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Birds of Passage

The phrase “birds of passage” was used to describe Mexican laborers who would come to the United States, work for low wages, then return to Mexic0. Growers who needed the laborers promoted this idea so that immigration laws that had been enacted to keep workers out of country for fear that they would stay could be manipulated.[1] A result of the Immigration Act of 1917, which barred “non-whites” from entering the country, Asian immigration was restricted which resulted in labor shortages. Because Mexicans were considered “white” at this time, they were still eligible to come to the United States provided that they could pass the literacy test and pay the head tax. This labor shortage was further exacerbated by the United States’ entry into World War I when many American and African Americans left the fields for military industries or to join the armed forces.[2] However, just because Mexicans were considered “white”, they were still “foreigners” and the fear that they would drastically change the social fabric of the country provided the impetus for anti-Mexican attitudes and behaviors.

California farmers sought to protect the false image of the family farm and communal pastoral image of farming as a vital aspect of the American dream despite industrialization and the fact that growers were businessmen not, for the most part, small time family farmers.[3] Mexican farm laborers provided a solution to the growers’ desire to protect their image. They could recruit laborers from south of the border and promote the idea that following the growing and harvesting seasons, immigrants would return to their homes in Mexico.

This falsehood ignored the social, political and economic issues which plagued the Mexican state at this time and those same factors which pushed Mexicans north. The Mexican Revolution in 1910 resulted in the “reduced ability of these farmers to sustain themselves and their families [in Mexico].” Without the ability to maintain lands, many faced starvation.[4] Some immigrants came to the United States seeking a better life and would in fact, return to Mexico once they had acquired the savings needed to do so.

Recruiting firms actively sought Mexican laborers to work in the “mining, railroads and intensive agriculture – [all of which] required large numbers of manual laborers.”[5] These firms advertised opportunities in both the border towns and interior. Labor contractors helped Mexicans secure employment before they left the country and even coached them on what to say to the immigration officials they encountered. They even offered bonuses to laborers for bringing their friends and relatives.[6] Employment in the United States offered several advantages including higher wages, new skills and a chance at a better life.

This “bird of passage” stereotype continues to inform our country’s perception of Mexican immigrants because it justifies and reinforces the unwelcome treatment that many receive upon arrival and throughout their daily lives. The assumption that Mexican immigrants are only sojourners and will return to their homeland contributes to the biases and racial discrimination experienced by so many. The instances of racial profiling by law enforcement, pulling people over because they happen to look Mexican, or denying access to education or healthcare is justified by this belief that Mexican immigrants can and should return to their homeland, contributes to the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear in the media by some politicians, especially in the western states.

The fact that the southwestern United States was at one time Mexican territory prior to the border being mapped out gives credence to this transnationalism. When the border was established, families and villages were divided. The free movement of people and goods was the norm, but that was halted upon the establishment of the border. The North American Free Trade Agreement ratified in 1994 was supposed to establish a free movement of goods across the border, why not people as well?

This persistent misconception about Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans perpetuated by this stereotype produces a continuous “underclass” of people who are placed “outside the legal, political, and social boundaries of the nation…”[7]which continues to be problematic when our institutions, especially schools and healthcare systems attempt to meet the needs of this population.



Guerin-Gonzales. Mexican Workers & American Dreams: Immigration, Repatriation, and California Farm Labor, 1900-1939. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

[1] Camille Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers and American Dreams: Immigration, Repatriation, and California Farm Labor, 1900-1939. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 24.

[2] Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers, 44.

[3] Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers, 23.

[4] Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers, 27.

[5] Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers, 30.

[6] Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers, 34.

[7] Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers, 47.

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