Enduring Migration: Puerto Rican Workers on U.S. Farms

By García-Colón, Ismael; Meléndez, Edwin | Centro Journal, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Enduring Migration: Puerto Rican Workers on U.S. Farms


García-Colón, Ismael, Meléndez, Edwin, Centro Journal


abstract

This article investigates the formation of contemporary Puerto Rican farm labor in the United States and is based on a survey of farmworkers conducted from July through November of 2010 in the Northeast. We argue that this labor force is constructed, organized, and maintained by the following: labor-market conditions, including high unemployment in Puerto Rico and higher wages in the United States; circular migration and social networks among seasonal agricultural workers; U.S. citizenship of Puerto Rican workers and the legal requirements of employers to give native workers preference in hiring for agricultural jobs; and, finally, factors contributing to the social isolation of Puerto Rican seasonal workers, such as few ties to the local communities in which they work and poor English-language skills. Puerto Rican farmworkers offer a prime example of open-border seasonal migration for examination by scholars and policy makers concerned with agricultural guest-worker programs. This case study provides insights into how policies, experiences, and conditions in farm labor may or may not be related to the workers' legal status, but rather to the labor-market dynamics and social conditions affecting them. [Key Words: farmworkers, labor migration, circular migration, working and living conditions]

over the last several decades the united states has experienced the latinization of the agricultural labor force, and the majority of farmworkers are of mexican origin (pfeffer and parra 2005: 4, 2006: 81; gray 2010: 170). However, Puerto Ricans, together with Southern African Americans, Haitians, and West Indians, have been present in agriculture in the Northeast since the 1940s. According to official estimates, 53 percent of contemporary farmworkers are undocumented and 75 percent are of Mexican origin (Alves Pena 2009: 856-7; U.S. Department of Labor 2005: ix). The American Community Survey calculations for 2006 through 2008 estimate that there are 5,274 Puerto Rican workers in agriculture-related activities in the United States and more than 50 percent work in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York.

The relatively small number of Puerto Rican farmworkers explains why Puerto Rican farmworkers are forgotten in the contemporary literature on Puerto Rican migration, and, more generally, in the Latino farmworkers literature. Studies of U.S. farm labor concentrate on West Indian and Mexican workers (Daniel 1981; González 1999; Hahamovitch 2011; López 2007; Weber 1994), and contemporary studies about Puerto Rican migrants focus on urban communities (Pérez 2004; Whalen 2001). This study contributes to the literature by concentrating on Puerto Rican farmworkers who migrate temporarily from the island to the Northeast United States for work and return to Puerto Rico when the season is over. In particular, we compare wages, benefits, and other labor-market outcomes of seasonal migrants and U.S.-based Puerto Rican farmworkers. Puerto Ricans offer an important case in the literature on farmworkers because, despite being U.S. citizens, they are treated and made to feel like foreigners in the communities in which they work. This case study provides insights into how policies, experiences, and conditions in farm labor may or may not be related to the workers' legal status, but rather to the labor-market dynamics and social conditions affecting them.

Puerto Rican seasonal migration began in post-war United States during the late 1940s. Initially, the need for workers led to the push for recruiting agents to travel to Puerto Rico seeking to hire thousands of workers. The problems confronted by these Puerto Rican workers prompted the government of Puerto Rico to design a farm labor migration program as part of its strategy of modernization. From 1947 to 1993, thousands of Puerto Rican workers migrated through the government of Puerto Rico's Farm Labor Program (García-Colón 2008: 270-5; García-Colón 2009: 108-11; Griffith and Kissam et al. …

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