The development of commercial agricultural production in the Northwest, facilitated by the completion of the northern transcontinental railroad and the development of public and private irrigation works, was instrumental in furthering farm production. The fertile Willamette Valley in Oregon, the Puyallup and Skagit valleys in Washington, and the tablelands of eastern Washington and Oregon were able to produce a rich abundance of specialty crops, including a wide range of fruits, vegetables, nuts, berries, grapes, sugar beets, onions, hops, and wheat. All of these crops, however, required an extensive, usually seasonal, labor supply in regions that were often sparsely populated. The need for labor led Oregon growers to recruit Mexican laborers away from the Southwest and from Mexico to work on area farms. By 1910 Oregon ranked seventh among states outside the Southwest with Mexican-born residents.
Mexicans came to Oregon during and after the upheaval caused by the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Approximately 10 percent of the Mexican population over 1 million people fled to the United States from 1910 to 1920, seeking refuge from the war as well as economic opportunity. Movement across the border was not strictly monitored before World War I, but the creation of the Border Patrol in 1924, along with the passage of quota laws in 1921 and 1924, quickly changed the nature of the U.S.-Mexican border from a porous, weakly defined demarcation to a multisignifying boundary that created the category illegal immigrant.
From 1917 to 1922, the first temporary worker program (part of the 1917 Immigration Act) allowed temporary workers who would be inadmissible under the 1917 Immigration Act to be contracted seasonally to work in the United States. This program, in effect during World War I and extended until 1922, served as a blueprint for the Bracero program, begun during World War II in Oregon and other states. Though the Immigration Act of 1917 established literacy and head tax requirements for Mexicans, within months of its implementation, the U.S. secretary of labor authorized western sugar beet enterprises to recruit alien labor without enforcement of this restriction.2 This waiver, which was prompted by a World War I labor shortage, benefited western growers, who used it to recruit Mexican workers to the Northwest. By 1924, Mexicans were contracted from the southwestern states to work in sugar beet farms at $3 dollars per day. Oregon railroad companies were also prime employers of Mexican workers.
Mexicans who came to Oregon in the earlier part of the twentieth century to work in the sugar beet industry and for railroad companies established roots in the state, particularly in eastern Oregon. Santiago Jaramillo, for example, came to eastern Oregon in 1917 as a railroad worker. He settled in Ontario, Oregon, where he and his children established deep roots and some of the first Latino businesses in the area. Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio documented 445 money orders sent to Mexico from Oregon from 1900 to 1929, indicating a significant presence of Mexicans in the state during the first decades of the twentieth century, likely linked to recruitment of railroad and agricultural workers.
Mexican migration decreased in the 1930s not only because there was a lack of employment in the United States, but also because of U.S. policies of deportation and exclusion. During the Great Depression, local authorities through the West and Midwest repatriated over 400,000 Mexicans. Before the Great Depression the population of Mexicans in the United States was over 1.4 million.
Though the deportations of the Depression returned to Mexico about 20 percent of that population, a vast majority remained, and their labor was still needed. The market expanded for some crops, such as hops, which grew significantly after the repeal of Prohibition in Oregon in 1932. Sugar beet cultivation continued to increase in the 1930s as growers received subsidies. A general tide of poor workers flowed into Oregon and the Northwest, and there is evidence to suggest that Mexicans were among them, as growers, sugar companies, and other agricultural enterprises continued to recruit Mexican laborers. In 1937 Paul Taylor noted that Mexican migrants traveled from the Imperial Valley of California to Oregon’s Hood River and Willamette valleys. Gamboa has also suggested that migrant laborers from Texas traveled from there to Oregon, Washington, and midwestern states for work.
The continued growth of the Mexican population in Oregon was spurred in the 1940s by three related factors: growth in agriculture and a subsequent need for
labor, the onset of World War II, and the existence of the Bracero program, which was designed to recruit Mexican laborers to replace those who entered the U.S. armed forces or who left farm labor to work at industries. The demand for food production and the expansion of irrigation and electrification boosted commercial acreage, whereas the war pulled much of the existing labor force into war production. The demographic shift of workers from rural to urban areas resulted in a labor shortage in Oregon and other parts of the Northwest in 1941.
Farmers in the Northwest complained directly to the U.S. government about lack of labor. Though growers wanted the federal government to help them recruit laborers, most did not want it to impose any conditions on them about the circumstances of employment. The U.S. government was bombarded by requests to import workers from Mexico. Commercial agricultural interests made a decision to contract Mexican laborers. In the Northwest, the forthcoming availability of Mexican workers was evident before the ink dried on negotiations between the Mexican and U.S. governments. Sugar beet farmers led the way in the Northwest in contracting Mexican laborers under the Mexican Farm Labor Program (MFLP), or the Bracero program (referring to brazos, arms of helping hands), which had its Northwest headquarters in Portland, Oregon. The Bracero program existed in the state of Oregon from 1942 to 1947. Approximately 15,136 braceros were contracted as farm laborers in the state of Oregon from Mexico during this time. Additional bracero workers were also employed on Oregon railroads from 1943 to 1946. Though the agreements signed by the U.S. and Mexican governments specified particular conditions to be met in terms of worker living conditions, food, hours worked, transportation, and pay, once braceros were turned over to farmers, employers could often do as they pleased with workers and their contracts. In Oregon, Bracero workers thinned and harvested sugar beets, thinned and picked apples, thinned and packed pears, and harvested asparagus, onions, cucumbers, and peas. They also built fire lanes during fires and planted pine seedlings in reforestation projects for the National Forest Service. Workers were widely praised as skilled, with excellent performance indices. But once the war was over, returning Anglo workers and their families began protests against Mexican workers. In 1946, public demonstrations took place in many northwestern communities. Braceros worked under difficult conditions including being forced to stay in fields despite freezing temperatures, lack of health care, lead poisoning from orchard work, job-related injuries, transportation accidents, and substandard housing and food. Workers responded with work stoppages and strikes, with the support of Mexican government officials. Workers resisted as best they could in conditions in which employers often had absolute control over all aspects of their lives.
In 1947 PL-45, which had sanctioned the wartime phase of the Bracero program, expired, being superseded by PL-40. The terms of agreement of PL-40
called for workers’ contracts to be negotiated directly between employer and bracero. It also called for employers to pay for the screening, selection, and round-trip transportation of workers from Mexico to the Northwest, all of which was previously paid for by the U.S. government. Growers in the Northwest were shocked at the terms of the agreement. This and the fact that anti-Mexican sentiment was growing made growers decide to no longer contact braceros. Thus the program ended in Oregon in 1947.
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