Undocumented Migrant Farm Workers

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Undocumented Migrant Farm Workers


By: Andrew Lichtenstein

Date: August 10, 2005

Source: © Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis.

About the Photographer: This image was taken by Andrew Lichtenstein, a documentary photographer based in New York. The photograph is part of the collection of the Corbis Corporation, headquartered in Seattle, with a worldwide archive of over seventy million images.


Over thirty-five million new immigrants entered the United States in the four decades after the Immigration Act of 1965 reformed the immigration process. The new law abolished the discriminatory quota based on national origins that had governed immigration policy since the 1920s. It treated all nationalities and races equally. In place of national quotas, Congress created hemispheric ceilings on visas issued with only 120,000 people from the Western Hemisphere permitted to enter the United States. The legislation also stipulated that no more than twenty thousand people could come from one country each year. However, more than 120,000 immigrants from Latin America wanted to enter the United States, and those denied legal entrance became undocumented workers.

In states like California and Texas, both documented and undocumented immigrants became targets of those who feared dramatic social changes. Conservative politicians mounted "English-only" campaigns, opposed bilingual education, lobbied to remove all welfare benefits from undocumented immigrants, and campaigned to sharply restrict benefits for legal immigrants. Leaders opposed to immigration charged that the waves of immigrant workers were undermining the United States as a European nation and the principal guardian of Western civilization. Latinos and Latinas came under particular target for taking jobs from American citizens. Conservatives called for greatly increased border patrols and suggested the possibility of building a fence across the long U.S.-Mexican border to thwart immigrants.

The conservative victory in the 1994 congressional elections led to the enactment of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. This legislation increased the border patrol, expanded Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) powers to deport immigrants, and sharply increased penalties for illegal immigration. However, employers of illegal immigrants faced few penalties. Additionally, they could report undocumented workers to the INS when they sought improved wages and work conditions. As a result, immigration reform did little to slow the great numbers of illegal immigrants who could make more money in the United States than they ever could in Latin America, albeit at low-paying, exploitative jobs.



See primary source image.


By the start of 2006, over thirty-five million people living in the United States were born in other countries. This equals about twelve percent of the American population, the highest percentage of foreign-born since 1920. Of these people, an estimated eleven to twelve million are illegal immigrants, with Mexico as the largest source of these immigrants. Three in four illegal immigrants come from Latin America, with a little more than half hailing from Mexico. About a quarter of these immigrants enter the United States legally and then overstay their visas. Undocumented workers make up about five percent of the American workforce. Nearly two-thirds of illegal immigrants have offspring born in the United States, making the children American citizens and greatly complicating the problem of return to Mexico.

The rise in immigration has made the topic of undocumented workers a matter of increasing national concern. In 2006, a series of massive immigrant marches focused attention on the rights of immigrants at the same time that Congress debated legislation that would make illegal immigration into a federal felony, tighten border control, and crack down on employers who hire undocumented workers. The marches, sponsored by unions, religious organizations, and immigrant rights groups such as United Farm Workers and Hermandad Mexicana, were designed to show that Latin American immigrants had made substantial contributions to the United States. The marches were publicized through Spanish-language media. Participants were encouraged to carry American flags to show patriotism. However, many marchers carried flags of their countries of origin. Worsening the situation, a media group released a Spanish-language version of the American national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner." Many Americans viewed these developments as evidence that Mexican immigrants were refusing to assimilate into the United States and were intent on changing American culture into Mexican culture. In 2006, immigration remained a very hot political topic.



Acuna, Rodolfo. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004.

Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. New York: Harper Perennial, 2002.

Mitchell, Don. The Lie of the Land: Migrant Workers and the California Landscape. Minneapolis. Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Ngai, Mae M. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005.