Material World: All Migrants are Workers

Anti-migrant feeling is running high in many countries. The anti-foreigner nationalists are having a feeding frenzy of xenophobia. The right-wing media publish headlines provoking panic. It is all too easy to blame immigrants for causing problems such as unemployment, bad housing or crime. An accusing finger can always be pointed at ‘them’ for making things worse for ‘us’. It is often alleged that ‘newcomers’ live off the backs of ‘locals’. If migration has led to the rise of the far-right ― it is only through the racist tactic of blaming economic woes on the new arrivals. Many ‘natives’ cannot contain their indignation that their ‘indigenous’ culture is being undermined. But what happens when those migrants are your ‘own folk’ from another part of the nation? Californians in the ’30s would have been amenable to a wall along the state’s eastern border, not its southern one.

During the 1930s the mid-west of the United States suffered a series of droughts that drove hundreds of thousands off their land. Many from Arkansas and Oklahoma headed westwards to California. They were the Dust Bowl refugees and 86,000 arrived in California from the drought states between June 1935 and September 1936 alone.

When they reached the Californian state line, they did not receive a warm reception. The Los Angeles police chief, James ‘Two-Gun’ Davis, deployed police at entry points into California with orders to turn back any with ‘no visible means of support’ (or, as Woody Guthrie, sang it, ‘if you ain’t got the Do Re Mi’. They were called ‘The Bum Brigade’ and were given specific orders to search all incoming cars, wagons, and trains.

When migrants reached California they found that most of the farmland was owned by large corporations run by managers so many gave up farming. 40 percent of the Dust Bowl refugees who became migrant workers ended up picking grapes and cotton in the San Joaquin Valley where they replaced the Mexicans who were deported. Even though tons of surplus food were produced, the Okies who worked on those farms suffered the very real threat of starvation. Author John Steinbeck witnessed the burning of extra produce by a California company – a result of the New Deal concept of limiting production of goods so that the demand, and thereby the price, would increase. Companies wanted to keep prices high, and so they destroyed excess food, crops, and livestock.

Other migrants settled near larger cities in shantytowns called Okievilles, on open lots local landowners divided into tiny subplots and sold cheaply in monthly instalments. They built their houses from scavenged scraps, and they lived without plumbing and electricity. Polluted water and a lack of trash and waste facilities led to outbreaks of typhoid, malaria, smallpox and tuberculosis.

The California Citizens Association formed in 1938 and its secretary, Thomas W McManus made clear its attitude towards the newcomers:

‘No greater invasion by the destitute has ever been recorded in the history of mankind… Californian jobs go to Californians and not to the horde of empty bellies from the Southwest’.

It succeeded in extending the waiting period for California relief from one to three years, vigorously supported by the agricultural corporations who were resorting to their usual knavish tricks in order to guarantee a cheap, surplus supply of labour. The purpose of the California Citizens’ Association was to offer wages below the minimum decency standard of relief, and to enforce this wage rate by giving workers no alternative – the usual ‘work or starve’. At this point, the California Citizens’ Association dropped its disguise and became the Associated Farmers, Inc. The powerful Associated Farmers (the growers) feared the ‘Okies’ might unionise and demand better wages. They feared that white migrants would not prove to be as docile as the Mexican workers.

A Californian called Fred Edwards drove his destitute brother-in-law from Texas into California in 1939, and was found guilty of violating a California statute criminalizing transportation of indigents into California. In 1941, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down the California statute as unconstitutional and no longer did individual states possess the authority to interfere in the free movement of peoples. Once war approached and the West Coast industries boomed, many migrants abandoned the fields and orchards for the shipyards and armament factories. In fact, during the 1940s the number of people coming to California from the Prairies actually increased.

Donald Trump’s incitement of the anti-immigration sentiment is not new. Immigrants to America have always been feared and hated.

What people were saying about the Irish or the Chinese or the Okies in the past, they now say about Hispanics. There is always another group to look upon as a threat, and demagogues like Trump use that to gather support and garner power.


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