World War II Braceros and the Migrant Stream
War mobilization effectively ended the Depression. Local Idahoans and domestic migrants left the fields to take well-paying jobs in factories and elsewhere. In 1941 national farm federations urged the United States Employment Service to import thousands of Mexican contract workers. As the country’s wartime economy expanded, demand for farm labor grew. Recently completed New Deal reclamation projects added an additional 2,895,000 irrigated acres to Idaho’s and Oregon’s agricultural sectors by 1940. Two years later farm labor shortages were greatest in the Pacific Northwest. Unable to find workers, growers became desperate. The Idaho State Farm Bureau Federation petitioned for more than 1,000 Mexican farm laborers, and the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company requested braceros. Mexican workers began arriving the following year. From 1942 to 1947, 15,600 Mexican men entered Idaho.
U.S. farm federations wanted Mexican contract labor, but they resented the restrictions and rules imposed. Braceros vigorously protested contract violations and abuses, but some farmers ignored their complaints and forced them to do the most difficult and perilous tasks. Suffering serious accidents, exposed to chemi-
cal and lead poisoning in the fields, finding only contaminated water to drink on the job, braceros’ health was constantly in jeopardy. Although some farmers’ inattention to proper safety procedures at times led to worker death, they often reprimanded camp managers who took additional precautions to prevent accidents.10
The Bracero agreement did not give workers the right to strike for better conditions or pay. But in Idaho and elsewhere ill treatment and contract violations caused workers to protest and, at times, walk off the job. Farmers often brought strikes to an end by assaulting braceros and threatening them with jail, forced labor, or deportation. Wage disputes often strained farmer-bracero relations. Facing the lowest wages and the most recalcitrant farmers of any Northwest state, braceros’ strikes in Idaho were more serious and prolonged. Idaho earned a reputation for discrimination against braceros, especially in Canyon County, where Mexicans were routinely barred from stores and saloons. To its credit, the Notus Farm Labor Committee joined others in denouncing racist practices and warned they could lose their labor supply. Prejudice against the braceros became so pronounced in Idaho that the Mexican government threatened to cancel contracts in the state, finally doing so in 1948. On the other hand, some communities welcomed Mexican workers and treated them with kindness and respect.11
After the war, Idaho’s need for agricultural labor persisted. Contributing to the labor demand were new techniques in deep well pumping, more acreage brought under cultivation, and new food processing plants. Low pay, harsh conditions, and seasonal employment, failed to attract many locals. Employers turned to Mexican American families, mostly from Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, who journeyed north on a migrant circuit in search of work. Undocumented Mexicans joined the Mexican Americans in the migrant stream to Idaho. Their numbers increased after the war. A 1955 U.S. Public Health Service study of migrant life found over 8,000 workers and about 13,500 family members in the state. The number of migrant workers almost doubled to 15,000 ten years later. Idaho growers and the state’s political leaders deemed them essential to the prosperity of the state’s agricultural sector. Furthermore, these migrants proved to be ideal farm workers: they arrived on their own, were skilled and experienced, accepted lower wages than locals, took advantage of few social services, and moved on when the work was done. In brief, they were almost invisible.12
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