Month: March 2021

Articles

“Our Job Is to Get It Picked”: Volunteerism, Coercion, and the California Farm Labor Crisis of 1942

Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts

On September 9, 1942, the members of the Merchants Association of Fresno, the largest city in California’s San Joaquin Valley, called an emergency session to respond to a burgeoning crisis. For much of the year, farmers and ranchers in the Valley—among the most productive agricultural regions in the United States—had struggled to secure sufficient hands to tend to their crops and herds. This labor shortage became particularly acute in early September, when checkups revealed that more than half of the region’s highly perishable raisin grape crop remained unpicked. In Fresno County alone, officials insisted on September 9, five thousand additional workers were needed to get the remaining grapes off their vines and on to drying trays over the next eight days. Otherwise, grape growers, and the Valley economy that the lucrative crop helped to fuel, would suffer a devastating blow. So, too, would American servicemen who were battling Axis Powers overseas. “These raisins,” Irvine S. Terrell, chairman of the Area Agricultural War Manpower Commission, told Merchants Association members, “must be made for the soldiers, sailors and marines on the fighting fronts, as requested by the government.” And if the raisins were not made immediately, Terrell warned, “you merchants are going to see the government step in and allocate labor.”[1]

Terrell and his colleagues on the newly established Area Agricultural War Manpower Commission (AAWMC), which had jurisdiction over the southern section of the San Joaquin Valley, singled out Fresno residents—and especially the employees of local businesses—for failing to volunteer to assist with the vital grape harvest. Earlier that day, at a meeting between the AAWMC and the Fresno County Chamber of Commerce, Terrell had chastised “city people” for not contributing. “The school children are doing a fine job,” he insisted, “but when we can get only 200 or 300 people out of the stores to help in the harvest something is wrong.”[2]

At the emergency Merchants Association of Fresno meeting a few hours later, local business owners agreed to immediately commence a recruitment program to enlist 25% of clerks at Fresno businesses to take leave from their jobs and report to Valley vineyards. They hoped that this plan would add at least six hundred more grape pickers each day, putting a sizeable dent in the five thousand–person county-wide shortage.[3]

The recruitment program, combined with the broader mobilization of community members throughout the Valley that had begun in August and would last through the end of the year, worked. By September 16, just a week after the emergency session, Valley officials were praising what later became known as the Victory Harvest Army—comprising furloughed store workers as well as students, housewives, and other community members—for rescuing the grape harvest. “This voluntary movement of local volunteers to the fields and vineyards,” announced Willard S. Marsh of Fresno’s United States Employment Service office, “has been the salvation of the crops.” Marsh estimated that ten thousand people—fully 5% of the county’s population—had been employed by farms since the start of September. “Unless the movement slackens,” he added, “Fresno County’s raisin variety grape harvest will be virtually complete within a week.” Marsh was particularly keen to thank the area’s grammar and high school students for their willingness to lend a hand.[4]

The Victory Harvest Army was in some ways a model of patriotism, volunteerism, and community cooperation. Faced with an unprecedented crisis, San Joaquin Valley residents from all walks of life rallied together to salvage the year’s raisin grape crop as well as a handful of others, including a cotton crop valued at $51 million.[5] Through these efforts, they not only helped to rescue the region’s most important industry from potential ruin but also contributed to the worldwide struggle between freedom and democracy on the one hand, and tyranny and fascism on the other. Even if they could not produce munitions in a factory or use them on the battlefield, the harvest gave Valley civilians an opportunity to do their part.

Yet Irvine Terrell’s warning that Fresno clerks might be compelled to take to the fields exposes the fact that the successful 1942 harvest was not without its problems and ironies, some of which belied the very ideals for which American soldiers were fighting overseas. As the labor shortage worsened in the latter half of the year, for one, Valley authorities targeted individuals and businesses that did not appear to be aiding the harvest, at times even attempting to coerce “vagrants” and other reluctant workers into the fields.[6] Communities across the Valley also experimented with the practice of promising leniency to prisoners who cooperated, while at the same time threatening harsher sentences for those who refused.

