William & Mary

"No Man's Land": Hahamovitch on U.S. guestworkers


They exist on the periphery, neither slave nor free.  Apple pickers, crab pickers, tobacco pickers, they follow the harvests, toiling often in unseemly conditions for precious dollars they cannot earn in their native lands. They are America’s H2 guestworkers. They do the “dirty” jobs, the “most dangerous” work, while living in what W&M Professor of History Cindy Hahamovitch calls “No Man’s Land.”

Her recent book, No Man’s Land: Jamaican Guestworkers and the Global History of Deportable Labor, chronicles the global labor movement while looking specifically at the U.S. H2 program, the second-oldest guestworker program in the world. Created in 1942 to manage agricultural workers, mostly from Jamaica, who would supplement the domestic labor force during World War II, it began with international fanfare and what Hahamovitch termed “liberal-minded oversight.” Participants, restricted to service north of the Mason-Dixon line by agreement between U.S. and British colonial officials, were treated as war heroes.

“They were greeted with marching bands,” Hahamovitch said. ”They were given the keys to New York. They were taken to churches by the local farmers' daughters.” Although isolated problems were encountered, the workers had their own liaison officers and federal officials charged with looking after their interests.

At the same time growers in the South, led by Floridian sugarcane producers, applied pressure to have H2 workers assigned to their states. Within months, that occurred.

“When these workers arrived in Florida, they were met by officials of the sugarcane companies who are more accustomed to working with convicts, so the sugarcane managers met them with blackjacks and guns,” Hahamovitch said.

As the program was perpetuated during successive decades, the Southern method of dealing with workers became the model, Hahamovitch explained. That occurred, in part, because oversight of the program was shifted from the labor friendly Farm Security Administration to the industry-friendly U.S. Department of Agriculture. Growers quickly latched onto the obvious advantages of hiring guestworkers over domestic workers.  They could not strike. They could not quit and walk down the street to take another job. If they created trouble, their employers simply could have them deported.

In her book, Hahamovitch traces subsequent developments in the plight of agricultural workers, including their attempts to organize, their relationships with U.S. labor unions and what she calls their “symbiosis” with illegal immigrants: As guestworkers found conditions intolerable, they did walk away, swelling the ranks of the undocumented work force. She also addresses instances in which growers pitted guestworkers from one country against those of other countries, as well as against domestic laborers, in successful efforts to keep wages low. “It resulted in a race to the bottom, where groups competed for a limited number of jobs and conditions remained very poor; they remain very poor ’til this day,” Hahamovitch said.

“When I started the book, I thought that these workers were somewhere on a spectrum between slavery and freedom,” she said. “By the end of the book, I concluded that for these people slavery and freedom were two sides of the same coin: that they essentially were volunteering to bind themselves for a period of time. They were agents. They were making decisions. But really, for rural Jamaicans, there were very few choices. This was their only source of cash. People competed to do it although they recognized they often were cheated and mistreated.”

As U.S. politicians consider expanding guestworker programs in light of recently implemented E-Verify laws that punish employers who hire “illegal immigrants,” Hahamovitch worries that abuses will increase. She is not convinced that federal promises of oversight “hold much weight.” They are too easily abandoned when confronted with pressures from industry. She sees little hope for improvements as long as growers determine who will be deported. Likewise, she is concerned about U.S. policies that close the routes to citizenship for these workers. She suggests that such routes be opened.

“We have to think bigger,” Hahamovitch said. “We can’t have our cake and eat it, too. We can’t have foreign workers and refuse to integrate them into our society ... . We had that world before: we called it Jim Crow. I think the expansion of guestworker programs runs the risk of creating a new kind of apartheid in the United States.”