I remember being a kid, seeing old black-and-white footage of migrant workers working in the fields, picking fruits and vegetables. My parents always watched Spanish-language television, which covered many different aspects of Latin American life. One vivid news clip that I’ll never forget was of a migrant who drowned, trying to cross the Rio Grande River into the United States to make a better life for himself and his family.
The history, literature and images of migrant workers have become part of our rich American history. From John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Dorothea Lange’s iconic image of the “migrant mother” and César Estrada Chávez’s legacy as a farm worker, labor leader, and civil rights activist, what I remember is just one small piece of a long struggle.
By the early 20th century, American cities were growing dramatically and agriculture needed to meet expanded needs for food. Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1917. This law established a legal basis for the importation of some 73,000 Mexican workers. During the Great Depression, foreign demand for agricultural exports plummeted and prices dropped. In an effort to open up jobs to native-born citizens, the Immigration and Naturalization Service cooperated with local authorities to deport more than 400,000″ Repatriados” back to Mexico in the 1930s. At least half were U.S. citizens, mostly the children of immigrants.
Generations later, the situation remains the same. In 2011 alone, the U.S. expelled nearly 400,000 illegal immigrants (Immigration and Customs Enforcement Bureau, October 2011). More than eight million undocumented workers, who comprise five percent of the work force, are embedded in the American labor market. Many of these people risk their lives to cross the border; many die on their way, while others are caught by the US Border Patrol and deported. Undocumented workers face extraordinary economic hardship in their home countries, encouraging them to endure these dangers.
Once in the United States, it is unsurprising that migrants are often employed in the most undesirable occupations. Meat-packing plants, landscaping, picking food or tobacco: all are low-wage jobs in physically demanding and difficult conditions. Without legal accountability or safety standards, most middle-class Americans would never dream of accepting such toil. Yet these tasks remain essential, underpinning the basic fabric of the American economy and quality of life.
All the while, undocumented immigrants live under the radar with meager wages and poor access to education, social services, and health care. Nonetheless, I have seen how they remain resilient and strive to be part of the American Dream. In this photographic essay, I show a glimpse of migrant workers’ daily lives.
TEXT and PHOTOGRAPHS by Carlos Javier Ortiz / facingchange.org
With support from Leica Camera