California’s 1942 farm labor shortage spurred a nasty public debate as well, much of which played out in the pages of the Fresno Bee, the Valley’s leading newspaper. While some residents hoped to tap Mexican nationals and especially Japanese internees held that summer in area relocation centers, others denounced these non-white sources of labor, often in unapologetically racist terms. The irony of the anti-Japanese attacks was that the labor shortage itself was to some extent the result of the federal government’s xenophobic decision to evacuate Japanese residents, many of whom had worked in agriculture.[7]  

The 1942 labor crisis revealed another irony, too—farmers’ deep-seated affinity for government aid. As they had for decades, Valley agricultural interests called for, and benefited from, interventions and resources from federal, state, and county officials, undercutting boasts that free enterprise and rugged individualism—embodied by the mythic Western cowboy—were sufficient for growing crops.[8] 


1938 employment signs for cotton pickers near Fresno. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

***

In the spring and summer of 1942, residents of the San Joaquin Valley—which stretches 260 miles from The Grapevine in the south to Lodi in the north—were plagued by war-related anxiety, much of which centered on Japanese Americans.[9] Nearly everyone who wrote in to the Fresno Bee to discuss removal, ordered by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on February 19, just months after the Pearl Harbor bombing, supported the plan.[10] The Japanese, whether native born or not, were disloyal. To trust them, argued Mrs. B.E.S. of Fresno, was “like trying to pet a mad dog.”[11] W.R. Arrington of nearby Firebaugh agreed: “The Japanese people are somewhat unique for striking unexpectedly from behind a smile, a smirk or a bow.”[12] One Fresnan suggested the formation of a home guard comprised of deer hunters—“some of the best shots in the world”—to protect against the enemy within.[13]

Valley farmers, however, worried for other reasons. Surging wartime demand for food prompted local growers to bring more acreage into cultivation in 1942, but the draft and the lure of higher-paying jobs in wartime industry, among other factors, had already provoked farm labor shortages.[14] This was no small matter in an agricultural powerhouse like the San Joaquin Valley, where just two counties—Tulare and Fresno, which ranked second and third in the country in the value of their agricultural output—combined to produce crops worth more than $55 million annually.[15] What would happen to this bounty once Japanese residents, who played a central role in California agriculture as farm laborers and operators, had been evacuated?

Although some white Californians looked forward to acquiring productive land from their Japanese neighbors, many farmers expressed dismay that their Japanese workforce would no longer be around to assist them. In early April 1942, the California Deciduous Growers League, which represented the growers of cherries, apricots, peaches, plumbs, pears, and grapes, asked the Department of Agriculture to delay removal in twelve counties where twenty thousand people of Japanese descent were critical to picking operations. In Fresno, Tulare, and Kern counties, ethnic Japanese residents constituted 25% of the pickers; in Merced County, they made up 75%. Noting that the picking and handling of deciduous fruit necessitated “a high degree of skill and experience,” the League insisted that it would be impossible to train replacements in time.[16] This was only the beginning, of course, as other crops—from olives, to strawberries, to cotton—would need to be harvested in the coming months as well.[17] Production on farms operated by Japanese Americans would also be affected. Japanese internees had produced 20% of the total acreage of vegetables grown in California, Oregon, and Washington and 70% of the total acreage of berries in California. They also cultivated more than twenty-seven thousand acres of grapes, nearly all in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.[18]

The federal government had, to some extent, anticipated adverse consequences on farming. During initial discussions about the possible removal of Japanese residents in early 1942, several officials pointed out that West Coast crop production would suffer in the event of Japanese evacuation.[19] The U.S. Army responded to this challenge by forcing Japanese farmers to carry on with the spring planting under threat of arrest for hindering the war effort, even though the removal order meant that they would not be around to reap the rewards of their efforts in the fall.[20] The Department of Agriculture, in turn, created the Wartime Farm Adjustment Program to facilitate the transfer of farm lands owned or rented by Japanese residents to non-Japanese operators for the duration of the war. But this program, which began in the San Joaquin Valley in mid-March, was not a quick fix. It required finding farmers interested in assuming responsibility for the evacuated lands, some of whom then had to obtain loans.[21] The program also did little to ensure that Japanese farmers got a fair price for their land, and it did nothing to make up for the loss of labor performed by Japanese wage workers.[22]

