Mexicans in Idaho history
"These people [Mexican migrant workers] don't want shade. They enjoy hot weather." Floyd Bandy of the Twin Falls Farm Labor Association on why no trees were planted around the association's migrant labor camp, 1956. (1)
Twenty-first century Idaho has quickly become one of the nation’s most popular destinations for Mexican immigration. But Mexican immigration to the Snake River basin long predates Idaho statehood. An understanding of that phenomenon demands a review of historical factors starting with the present situation and placing it in historical
perspective. On July 27, 2005, Canyon County filed a lawsuit in United States District Court for the District of Idaho Southern Division against two seed companies who grow and process corn and other agricultural commodities in Canyon County. The complaint also went against a cheese processor and meat packer, each of whom operate large facilities in the county. County commissioners, led by Robert Vasquez, charged that the companies knowingly hire “large numbers of illegal immigrants” in what the suit referred to as “the Illegal Immigrant Hiring Scheme.” The county is suing the defendants in federal court under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) that was passed by Congress in the 1960s to give authorities power to bring Mafia gangsters to justice. Canyon County alleged in the suit that the county “has been damaged by the Illegal Immigrant Hiring Scheme because it has paid millions of dollars for health care services and criminal justice services for the illegal immigrants who have been employed by the defendants in violation of federal law.”3 The county’s complaint also charged Albert Pacheco, Executive Director of the Idaho Migrant Council, and the Idaho Migrant Council “of conspiring to harbor illegal immigrants in Farmway Village,” a public housing project where many migrant workers live.4 The county’s suit seeks reimbursement “triple the damages each [defendant] has caused Canyon County through its or his racketeering activity .... ”5
Canyon County’s action reflects growing anger and fear in Idaho and elsewhere in the United States with what some perceive as an invasion of Mexicans and others across borders that the U.S. government cannot or will not effectively control. Since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., in September 2001, the issue of “illegal aliens” swarming across U.S. borders has moved into the public conscience where it is not just an economic concern, but a national security threat as well. If the federal government estimated that 10 million people (some estimates are as high as 24 million) have illegally entered and are living in the country as of November 2004, what guarantee is there that all of them are here for peaceful economic reasons?6 That is a concern, of course, but the issue for most Idahoans and Americans focuses on increasing immigration in general, and on illegal immigration in particular. Recently, pollsters for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal learned that 48 percent of Americans believed that immigration “detracts from our character and weakens the United States.” Only 41 percent thought immigration improved the country. 7 Recent numbers for legal and illegal immigrants, nationally and in Idaho, are much higher than they have been historically. A brief look at the numbers will make this clear.
The chart shows that in the decade from 1901 to 1910, 8,795,386 legal immigrants were admitted into the country. More immigrants arrived in that decade than during any other before or since, until we come to the 1990s, when more than 9 million arrived. The reason immigration numbers dropped after 1920 is because Congress passed legislation that imposed quotas on certain ethnic groups, limiting their entry into the U.S. Prior to this, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese from entering the country and a 1907 “Gentleman’s Agreement” with Japan effectively ended Japanese immigration. But since 1990 Congress has allowed more than 1 million people to immigrate each year. Immigrants now make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, up from 11 percent in 2000 according to a report from the Pew Hispanic Center. The estimated number of illegal immigrants grew by about 2 million between 2000 and 2004, about half a million each year. 8 The fastest growing group in the U.S., both through immigration and natural increase, is the group labeled Hispanic.
Idaho’s rather steady economic growth since the mid-1980s has attracted the majority of the migrants, both Hispanic and others. Obviously, if jobs did not exist, people would not come to Idaho. Because population increase among Idaho’s minority peoples has been so overwhelmingly Latino, the majority began to take notice and express concern. Unfortunately, these concerns manifest themselves in ways that target Mexicans, people of Mexican heritage and other Latinos as a threat to some ill-defined “American culture.” The national and local debate may focus narrowly on illegal immigration, but hovering always in the background is the broader issue of how the large influx of immigrants into the United States in general, and into Idaho in particular, will change the prevailing culture and value system. This question currently divides many Americans, but it is particularly evident within the ruling Republican Party at the national and state level. President George W. Bush and Idaho’s Senator Larry Craig speak for those business interests and others that want a relaxation of immigration controls and advocate granting legal status to those undocumented workers who have jobs and can prove that they have been in the country gainfully employed for a certain period of time.11 They believe not only that this is good for the business community, but that immigration in general is good for America.
