Note: This is an encore post from 2005 and originally appeared on the 1947project.
“Up from his 160-acre vegetable farm at San Juan Capistrano, veteran rancher H.L. Remmers informed the committee that he must “get Mexican workers” or “think about going out of business.” Americans, Remmers said, “don’t like ‘stoop labor.’ ” ./
Farmers, he said, will be “glad to go down to the border and bring the Mexicans north at our own expense and responsibility.” Pay ranges from 70 cents an hour for harvesters ($6.62 USD 2005) to $1.10 ($10.41 USD 2005) for tractor men, Remmers said….
Proquest’s search engine makes it difficult to pinpoint The Times’ first use of “wetback” because it also returns “setback.” However, the word apparently entered the newspaper’s vocabulary in 1947 with the headline: “California Solons Ask Leniency to ‘Wetbacks’ ” in regard to the use of foreign labor. “Wetbacks are those Mexicans who enter the United States illegally, presumably by swimming the Rio Grande,” an Associated Press story from Washington explained.
The 1947 papers are full of stories about the high cost of food, in part because of higher labor costs and unionization efforts and in part because wartime price ceilings were lifted, (although this factor is not emphasized in news stories).
Agricultural labor’s role in illegal immigration was a no less complicated or incendiary subject in the 1940s than it is today. As ranchers and farmers noted, the Dust Bowl refugees who performed California’s migrant labor in the 1930s moved into shipbuilding and other related wartime manufacturing jobs—and weren’t going back to the farms.
One reader said: “The Okies of a decade ago have become strong unionists asking $1 an hour for field labor. It is time to bring in 50,000 Mexicans who will gladly toil for 30 cents less. Do I sound like a Marxist? Gracious, I’m a registered Republican!”
Mexican workers who came to the U.S. during the war as part of an agreement between the two countries had become an essential part of the American economy. However, Mexico planned to begin repatriating the workers in late 1947.
Simultaneously, the wartime truce between labor and management had ended, and several unions began campaigns to organize farm workers. (Although it hasn’t appeared in the 1947 Project, the Taft-Hartley Act banning the closed shop was approved June 23, 1947, further complicating labor issues).
But everything reduced to a simple problem, as one farmer after another told the paper in 1947: Americans refused to perform stoop labor.
“From W.F. Croddy, who farms 300 acres near Santa Ana, came word that this imported labor alone appears to offer small and medium ranchers the only hope of economic stability during the touch-and-go harvest periods.” “Unfortunately,” he said, “we must view foreign labor as more dependable than our own local workers. They even respond better to the incentive of higher wages.”
The result, as any Southern Californian might expect, was an increase illegal immigration. The Times noted that large numbers of immigrants were caught every month by the Border Patrol, lured by what the paper called “fat U.S. agricultural wages,” from a peak of 2,000 a month in the spring to 1,200 a month in the summer.
By late September, The Times said: “Border Patrol inspectors, anticipating that next year more aliens will attempt to slip across the U.S.-Mexico boundary than ever before in history, yesterday were busily tightening their 100-mile ‘defense in depth’ belt from the Pacific Ocean to the Colorado River.
“They have evidence that the lure of good wages on Southland ranches will attract hopeful line-crossers in numbers exceeding the 66,000 apprehended along the far western section of the border in 1946.
“Towns like Tijuana and Mexicali are swollen with surplus, unemployed populations.”
The tighter security has driven up the price for being smuggled across the border. From $10 in 1945 to more than $100 in 1947, The Times says.
“It’s obvious that California ranch pay must indeed be a potent lure as you look east, north and south over the tumbling dunes of the scorching desert,” The Times says. “Here the thermometer sometimes touches 155 degrees. Yet the hopeful thousands keep coming.
“One wetback, after navigating the brown Colorado on a log, hiked 90 miles through the torrid valley. His sustenance consisted of a tequila bottle of water.
“Others aren’t so lucky. Patrolmen often find whitened bones among the cactus and mesquite.”