Concerns about lost revenue and food shortages, however, paled in comparison to those about the so-called “yellow menace,” at least at the federal level. The Army announced in late April that the removal of the Japanese would proceed as planned, despite rumors to the contrary. As Colonel Karl R. Bendetsen, one of the loudest voices for removal, put the matter: “Military necessity is an unrelenting taskmaster.”[23] By the end of the year that taskmaster had cost more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans their freedom, according to one estimate, and in the process cost California between twenty-five and thirty thousand agricultural workers.[24] 

Some Valley residents, meanwhile, expressed skepticism about farmers’ worries, deploying a potent combination of racism and class resentment to make their point. There was no labor shortage, one Hanford man claimed; there were only big landowners—or “swivel chair farmers,” in his words—who loved the Japanese more “than they do their own people,” plenty of whom were available for work.[25] Mrs. C. Z. Kerman of Fresno also found Japanese field hands unnecessary, though she was more inclined to blame New Deal programs than growers for any perceived labor shortage. “There are many, many people just roaming around,” she insisted. “You can see every day. If the WPA and welfare were cut off, they would have to get in and work.”[26]  “This yapping we hear about the shortage of vegetables we are going to experience on account of the dear Japanese being forced into concentration camps,” sneered a fellow Fresnan, “is enough to give a true American a severe attack of indigestion. Give the white race the same chance that was given the Japanese and its members will raise just as much and just as good fruit and vegetables as ever did the Japanese.”[27] A Parlier man who described himself as a “100 percent…Arkansas red blooded American” similarly accused farmers of overlooking unemployed white Americans in favor of the Japanese. This Dust Bowl refugee proposed revenge, urging his white neighbors to refuse work as pickers or packers during the upcoming harvest season. If a group like the Deciduous Growers League needed laborers, he concluded, “I refer it to the many in the internment camps. Those are the headquarters for the Japanese.”[28]

A whiff of sarcasm hangs over this man’s admonition. After all, he preferred that red-blooded Americans—which, in his mind, did not include people of Japanese descent, even if they were American-born citizens, as most internees were—be given farm jobs.[29] But others were quite serious in suggesting the use of internees for field work once it became clear that there would be no delay in evacuation. Olive, grape, peach, and apricot growers were especially worried as spring turned to summer. In July, one vineyard owner asked the Fresno County Chamber of Commerce to petition the military for permission to employ the Japanese currently being held in the two assembly centers in Fresno. These centers held close to ten thousand people, many of whom were former residents of Fresno, Tulare, Kings, and Madera counties, awaiting deportation to permanent internment camps further inland.[30] “Some of us will be lucky,” he declared, “if we harvest 50 per cent of our crop due to the present labor shortage.”[31]

The chamber disliked this plan, which would have entailed transporting the internees to and from camps and paying prevailing wages. But the vast majority of organizations, farmers, and officials who went on the record—from the Fresno County Farm Bureau and district attorney to the Merced County sheriff to Governor Culbert L. Olson—did so in support of it, on the condition that the army strictly limit the mobility of internees.[32] The Japanese “have been law abiding people,” argued one Clovis farmer, “and with a little supervision we should have no trouble at all.”[33]

All told, 45% of Japanese Americans living in the West had worked in agriculture before the war, and in a few states some of them did end up doing field labor after removal.[34] In Idaho, Montana, and Utah, for example, internees harvested sugar beets; in Wyoming, they built canals to irrigate farm land.[35] But Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, who oversaw internment as head of the Western Defense Command, ultimately decided against allowing the practice in California. In a July 8 conference, he told Governor Olson that “the use of evacuated Japanese as farm workers would require an entire change of program which had been adopted as a military necessity,” framing removal just as Colonel Bendetsen had done a few months earlier.[36]

If anyone saw the irony of advocating for the use of Japanese internees to compensate for a labor shortage caused, in part, by their very internment, they did not let on. Instead, in the face of the government’s decision, San Joaquin Valley officials and growers swiftly dropped the idea.[37] Soon the matter became moot. In mid-July, the Pinedale Assembly Center began transporting its 4,750 internees to the Tule Relocation Center in the remote, northeastern corner of California, and to a concentration camp in Arizona.[38] By the end of October, when the Fresno Assembly Center completed the evacuation of its more than five thousand internees to an Arkansas camp, the only Japanese residents remaining in the Valley were three expectant mothers who were temporarily residing in convalescent homes.[39]