Many Democrats and non-affiliated groups share that view. Republican Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado, on the other hand, stood shoulder to shoulder with citizen soldiers of the Minuteman Project on the Arizona-Mexican border in April 2005 and demanded that the federal government put an end to illegal immigration. Just weeks after the elections last November, Tancredo spearheaded a movement of insurgent Republicans in a revolt against the Bush administration’s immigration policy. He is working to upset a bi-partisan and Bush-supported plan to allow undocumented workers to gain legal employment in the U.S. His bill would suspend legal work visas, increase fines for employers who hire illegals, and use the military to guard the border. He also supports groups in other states pushing for laws that would deny government services to illegal immigrants.12 In Idaho, Canyon County Commissioner Robert Vasquez has taken on the state’s Republican leadership and their business allies with his federal RICO lawsuit to stop, and to punish, those who knowingly hire undocumented workers.13
Mexicans who became Americans after the U.S. conquered their territory in 1848 have lived in Idaho since the 1860s. They were miners, muleteers, ranchers, cowboys and laborers. The 1870 census counted 60 Latinos living in the Idaho Territory, most of whom were of Mexican descent. One of these, Jesus Urquides (1833-1928), distinguished himself as a premier muleteer, and through his skills in packing needed food and equipment into inaccessible mining camps, made a significant contribution to the early mining history of the region.14 In the first decade of the twentieth century, Utah-Idaho Sugar Company built a rendering plant in eastern Idaho at Lincoln and began to import Mexican workers by sending Spanish-speaking recruiters to the Mexican border. The eruption of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) coincided with an economic boom in the southwest, west and northwest regions of the U.S. With the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, the U.S. economy boomed and Mexicans fleeing the chaos and turmoil in their own country found their labor eagerly sought after north of the border. When the U.S. entered the European war in 1917 it sought to ease its labor shortage by agreeing to a contract labor program with Mexico. Sometimes called the “first bracero program,” its rules obligated U.S. employers to contract Mexican workers at recruiting centers. There, before immigration officers, they agreed to the wages paid, the length of time of the contract (limited to no more than six months), a description of the work to be done and accommodations to be provided to Mexican workers. The agreement obligated growers to notify immigration officials when contracts were broken to help locate the individual should this occur. “As it turned out few of the agreements were kept, the program was plagued with problems, and Mexico was more than happy to see it end on December 31, 1919.” 15
Idaho sugar companies and the railroads recruited some of those early twentieth century braceros to work the fields and rail lines in southern Idaho. It’s unknown precisely how many people they brought in, but according to newspaper articles and information collected by Idaho Labor Commissioner William J.A. McVety, who investigated complaints of abuse against Mexicans working in southern Idaho, there were likely more than 2,000, 500 of whom were women and children. 16 McVety’s investigation revealed that in the Twin Falls, Burley and Paul area, there were 200 Mexicans who arrived voluntarily and worked as field hands for individual farmers in an arrangement with Amalgamated Sugar Company. He found that the workers were satisfied with their arrangement and “no complaints were brought to light.” A completely different situation prevailed in the Idaho Falls, Shelley and Blackfoot region. There, “complaints were numerous regarding their accounts [wage agreement], living quarters and about winter clothing.” More than 1,500 of these workers had been brought to the area as contract laborers (braceros) in an arrangement between the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company and the U.S. government. 17 The commissioner concluded that the workers were not faring well and that “too much is left to the supervision of the Sugar Company.” The contracts, he said, gave the company too much power over the workers. He warned the governor that for the sugar beet industry to survive it needed Mexican workers, but company labor abuses put the future survival of the company in jeopardy. 18
Desperate for work
As mentioned above, the bracero program ended in 1919, but Mexican immigration to the United States and to Idaho did not. They came despite company abuse of workers, hard work, long hours, miserable pay, unscrupulous labor contractors, and filthy and deplorable living conditions. Idaho’s growers and out-of-state agribusinesses shamelessly exploited these people who were desperate because their own country’s economy could not sustain them. Their migration northward was facilitated by the very railroads many of them helped to build. U.S. immigration policies in the 1920s excluded Chinese, Japanese, southern and eastern Europeans, but not Mexicans. Even the immigration head tax was often waived as a gesture to the farm lobby. Despite the fact that the 1920 Idaho census reported only 1,215 Idaho residents born in Mexico, the numbers had to be much greater. The census does not tell us how many Americans of Mexican descent lived in Idaho during the 1920s. Moreover, census takers conducted their surveys at times when those forced into the migratory labor circuit were working elsewhere; for example, the 1920 census was taken in January and 10 years later it was conducted in March. Both of these months are slack times in Idaho for people working in agriculture. They would have been obligated by necessity to work out of state just to survive, returning to Idaho in tune with the state’s agricultural needs. Local newspaper stories cast further doubt on census figures for Mexicans living and working in Idaho when they reported large numbers arriving to work in the fields.19
