Migratory Agricultural Labor- The Story of a National Crisis

Migratory Agricultural Labor- The Story of a National Crisis

Mid-Twentieth Century America is an amazingly prosperous land—indeed, the wealthiest nation in the world. Yet in the midst of great plenty are two million people comparable in their destitution to feudal serfs, save that they are bound to no land. Their mobility is in many ways their tragedy. For these people must roam ceaselessly often having no single place to call home. In their wanderings over the face of our country, these nomads hope mainly to stave off starvation. But their hopes also dwell on a decent home, good schooling for their children, a pleasant journey from one work place to another, as do the hopes of most citizens. Dare they hope for these things, when they must live in abandoned farm houses, shacks, chicken coops, tents, or dilapidated barns, when their children often receive no education at all and must work long hours if the family is to survive?

Who are these people who are so poor and so desperate? They are the migratory farm workers, and the conditions under which they live and work do not belong in any enlightened nation. Of the estimated some two million, over one-third are native-born Americans, the majority Negroes. Another one-third are citizens of foreign nations who are brought here to work and then return to their own countries. The remainder are Mexicans who enter the United States illegally to engage in farm labor; these are known as “wetbacks,” since they literally wade or swim across the Rio Grande River to enter the United States.

MIGRATORY LABOR IS today employed principally in the harvesting and processing of a great variety of fruits, such as berries, melons, apples, oranges and other citrus products, most vegetables including potatoes, beans, lettuce, celery, tomatoes and sugar beets; is frequently used for picking cotton, but is seldom employed on dairy farms, livestock farms, poultry farms, or diversified general farms.

The President’s Commission on Migratory Labor which was established by executive order in 1950, conducted what is perhaps the most exhaustive and significant study ever made of this national problem. It submitted a historic report to the White House on March 26, 1951 with many recommendations and proposals which have been almost completely ignored by Federal agencies and the state governments up to the present time. The Commission’s analysis and conclusions, for the most part, remain completely valid today.

Since the turn of the century, agriculture in the United States has undergone tremendous changes, as has the status of farm labor. The current development is toward huge “corporation” farms, in contrast to the family farms of a half-century ago. Large farms now cover one third of the land in the United States as a whole and two-thirds of the land in the western states; a large farm is classified by the census as five thousand or more acres in the West, and one thousand or more acres in the remainder of the country...

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