Pinedale Assembly Center. Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

These developments, however, did not stop Valley citizens from regularly expressing anti-Japanese sentiments. “It burns me up to hear some selfish Japanese lover rave about turning them loose to help with the farm labor,” fumed a Madera woman on July 13. “I say pack them up and send them back to Japan.”[40] A few weeks later another Fresno Bee reader insisted, “There is no Japanese who is a true American. They were all sent here and born here for a purpose and that purpose was eventually to control the United States.”[41]

As Valley residents continued to denigrate their Japanese neighbors, California farmers and officials pivoted to other potential solutions to the worsening labor crisis. On July 8, Governor Olson suggested several other sources for “emergency” workers, including Mexican immigrants.[42] Bringing in laborers from Mexico was an idea about which state and federal officials, as well as growers in numerous western states, had been talking since 1941.[43] Yet this prospect elicited the same sort of xenophobic response as had the proposal to employ Japanese internees. “I am a solider on leave,” wrote George Dulin to the Fresno Bee on September 23, “and read in your paper that they are bringing Mexicans to make up for the shortage of laborers.” Dulin believed it was time to take a stand against this measure. “We have millions of idle men, plenty of them, in every town and city. I say make them work rather than import Mexican labor.”[44] One week later, Mrs. M. L. K. of Woodlake, on the east side of the Valley, wrote to the Bee to say that she agreed with Dulin: “Keep the Mexicans out of our U.S.A.”[45]

These anti-Mexican residents had little to fear, however, at least in the short run. There was precedent for American importation of Mexican labor in wartime—seventy-three thousand Mexicans had come to the United States to work during World War I—and increasing support for the plan among both officials and growers.[46] But the shortcomings of that earlier guestworker program, which was plagued by employers’ abuse of laborers and unwillingness to abide by contract terms, made both the United States and Mexican governments slow to forge another such arrangement.[47] The two countries started sketching out a bilateral arrangement in the spring of 1942, but they did not formally agree to the Bracero Program, as the new farm labor program came to be called, until August 4. And the first group of five hundred braceros, who were brought in to work in the sugar beet fields of Stockton, in the north end of the Valley, did not arrive until September 29. Those initial five hundred were followed shortly thereafter by small numbers of braceros contracted to grow lettuce, strawberries, and artichokes in the California’s Salinas Valley and sugar beets in Washington state. All told, however, in 1942 the United States allowed in only 4,189 braceros—and just five hundred of them ended up in the San Joaquin Valley, all in Stockton.[48]

The failure to bring in more braceros to redress the labor shortfall frustrated Valley farmers to no end. “We asked for Mexicans in 1941,” insisted Arphaxad Setrakian, president of the California Grape Advisory Council, in a U.S. Senate hearing on labor conditions in the West held late the following year. Yet “all we get is procrastination, delay, politics, and promises.” Setrakian, a diminutive Fresno farmer who went by the nickname ‘Sox,’ placed much of the blame for the delay on social reformers—“peddlers of bunk” and “mildewed braintrusters,” in his estimation—who questioned whether growers were prepared to offer braceros adequate housing. “They always meet with us and talk about housing conditions and baths and showers,” Sox complained, “they tell us we have got to have bathtubs.” But, he insisted, the housing question was no question at all. “We constructed an assembly point to house 10,000 Japanese in Fresno,” Sox observed, adding that he wasn’t sure whether it was occupied or not. Regardless, Sox wondered, “If we need food and fiber, can anyone tell me that the Government cannot overnight build assembly points where the Mexicans can be brought and properly housed and distributed to the farmers in the neighborhood?”[49]


Housing for Mexican transient workers on ranch southwest of Mendota, 1940. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Japanese assembly centers were, in fact, eventually turned into housing for braceros. But that process would not begin until 1943.[50] In the meantime, Valley farmers were forced to rely on homegrown workers. Governor Olson had highlighted one such source—“civilian volunteers’’—in his July 8 message, though he had his doubts about whether they could make the difference. Seeking out such civilian volunteers, Olson concluded, was “a little bit like looking for scrap rubber—you get some, of course, but probably not enough that is usable.”[51]