Subsequent official Mexican requests for improved treatment of the work force apparently had little impact on the way in which produce companies did business. In the summer of 1935, 1,500 pea pickers, most of them Mexican, went on strike in Teton County over the by-now familiar complaints of unfair wages. J. Asuncion Perez, whose family lived in Idaho Falls and traveled to Driggs to pick peas every summer, described the trouble that unfolded in an interview in 1990. He claimed that one of the produce companies had hired armed men and they threatened “to massacre the Mexicans if they insurrected.” 22 Fear of escalating violence prompted local authorities to call on Governor C. Ben Ross to declare martial law in the county and send in the Idaho National Guard. National guardsmen arrived in Driggs on August 15, 1935, and broke the strike by arresting more than 100 “Mexicans who were causing the trouble” as well as “a few American agitators and some parasites and camp followers.” 23 Held under guard until paid their back wages, the troopers then hustled them out of the county and warned them not to return. The remaining pea pickers went back to work. In retrospect, these workers civil rights’ had been violated, but in the context of what happened to poor people in general and other Mexican nationals and Americans of Mexican heritage during the Great Depression, violation of one’s civil rights was a secondary concern overshadowed by the need to survive.
Mobilization for war effectively ended the Depression and demand for farm labor in all sectors grew as domestic migrants found better paying jobs in factories and elsewhere. As early as 1941 farm federations requested that the United States Employment Service import thousands of Mexican contract workers. To the credit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Farm Security Administration, they resisted the farm lobby pressure, believing that importing Mexican contract labor would hamper efforts to increase wages for domestic migrant farm workers. They also insisted that, just as some do today, labor shortages would cease to exist if growers paid better wages to farm workers. 27 Large commercial growers especially in California, but in other states as well, had succeeded in keeping wages low during the depression and had defeated union organizers in bitter and oftentimes bloody battles. But all this would evaporate, they feared, if a steady, controllable surplus labor pool could not be found. In his study of the second bracero program agreed to between Mexico and the U.S in 1942, Juan Ramon Garcia notes that, “growers still maintained the belief that ethnic composition was a rationale for their continued exploitation of agricultural migrants. They continued to believe that they were entitled to a large supply of cheap labor, and that in fact they had an inherent right to it.” Throughout the existence of the bracero program these attitudes persisted, affecting the treatment of Mexican nationals. American growers’ racial attitudes helped to hinder the effective enforcement of the bracero agreement. “They would also cause serious ramifications, one of which was to increase the number of ‘illegals’ in the United States during the World War II period.” 28
With the exception of Texas, nowhere did this ring truer than in Idaho’s experience with the bracero program, when 15,600 Mexican men entered the state from 1942 to 1947. As the U.S. moved from a peace time to a war economy, the demand for farm labor accelerated and Idaho was no exception. Owing to New Deal reclamation projects that came to completion, Idaho and Oregon now counted an additional 2,895,000 acres brought under irrigation in 1940. 29 By 1942 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that farm labor shortages were greater in the Pacific Northwest than elsewhere in the country. Growers could not find workers and became desperate. Idaho’s Governor Chase A. Clark, once a professed friend of the state’s Japanese American community, reversed himself after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and warned it would be a “serious mistake” to allow “enemy aliens “ (Japanese) to come into Idaho unless “placed in concentration camps under military guard.” Under pressure from growers, he changed his position again and urged the USDA to send Japanese American workers to Idaho. 30 Closing pool halls, stores and suspending public services so that local citizens, together with the governor and hundreds of businessmen, could be pressed into farm labor did little to alleviate the crisis. But it taught them all just how hard it was to thin sugar beets. By June 1942, the Idaho State Farm Bureau Federation took steps to bring in more than 1,000 Mexican workers. Utah-Idaho Sugar Company filed a request as well.
