“Agriculture is unlike most other key sectors of the North American economy in that its comparative advantage as rested on having access to abundant low skilled labor instead of the accumulation of human capital (education and skills)” From a Migration Policy Institute 2013 report on agriculture.
Today there are about 2.1 million farm workers, of which about 1.25 million are hired hands, and of these about 75%, or about 950,000 are foreign-born workers. This workforce size is comparable to the roughly 700,000 foreign-born cooks and 800,000 foreign born maids and housekeepers.
Late 19th Century: large numbers of farm workers were Chinese. Japanese and Filipino, but Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 induces farm owners to import Mexican workers.
1920s – 1930s: American agra-business hires many of the roughly 150,000 new Mexicans crossing the border, most illegally. But economic troubles in U.S. lead to deportation of Mexican farm workers. Border control is re-organized and made tougher in 1924. Many Mexicans repatriated illegally. (California enacted in 2005 a formal apology.)
New Deal labor protection laws exclude farmworkers (such as Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, and state workers’ compensation laws exclude farms.
1942 – 1964: Bracero guest worker program launched (term refers to Spanish word for manual labor), extended in 1951, terminated in 1964. Brought in 5 million legally authorized workers. averaging 200,000 per year. Law suits are still active to obtain illegally withheld compensation.
1954: Operation Wetback: in response to concern about illegal migration by Mexicans, this program repatriated over 3 million Mexicans.
1960s – 1970s: United Farm Workers was organized, led to 40% improvement in wages, then suffered from internal strife.
1980s – 1990s: Hispanic workers dominated hired farm labor; over 50% of California workers were undocumented. Hispanic workers expanded beyond fruits and produce to meat processing plants throughout U.S. Temporary visa programs (H2-A and H2-B) provided through today very small shares of Hispanic agriculture workforce.
1990s – present: continuing trade-offs between cheap Hispanic labor and mechanization See this 2007 posting which analyzes the state of the issue in 2007.