The governor was not the only one who had misgivings about civilian volunteers. Earlier that year, University of California professor of farm management R. L. Adams had “warned that the city bred youngsters may not be able to withstand the rigors and monotony of farm labor.”[52] In a subsequent letter to the Fresno Bee, a Mills, California, resident added that many school-aged children—whether from the city or the countryside—would not be of much help with fruit picking, which necessitated the use of top-heavy, 12-foot ladders.[53] Other observers believed that city students were more than up to the task. [54] One young Fresnan, for instance, called Adams’s comments “an injustice and an insult,” insisting that Fresno schools provided sufficient physical education training to enable its students “to do some of the toughest farm jobs.”[55]

Thousands of Fresno youths would soon find out if they were up to the rigors of farm labor, harvesting tomatoes, grapes, and other Valley crops under the scorching summer sun.  Less than a week after the Army vetoed the use of Japanese internees as laborers, the Fresno Bee reported that a range of “city folk”—men, women, and children—had begun spending weekends and summer vacation as volunteer pickers at area farms.[56] Over the next few months, the newspaper was filled with stories, often two or three a day, chronicling the campaign of a labor force that by the fall had been dubbed the “Victory Harvest Army.”[57]

The San Joaquin Valley was not the only part of the country that tapped students, housewives, and other volunteers for the 1942 harvest. Farmers in at least five western states targeted these populations as well.[58] New York and New Jersey each passed legislation easing child labor laws so that students over 14 years of age could be excused from classes to work on farms.[59] Seven thousand New York City high school students applied for summer agricultural work on upstate farms, and some schools in Washington state moved to a six-day-week schedule to shorten the academic year and free up students to work.[60]

Women, too, flooded farms—from the South Atlantic states to the West Coast. According to one survey, women accounted for 13% of total agricultural workers in 1942, compared to just 1.5% in 1941.[61] During the fall cotton harvest, residents in at least half a dozen Georgia counties took picking holidays, while the Works Progress Administration halted all Atlanta-area construction projects to free up six hundred men to head out to the cotton fields.[62]

But few, if any, communities marshalled a phalanx of pickers that matched the Victory Harvest Army of the San Joaquin Valley. Although the labor shortage impacted the harvest of a range of Valley crops, it was most acute for grapes and cotton.[63]

The grape harvest, valued at $30 million, came first.[64] Starting in mid-August, area businesses, including the main Bank of America branch in Fresno and two wholesale paper companies, began making arrangements for its employees to leave work and help pick grapes.[65] The Fresno office of the United States Employment Service (USES), a New Deal agency that helped connect employers and employees, coordinated getting city residents to the farms where they were needed. School buses left the Inyo Street office each morning at 6:30 or 7:00 to transport workers to vineyards in Reedley, Fowler, and Kingsburg.[66] The Sanger Parent Teacher Association and the Fresno City Board of Education provided nursery care for mothers who assisted with the harvest.[67] In the small town of Selma, the USES introduced a two-ton mobile farm labor recruiting station—one of only two operating in California.[68]

This initial wave of volunteerism was followed by the AAWMC’s more concerted effort to pressure workers at local businesses to join the effort. “City people,” as Irvine S. Terrell had complained to the Fresno Chamber of Commerce on September 9, needed to do more.[69]

The Fresno Bee also pitched in, running regular stories and photographs that encouraged Valley residents to fulfill their patriotic duty to pick grapes. At the zenith of the grape harvest, the paper’s social news editor, Bess Middleton, wrote a column chronicling a day she spent in the fields. “As an American woman I volunteered yesterday to go out and pick grapes,” she wrote on September 11. “If I lived in Nazi controlled country, I, and thousands of other women, would have been ordered into the vineyards long ago, not just for one day or one week but until every grape was harvested.” Middleton worked alongside about fifty other pickers—“a true cross section of democratic America,” in her estimation—including a dentist, a country school teacher, a Fresno State College faculty member, and two dozen high school boys and girls. She was also joined by Bee photographer Edwin E. Schober, who was assigned to take photographs that might spark greater interest in the harvest. Schober lauded the personal benefits of the work, which helped settle his “rather jumpy” nerves. “Perhaps if you are feeling not quite up to par,” he advised Bee readers, “a few hours in the vineyard may be just what the doctor ordered. Then, too, you will be doing your bit to save the crop, help Uncle Sam win the war and earn a few dollars either for your piggy bank or for victory bonds.”[70]