Striking an agreement
The bracero agreement struck between Mexico and the U.S in the summer of 1942 was an attempt to supply the U.S. agricultural industry with sufficient contract workers on a temporary basis so as to alleviate the labor shortage crisis. The first Mexican agricultural laborers entered the U. S. under this agreement on September 27, 1942. By the time the program ended 22 years later, some 4.5 million Mexican men had entered the U.S. to work under contract. Not until April 1943 did the first braceros arrive in the Pacific Northwest, when 250 men stumbled off a train in Yakima dressed more for the warm climate of central Mexico than for the cold of the Northwest.
Braceros who came to Idaho and to other states arrived under contractual terms that adhered to four standards. First, Mexicans were not to be pressed into U.S, military service. Second, the contract workers were not to be discriminated against in any way. Third, they were to be guaranteed their living expenses and transportation from Mexican recruitment centers to the U.S. job site and back home at the end of the contract. Fourth, Mexicans were not to be contracted for the purpose of displacing domestic labor or for reducing wages. 31
disturbances. Striking braceros in Preston resumed work only when threatened with jail, forced labor and deportation. Five months later the same workers struck again over wages and called for consular assistance. This time the farmers ended the strike with violence when an area grower “assaulted one of the Mexicans and gave him a right good mauling.” 33 Upset about wages, 400 Mexicans in Nampa went on strike on June 17, 1946. The strike spread to Marsing, Franklin, Upper Deer Flat and to Amalgamated Sugar Company camps where over 600 Mexicans walked off the job. Only intervention by the Mexican consul in Salt Lake City brought an end to the walkout 10 days later after he arranged for a hearing to air worker grievances. Contention over wages continued to strain farmer-bracero relations. With the lowest wages and the most “recalcitrant farmers” compared with other Northwest states, “braceros’ strikes in Idaho were more serious and prolonged.” Idaho also gained the most notorious reputation for discrimination against the braceros, especially in Canyon County. “Prejudice became so common and deep-seated,” wrote one historian, “that in 1946 the Mexican government threatened to forbid its workers to go into the state and two years later made good on its threat.” 34 Idaho and Texas earned the dubious distinction of being the only states blacklisted by the Mexican government for discriminating against its citizens.
The need for agricultural labor in Idaho continued after the war and into the 1950s. New technical advances in deep well pumping, more acreage brought under cultivation, and new food processing plants meant increased demand for labor. Many of these jobs were seasonal, the pay was low, conditions were harsh, and few locals came forth to take them. The bracero program underwent changes after 1948 and continued to operate in the southwest until 1964, but braceros no longer came directly from Mexico to Idaho. Even during the war, growers did not depend solely on braceros to do all the work. They turned also to Mexican nationals not on contract (many of these were braceros who broke their contracts over ill treatment, poor housing and insufficient pay), and Mexican American families from southern Texas and other states who journeyed north on a migrant circuit in search of work. Their numbers increased after the war. As braceros continued to arrive in the Southwest, Mexican Americans left to pursue higher paying jobs and expanding opportunities elsewhere. For Idaho growers and the state’s political leaders, Mexican Americans proved the ideal farm workers. They supplied their own transportation, had the requisite agricultural skills and experience, worked for lower wages than locals, made few if any demands on social services and moved on when the task was completed. Essential to the prosperity of the state’s agricultural sector, they were almost invisible.
