The Acting Secretary of State to the Secretary of Labor (Tobin)

My Dear Mr. Secretary: Reference is made to your observations concerning the use of Mexican labor on United States farms and to your recent discussion of this subject with Secretary Acheson.1

[Page 966]

Farmers in the South and Southwest have long employed, during certain seasons of the year, a large number of transient Mexican laborers whose custom it has been to cross over into the United States for periods when farm labor is in demand.

This movement of labor back and forth across the frontier has created a number of problems which for a period of years have been subjects of discussion between the American and Mexican Governments.

In these discussions, the Mexican Government has consistently asserted that American employers have discriminated against and unjustly exploited Mexican laborers, taking advantage not only of the temporary character of their residence in the United States, but of the illegal nature of their emigration and their consequent reluctance to appeal to law enforcement agencies of our Government. These assertions reflect the views of a large body of opinion in Mexico.

Moreover, the demand for farm labor has constantly increased in Mexico with the result that the Mexican Government is subject to additional political pressures from Mexican employer groups to prevent an exodus of Mexican workers to the United State.

In order to provide a legal and orderly basis, acceptable to the Mexican Government, for the temporary employment of Mexican labor in the United States, an agreement with Mexico was entered into on August 1, 1949. In essence, this agreement provides for the contracting in Mexico of laborers under terms and conditions which are deemed to safeguard the interests of the workers; it also permits the workers to enter the United States legally for temporary periods.

Unfortunately, many American farmers in the South and Southwest, accustomed to the employment of “wetback” labor entering our territory in violation of our immigration laws, considered that the terms of the agreement were onerous and neglected to contract for labor in Mexico in accordance with the terms of the agreement. At the same time, representatives of labor in this country expressed their opposition to the agreement for opposite reasons; they oppose the entry of any Mexican labor because it will allegedly aggravate the unemployment problem and keep farm wages low. The whole matter of migratory labor, with special emphasis on Mexican workers employed in the United States, is, as you know, now under study by a special commission appointed by the President2 which is expected to submit its findings and recommendations next December.

Meanwhile, the general decline in unemployment in the United States, the drift of American farm workers to industry which is expanding as a result of the Korean conflict, and the accelerated rhythm of deportation of Mexican farm labor, have combined to create a [Page 967] shortage of farm labor in this country which presently is particularly acute in California, where the harvesting season is now at its peak.

In order to alleviate this situation, the Embassy at Mexico; City, as well as this Department, has been almost continuously negotiating with the Mexican Government since last June. As a result of our insistence on August 15, 1950, President Alemán personally intervened to facilitate contracting of Mexican labor at several border points.3 As a result of President Alemán’s intervention, about 19,000 Mexican workers were contracted at El Paso, Texas, and 10,000 more in the lower Rio Grande Valley area. However, at Calexico, California, almost no contracting is taking place notwithstanding the presence just across the border of several thousand workers reported to be eager to cross into the United States to work; the principal reason advanced by the Mexican Government for its reluctance to facilitate passage across the frontier of these workers is that they are needed on Mexican farms in Lower California where there is a shortage of labor but where wages are not competitive with those paid in California.

In the most recent negotiations, the Mexican Government has taken the position that while it is not able to permit workers to leave Lower California, it consents to the contracting under the terms of the 1949 agreement of its workers already in the United States, regardless of whether they are here legally or illegally, even though this would be a deviation from the terms of the agreement. If this Mexican offer were accepted it is probable that the scarcity of farm labor in California would be alleviated.

However, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has, I understand, been reluctant to permit the contracting of workers illegally in the United States because it considers that this would encourage further illegal entry of Mexican migratory farm labor at a time when strenuous efforts are being made to deport laborers already illegally in the United States. If, in your opinion, the obtaining of additional farm labor is of great importance to the national economy, may I suggest that your Department consider with the Department of Justice the question of whether the national interest will be best served by continuing the present policy or by accepting the suggestions of the Mexican Government. This decision would appear to be a domestic one.

This Department, recognizing the importance of the problem, will in the meantime continue to discuss with the Mexican Government on an urgent basis the possibility of contracting for additional workers in Mexico. However, in as much as a change by the Mexican Government in its position would almost certainly subject it to criticism from its [Page 968] own people for the reasons already explained, there can be no certainty that our efforts will be successful, particularly since Mexican officials consider that they have already made ample concessions in order to meet the United States’ need.4

Sincerely yours,

James E. Webb
  1. In a memorandum of October 4 to Mr. Webb, Mr. Barber said in part that Secretary Tobin had raised the Mexican agricultural labor issue at the Cabinet meeting held September 30. Mr. Barber did not describe the content of Secretary Tobin’s remarks. (811.06–M/10–650)
  2. On June 3, 1950, the White House announced the formation and membership of the President’s Commission on Migratory Labor.
  3. Documents in file 811.06–M for August, 1950, indicate that the agreement of July 28 (described in footnote 5 to the memorandum of July 17 by Mr. Rubottom, p. 954) was ineffective in some areas because of a shortage of illegal migrants available for reentry and that the Embassy had made strong representations to obtain legal entry of farm workers.
  4. No record of the Labor Department’s response to this letter has been found in Department of State files.

    The Mexican Foreign Office, in its Note No. 627985 of October 20, approved procedures for contracting 25,000 additional workers for farm labor in the United States. The procedures were similar to those in the agreement of July 28. (enclosure to despatch No. 1020 from Mexico City, October 23, 811.06–M/10–2350)

    Documents in file 811.06–M for November and December 1950 indicate that the two countries were then, at the behest of the United States, preparing for extensive talks on farm labor matters.