Contesting mobility : growers, farm workers, and U.S.-Mexico border enforcement during the twentieth century



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This dissertation examines an important, but understudied period in Mexican-U.S. migration history during the 1940s and early 1950s. The joint introduction and sanctioning, by the U.S. and Mexican governments, of the bracero program also initiated a large illegal migration of agricultural workers to the United States. This was a period characterized by high levels of temporary legal migration and illegal migration, as well as intense levels of immigration enforcement. These simultaneous processes confound a simplistic view of U.S. history as a sequence of alternating periods of immigration expansion and restriction. U.S. immigration law and policy does not resemble a pendulum swinging first one way then the other; rather, both expansion and restriction characterized the 1940s and early 1950s. This study focuses on South Texas and El Paso, both border regions with dominant agricultural economies as well as a significant presence of Border Patrol officers. By focusing on these border regions, this dissertation examines the relationship between immigration laws and policy and the agricultural labor relations between growers and workers on the ground. This dissertation is concerned with state formation on the U.S.-Mexico border, and its relationship with labor mobility. The process of state and border formation did not originate in the central seats of federal authority, Washington, D.C., and Mexico City, to be applied and exerted on the furthest reaches of their territories. Growers and workers created, negotiated, and experienced and challenged the power and meaning of the border in the agricultural fields during daily interactions. Individual Border Patrolman made the border every day in the choices they made about where and where not to patrol, and which friendships to make and maintain. The border was simultaneously a federal and a local space. As the introductory anecdote suggested, the different sites of power were continually at work and intertwined. The Border Patrol did not have to be present to have an effect on the power dynamics in the moment. These interconnecting authorities, each shaping the other, and workers negotiations of such dynamics are what I term the social space of agriculture on the border. Growers often projected themselves in opposition to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and government intervention, arguing that it disrupted their access to Mexican laborers. In truth, the presence of the Border Patrol, and the threat of deportation the police force carried, was crucial in shaping the social space of agricultural production and securing growers’ undocumented labor force.