Finding their way
In the decades of the 1950s and 1960s, however, all that began to change. After enduring several years of nomadic life, if the opportunities emerged, many of these families settled permanently in Idaho where they sought to make a better life for themselves and their children. To encourage migrants to come to Idaho, the Legislature created the Governor’s Migratory Labor Committee. The committee oversaw modest attempts to improve housing conditions and issued annual reports. 35 Disturbed by their increasing awareness of the dire conditions under which migrants lived, Protestant religious organizations formed the Southern Idaho Migrant Ministry (SIMM) to pressure government and the farm industry to improve conditions. The census for 1950, 1960 and beyond demonstrates the demographic changes that occurred. As noted before, census figures should be used with a certain amount of caution. With that in mind, of a total population of 588,637 in 1950, census enumerators counted 2,365 people of “Spanish descent.” Only 326 claimed to have been born in Mexico. When it is remembered that the 1920 census found 1,215 people living in the state who were born in Mexico it would appear that the Mexican-born population of Idaho was in decline by 1950. That may be true, but 10 years later the Mexican-born segment of the population rose dramatically to 1,010, or one-third of a population of 3,341 of “Spanish descent,” out of a total state population of 667,191. As in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the 1950s and 1960s, newspaper accounts, company records and other sources provide a picture of a constant and growing presence of seasonal Mexican American agricultural workers who came and went with the demands of the planting and harvesting cycle. 36
1 Minutes of a hearing to consider proposed migratory labor camp regulation for adoption by the Idaho State Board of Health, Boise, ID, April 30, 1956. Cited in Robin Peterson, “Idaho Migrant Labor Camps, 1930-1980.” M A thesis, Boise State University, Boise, ID, 2000, 39.
3 Canyon County versus Syngenta Seeds, Inc., Sorrento Lactalis, Inc., Swift Beef Company, Harris Moran Seed Company, Idaho Migrant Council, Inc., and Albert Pacheco. I.2. Copy of complaint in possession of the author. Canyon County subsequently dropped its complaint against the Idaho Migrant Council, but not against Pacheco, its executive director. Idaho Statesman, September 8, 2005, Local 3.
4 Canyon County versus Syngenta Seeds, Inc., V.37.
5 Ibid. VI.45.A.
6 The Idaho Statesman, November 11, 2004, Main 8.
7 Michael Scherer, “Scrimmage on the Border,” Mother Jones, July and August, 2005, 53.
8 Report cited in The Idaho Statesman, November 11, 2004, Main 8.
9 These figures come from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2000 census and its various annual estimates. http://www.census.gov/main/www/cen2000.html. Accessed August 21, 2005.
10 Jeffery S. Passel, “Estimates of the Size and Characteristics of the Undocumented Population,” Pew Hispanic Center Report, March 21, 2005, 6, table 1. Contrast these estimates with those for neighboring states like Oregon and Nevada with 100,000-150,000, Utah with 55,000-85,000 and Washington with 200,000-250,000. http://pewhispanic.org/files/reports/44.pdf. Accessed August 28, 2005. Passel's estimates are for 2000-2002. For current estimates see those of Huei Hsia Wu "By the Numbers: Mexican Workers and Idaho" in this issue.
11 Senator Craig's AgJobs bill is called "Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act of 2003." In author's possession obtained from Senator Craig's office. Ron Fournier, “Bush hopes to push Immigration Plan.” The Idaho Statesman, August 28, 2005, Main 14.
