors, restaurateurs, and employees in food factories. The Bracero Program (1942–1964) only strengthened the pattern of hiring Latinos as food workers by importing a steady stream of Mexican guest workers into fields, orchards, and vineyards across all regions of the United States. Meanwhile, mid-20th-century Puerto Rican agricultural guest workers served the farms and food processing factories of the Midwest and East Coast. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Central American food labor has become more noticeable in restaurants, the meat and seafood industries, and street food vending. It is deeply ironic, then, that the workers who help to nourish us and get our food to us go so unnourished themselves. Across the board, food laborers lack many privileges and basic rights. There is still no federal minimum wage for the almost three million farmworkers who labor in the nation’s fruit orchards, vineyards, and vegetable fields. Farmworkers (who are overwhelmingly Latino and undocumented) earn very low wages and face various health risks from pesticide exposure, extreme weather, a lack of nutritious, affordable food and potable water, substandard and unsanitary housing conditions, workplace abuse, unsafe transportation, and sexual harassment and assault. Other kinds of food workers—such as restaurant workers and street vendors—experience similar economic precarity and physical/social invisibility. While many of these substandard conditions exist because of employer decisions about costs and the treatment of their workers, American consumers seeking the lowest prices for food are also caught up in this cycle of exploitation. In efforts to stay competitive and profitable in what they give to grocery stores, restaurants, and the American public, farmers and food distributors trim costs wherever they can, which often negatively impacts the wages and conditions of those who are working the hardest at the bottom of the national food chain. To push back against these forms of exploitation, food entrepreneurs, worker unions, and other advocates have vocally supported Latinos in the US food industry and tried to address problems ranging from xenophobia to human trafficking.

Article

Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Movement  

Matt Garcia

In September 1962, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) held its first convention in Fresno, California, initiating a multiracial movement that would result in the creation of United Farm Workers (UFW) and the first contracts for farm workers in the state of California. Led by Cesar Chavez, the union contributed a number of innovations to the art of social protest, including the most successful consumer boycott in the history of the United States. Chavez welcomed contributions from numerous ethnic and racial groups, men and women, young and old. For a time, the UFW was the realization of Martin Luther King Jr.’s beloved community—people from different backgrounds coming together to create a socially just world. During the 1970s, Chavez struggled to maintain the momentum created by the boycott as the state of California became more involved in adjudicating labor disputes under the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA). Although Chavez and the UFW ultimately failed to establish a permanent, national union, their successes and strategies continue to influence movements for farm worker justice today.