Politics & Society » Migration

The best books on Migrant Workers

recommended by Mireya Loza

American society and American history marginalized migrant workers for too long. New scholarship shows that migrant workers were central to America’s cultural and economic development. Mireya Loza, a historian at Georgetown University and author of Defiant Braceros, talks us through the best books about migrant workers—and why their stories are integral to understanding the past and present of United States.  

Interview by Eve Gerber

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Before we get to the books, migrant workers, transient workers, guest workers, people who travel far from home to find renumeration for their labor, with or without documentation, are estimated to number just under 100 million according to the Ethical Trading Initiative. You’ve agreed to discuss the history of migrant workers. How do you define “migrant worker?”

For the US, migrant workers became much more visible with the expansion of farms and the building of agribusiness. We went from yeoman farmers with manageable tracts to vast pieces of land that are developed as agribusinesses. Single families can no longer manage to pick all the crops; they need a mobile workforce across various geographies to assist.

How were the exigencies of war used as a justification for the creation of these programs?

During World War One, agribusiness put pressure on the US government to exempt Mexicans and Canadians from immigration restrictions, such as literacy tests and head taxes, in order to fulfill their labor needs. In 1942, because of World War Two, large growers’ associations convinced policymakers that they needed guest workers to fill their labor needs. These programs continued after the war because these businesses often offer dismal wages in deplorable and dangerous working conditions, so it is difficult to find Americans who are desperate enough to stay in these jobs long-term.

How did programs created to meet the needs of wartime labor shortages and seasonal agricultural work grow to include the servers who work at Trump properties and the tech workers who staff Silicon Valley?

The tech and hospitality industry followed the example set by agribusinesses. They lobbied and exerted enough pressure on Congress to create channels for recruiting foreign labor that is subject to deportation and exploitation.

Migrant workers construct commercial complexes in Dubai, sew in Shenzhen and tend fields in the American Southwest. How did they come to be perceived as a distinct group?

Cindy Hahamovitch does a really great job of showing us how the US guest worker programs fit within the larger history of global guest workers. She sheds light on how the needs of American agribusinesses for a mobile workforce impacted US immigration policy and had reverberations across the globe.

Hahamovitch’s No Man’s Land is the first of the books you’ve chosen on migrant workers. It focuses on Jamaican guestworkers who came to the US through the American “H2” visa program to do dirty and dangerous work.

Right. She starts by setting the scene with a history of guest workers across the globe. Then she moves us into the specific example of British West Indies guest workers in the US, who were primarily Jamaican. She highlights the racism these workers encountered and how policy makers used this workforce to meet agribusinesses’ need for labor without necessarily creating pathways to permanent residency for immigrants. She does a great job of showing us how Jamaican workers in the US contributed to our understandings of race, citizenship, and agricultural labor. This continues to ring true as growers continue to recruit Jamaican farmworkers in the present.

Hahamovitch describes close monitoring of these guest workers. Why was that a priority for agribusiness and US officials?

Growers wanted the ability to control the mobility of these workers. Early Mexican guest workers could skip out on contracts and move into different employment. So, growers got good at making sure that these people didn’t have that mobility, that they couldn’t break the terms of their contracts and that they were easily deportable. Now we have H-2a workers whose mobility is controlled by their employers. Hahamovitch shows us how policy makers and growers designed the guest worker program to make these laborers exploitable.

In Defiant Braceros, you explore what life was like for the Mexican men who came to the United States to work under a binational agreement which stretched from 1942 to 1964.

I look at Mexican workers that came through the Bracero program, the largest guest worker program in American history. In many ways, my book challenges notions that these workers were homogenous. Mexican guest workers came from distinct racial backgrounds. They worked out the intricacies of indigeneity and identity in this new context, as guest workers in the United States. I looked at their sexual practices, their ideas of masculinity, their attachments to family and how they pushed back against exploitation through labor organizing.

What do Braceros teach us about the opportunities and potential for exploitation inherent in migrant work arrangements?

They teach us that agribusiness was really good at convincing everyone that migrant workers didn’t have to have pathways to citizenship or even residency, that it was okay to create a perpetual caste of outsiders to feed Americans, a workforce that can be deported and exploited. Although they came in with contracts that were supposed to protect them, over and over what we see is that when they tried to make growers abide by the terms of their contracts, growers easily deported them or blacklisted them and barred them from obtaining future contracts.  The power was held by the growers.

“Migrant workers have been essential to American economic development for many generations”

They also held an interesting space in American society. In the US, we have citizens, residents, undocumented people and guest workers. But this particular state-sanctioned relationship, the guest worker, is constructed to be a right-less worker perpetually living in the margins of America. Why we’ve come to accept that boggles my mind.

So, the US, which was known as a beacon for the principle of equality under the law, became a model for countries creating legal castes for transient laborers?

It’s a model that has been adopted across Europe and in other countries that want agricultural workers or construction workers but don’t want permanent immigrants in their cities and their communities.

Since the period you wrote about, there has been a feminization of migrant workforces. Women international migrant workers outnumber men in both America and Europe. I read that in some countries, the feminization of migrant workforces has led to even more intrusive monitoring of migrant laborers. How has this shifted the fate of migrant workers and changed migrant worker programs?