12 Scherer, “Scrimmage on the Border,” 54
13 Canyon County v. Syngenta Seed, et al.
14 Max Delgado, “Jesus Urquides.” Booklet soon to be published by the HCCI, 2005.
15 Juan Ramon García, Operation Wetback: The Mass Deportation of Mexican Undocumented Workers in 1954. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980, 21.
16 Errol D. Jones and Kathleen R. Hodges, “A Long Struggle: Mexican Farm Workers in Idaho, 1918-1935. 54. In Jerry Garcia and Gilberto Garcia, eds., Memory, Community, and Activism: Mexican Migration and Labor in the Pacific Northwest. East Lansing, MI: Julian Samora Research Institute, Michigan State University, 2005
18 McVety’s report can be read in its entirety in William J.A. McVety files in the Idaho State Historical Society, Library and Archives, MS 307, box 1, folder 3.
19 Margo J. Anderson, The American Census: A Social History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988; Idaho Farmer, 13 October, 1921, noted that Amalgamated Sugar brought in 500 Mexican field hands to the Twin Falls area alone and was trying to recruit more.
20 Errol D. Jones, “The Shooting of Pedro Rodriguez.” Idaho Yesterdays. Vol. 46. No. 2 (Spring/Summer 2005) 40-55.
21 Jones and Hodges, “A Long Struggle,” 70-74. For Colunga’s report see Mexican Vice Consul at Salt Lake City Elias Colunga to Secretariat of Foreign Relations, September 1, 1931, Archivo Historico del Secretario de Relaciones Exteriores (Mexico City), File No. IV-193-22, Exp.241.8/(73-54). The photos Colunga took are appended to this report. So far, searches in Idaho’s archives for copies of the photos have proved futile.
22 Quoted in Jones and Hodges, 78.
23 Ibid., 81
24 Jim Gentry, In the Middle and on the Edge: The Twin Falls Region of Idaho, Twin Falls: College of Southern Idaho, Twin Falls Centennial Commission, 2003, 269-70.
25 Erasmo Gamboa, Mexican Labor and World War II: Braceros in the Pacific Northwest, 1942-1947. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990, 14-15. Depression wages were so low that locals refused to work for them, but still complained when growers imported Mexican migrants who were not eligible for relief unless they could prove state residency of three uninterrupted years.
26 Erasmo Gamboa, ed. Voces Hispanas: Hispanic Voices of Idaho: Excepts from the Idaho Hispanic Oral History Project. Boise: Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs and Idaho Humanities Council, 1992, 21.
27 García, Operation Wetback, 18.
28 Ibid. 20-21.
29 Gamboa, Mexican Labor and World War II, 26
30 Robert C. Sims, “‘A Fearless, Patriotic, Clean-Cut Stand:’ Idaho’s Governor Clark and Japanese-American Relocation in World War II.” Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 70 Number 2 (April 1979), 75 for quotation; Gamboa, Mexican Labor and World War II, 28-29.
31 Richard B. Craig, The Bracero Program: Interest Groups and Foreign Policy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971, 43; the agreement is reproduced in Garcia, Operation Wetback, Appendix 1, 241-45.
32 Gamboa, Mexican Labor and World War II, 68-73
33 Ibid., 83; Errol D. Jones and Kathleen Rubinow Hodges, “Writing the History of Latinos in Idaho.” In Robert McCarl, Latinos in Idaho: Celebrando Cultura. Boise: Idaho Humanities Council, 2003, 22, for strikes in Twin Falls.
34 Gamboa, Mexican Labor and World War II, for both quotations, 84 and 112 respectively. Discrimination and blatant racism toward Mexicans was not a universal in the state. Many communities welcomed the Mexican workers and showed them great hospitality and kindness.
35 Peterson, “Idaho Migrant Labor Camps,” 23-25.
36 Overall population statistics come from Idaho State Historical Society Reference Series, Ethnic Composition of Idaho’s population, 1860-1990 Estimated #996 found at (http://www.idahohistory.net/reference_series.html). Accessed, 8/13/05; ethnic break owns come from U.S. Census Population Characteristics. I am indebted to my colleague Kathleen Rubinow Hodges for bringing this information to my attention.