Historical Background of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program

Today’s post was written by Gabrielle Downer, Ph.D. Archivist in the Textual Processing Division at the National Archives at College Park

Harmony Community, Putnam County, Georgia. Negroes in the Harmony Community. [NAID 521375]

Historically, the agricultural industry has been generally unable to meet the labor demands since the 1940s. During World War II, the United States suffered drastically from food and labor shortages. Farm workers joined the armed forces and many women and children had to support themselves. Families had to compensate for the loss of their fellow farm workers and work on the farms themselves. Undesirably, the food and labor industry was still scare and more farm hands were needed.

 Due to labor shortages, the government started the Bracero Program. This program imported temporary laborers from Mexico to work on the farms. In addition to the Bracero Program, the H-2A Guestworker Program was also created to hire workers from other countries. Migrants from the Caribbean were highly preferred for recruitment under this program. Caribbean workers were primarily hired to cut sugar cane, but if granted permission, they were allowed to work on other farms.   These programs provided an opportunity for foreign workers to conduct short-term agricultural work.


Eloy District, Pinal County, Arizona. Mexican irrigator. He came from Mexico 12 years ago, works the year round on this large-scale farm. These fields are being prepared for flax; have never had a crop before. [NAID 522190]

The agricultural industry is the key to economic survival in the United States.  The migrant workers paved the way for the evolution of the agricultural industry, globally and economically. Conveniently, the United States benefited from the migrant laborers hard work, however, many guest workers were not able to share the same advantages. Since the 1940s immigration policies and labor regulations have transformed to control and target Caribbean and Latino immigrants. Immigration policies were created to set boundaries and limit the amount of immigrants to enter into the United States.

Economic and social conditions was the catalyst of motivation for migrant workers to join the guest worker programs. The objective of these programs were to maintain labor and keep it cheap. Many migrant workers suffered from wage embezzlement, horrible living conditions, separation from their families, and cultural displacement. During the 1960s, the labor movement changed drastically. These issues came to awareness with the assistance of labor unions such as the United Farm Workers-UFW and the AFL-CIO-American Unions. These unions played a crucial role during the Civil Rights and Chicano movement. Major laws were passed such as the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The legislation may have helped some migrants, but issues still occurred long after the 1970s. The H-2A seasonal guest worker program still allows agricultural workers to come to the U.S. and they are exploited and at risk for deportation. Till this day, migrant works still suffer from these issues and change in immigration policies are still tugging at Caribbean and Latin American migrants.

Photographs depicting H-2A workers can be found in the series Photographic Prints Documenting Programs and Activities of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics and Predecessor Agencies, 1922-1947 (NAID 521048) in RG 83. For records relating to the H-2A Program, a good starting point is General Correspondence and Related Materials, 1943-1948 (NAID 823780) in RG 33.

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