Women weren’t allowed to come through the World War II guest worker programs for fear that they’d give birth to children who would be, by birthright, citizens. So, in the US, for the most part, at least during the era of the Bracero program, women were excluded. But later, as global demand for healthcare workers and domestic workers grow, we see women included in these programs. And now Mexican women work as temporary labor, in specific food production businesses, for instance in the East Coast crab industry, where women are seen as the most productive laborers. These women are persuaded to put their family lives and even their sex lives on hold. That is the most troubling part for me. This workforce also doesn’t have access to family because, by design, they can’t bring their children, they cannot bring their spouses. So, these programs are designing a workforce with transnational family ties, and where it is normal for children not to see their parents for a large part of the year.  A parent might not be able to see their child off on their first day of school or celebrate their birthday.

Next of the books you’ve chosen about migrant workers is Managed Migrations: Growers, Farmworkers, and Border Enforcement in the Twentieth Century. What does this book by Cristina Salinas add to the picture?

Cristina Salinas takes us to one of the most interesting states to study migrant workers, Texas. She examines how growers work within a matrix of federal, state, and local power and unpacks how all of these forces shape the movement and lives of migrant workers. The book lets us see moments where the daily decisions of Border Patrol don’t uphold immigration law but instead serve the interests of growers. It’s an essential read if you want to understand how workers are managed by national (Mexico and US), state, and local actors.

The Great Depression seems to have transformed the experience and perception of migrant workers. You’ve recommended Migrant Citizenship by Cornell historian Verónica Martinez Matsuda’s exploration of the US farm labor camp program during that era. Please tell me about the book and the program.

Martinez Matsuda takes us to the late 1930s, early 1940s, when the US Farm Security Administration comes in to manage labor camps. There’s a moment when the lives of migrant workers become better because of government regulation and intervention. Martinez Matsuda takes us to labor camps across the US. These labor camps look very different from what they looked like in the late 1940s and 1950s. Through the Farm Security Administration, workers had access to sanitary housing, medical service, recreational spaces, educational opportunities and even lessons in citizenship. Martinez Matsuda argues that these FSA labor camps’ efforts to get people to exercise their rights as citizens sparked a civil rights movement. So Migrant Citizenship shows us that the miserable conditions imposed on migrant workers in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s were not necessary—that there is an example of just treatment of temporary labor in our own national past.

So, the New Deal reformers saw that migrant workers, as people at the interstices of different communities, had the potential to shift the debate about the relationship between government, business and labor?

This book shows us how New Deal liberalism shaped labor camps as multiracial spaces that strengthened the link between democracy and labor. It reminds us that the relationship between business and labor wasn’t always configured so that workers were always on the losing end. It teaches us that government can oversee these programs in ways that engender greater fairness rather than more inequality.

That leads us to the last of the books you’ve recommended on migrant workers, Sarah Wald’s The Nature of California: Race, Citizenship and Farming Since the Dust Bowl.

Sarah Wald uses ecocritism to examine depictions of farmers, farmworkers and the American landscape in literature and historical documents. She sheds light on what they tell us about the relationship between race and citizenship. In the US, we start with this Jeffersonian ideal of white male yeoman farmers. When Japanese immigrants, Filipino farmworkers and Mexican pickers enter the picture, they are racialized and marginalized. Wald has a keen eye for the complex relationships between the geographical landscape and the racial landscape.

What is the political salience of studying the history of migrant workers?

The history of migrant workers teaches who we are as a nation. It teaches us how we developed racialized ideas about who is worthy of citizenship and who is not worthy of citizenship. Ironically, our hardest workers, the people who feed us, are always on the losing end of this conversation about citizenship. We have yet to include the folks who feed us in our nation-state. We have continued to allow agribusiness to exploit farmworkers. Under Trump, their lives have become even more difficult because of the propagation of xenophobic rhetoric that casts them as lawbreakers, criminals and problems.

On the first day of his term, President Biden transmitted a bill to the US Congress which, among many different actions, included providing a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people and would replace the word ‘alien’ with the word ‘noncitizens’ in US laws. What is the purpose of this proposal?

The people who live on American soil, cultivate American soil and feed Americans are an important part of the American story. Migrant workers have been cast as alien for far too long.

What lesson can immigrant-origin youth draw from the history of migrant workers written by you and your colleagues? What lesson should we all draw from the work?

My book springs from years of working with the National Museum of American History on the Bracero archive and the exhibition that sprung from the archive, “Bittersweet Harvest.” We collected over 800 stories from Bracero communities, that your readers can listen to at braceroarchive.org. The goal of all of these efforts was to remind Americans that Mexican migrant workers have been contributing to American culture and society for a very long time. But my personal goal was also to make sure that Latinx youth knew this history.

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Often immigrants are cast as unwanted interlopers and as a problem. The history of Braceros and migrant workers generally shows that is absolutely not true. American growers and American policymakers wanted Mexicans to come; that is why they crafted programs to bring them to the United States. Grievously, they made sure those programs kept these workers at the margins.

As I was working on the Bracero history project, when I encountered Latinx youth, I’d say, ‘this history is yours; it shows that your ancestors paid a high price for your belonging in America.’ Whether documented or undocumented, Latinx history is a central part of American history. Migrant workers have been essential to American economic development for many generations. When this younger generation learns that, they sit taller and prouder.

Interview by Eve Gerber

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Mireya Loza

Mireya Loza

Mireya Loza is a historian, curator, educator and author and Associate Professor in the Department of History and the American Studies Program at Georgetown University. Her areas of research include Latinx history, social movements, labour history and food studies.

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Mireya Loza

Mireya Loza

Mireya Loza is a historian, curator, educator and author and Associate Professor in the Department of History and the American Studies Program at Georgetown University. Her areas of research include Latinx history, social movements, labour history and food studies.