Despite the pressure exerted on Valley adults, area schools and their students were likely the most important factor in the success of the grape harvest. In mid-August, the principals of Selma, Fowler, Central Union, and Parlier high schools had agreed to a Fresno County Farm Bureau plan to use their schools to house and feed boys from Los Angeles and San Francisco who would temporarily be brought in to work in Valley vineyards.[71] Meanwhile, many local schools decided to delay opening until September 28 so that their students could stay in the fields longer.[72] Although Fresno city schools did not implement a similar delay, the Board of Education excused junior and senior high school students who wanted to help with the harvest and made provisions for 20% of city school teachers to accompany and supervise the student pickers.[73] During the first week of school, nearly sixteen hundred boys and girls—comprising more than 25% of secondary students enrolled in Fresno city schools—were forgoing their studies to pick grapes. This included more than three hundred students from Edison Technical High School and 225 from Alexander Hamilton Junior High School, as well as members of the football teams from Fresno High School and Fresno State College.[74] 

Vernon Selland, one of the Hamilton Junior High School students who participated in the 1942 harvest, remembers those days fondly. “They called upon us to volunteer” before classes began, he observed in a recent interview, “and they said as a reward we will start school two weeks late.” Picking figs in Fresno and grapes in the Fowler, Selma, and Kingsburg area, Selland was happy to miss several weeks of school, to get paid a modest salary that “seemed really swell at the time,” and to lend a hand in the war effort. He did not find the work particularly arduous, perhaps because Selland—unlike some of his classmates—was familiar with harvesting crops, having spent several summers in the grape and cotton fields on a family farm near Caruthers. He recalls the kindness of the Valley farmers, who brought “out sandwiches for lunch and that sort of thing.” In sum, the picking holiday was a “really positive” experience for Selland and surely for many of his classmates, who were also happy to delay the start of the school year, earn a bit of money, and play a role, however small, in the war against fascism.[75]

Vernon Selland and the rest of the Victory Harvest Army would, as we have seen, ultimately prevail in the fight to save the grape crop, saving growers from disaster by the end of September.[76] They earned praise from the Fresno County Farm Bureau board of directors, which on October 1 passed a motion to extend its “appreciation to the volunteer workers in the grape harvest for the splendid response to the appeal from the farmer to save this tremendous food for freedom.” The board offered special thanks to Fresno youths, women, and schools, as well as to the members of the Fresno Merchants Association and “all the business interests in the smaller towns in our county” for making their employees available to work in the fields.[77]

 But these foot soldiers of the Victory Harvest Army soon faced a more daunting challenge: the cotton harvest. Like grapes, cotton was critical to the San Joaquin Valley economy—the crops were the two most important in many Valley counties—and it was deemed essential to the war effort, used to make servicemen’s uniforms, duffle bags, explosives, cellulose, and seed oil.[78] Cotton was also California’s most labor-intensive crop, thus necessitating a large, transient work force, with a harvest season that stretched from September to January.[79] Volunteer labor was needed to pick Valley cotton, explained Willard Marsh, Fresno district manager of the USES, “but this is not like the grape harvest—that was a matter of a few weeks, while cotton picking will extend over several months.” As such, “the volunteers must keep turning out if their efforts are to offset the shortage of transient workers.”[80]

The Fresno Bee trumpeted the severity of the crisis in headline after headline that fall. “4,000 Cotton Pickers Needed in Kern County,” the paper declared on October 28. “10,000 Pickers Needed to Save Tulare Cotton,” it proclaimed the following day.[81] By the start of November, the USES estimated that the Valley as a whole was short twenty thousand workers to harvest a cotton crop valued at more than $50 million.[82] The agency tried to entice transient farm hands, sending interpreters to Southern California to interview Spanish-speaking workers living there. But it ran into hurdles getting many of these workers up north.[83] Ultimately, Willard Marsh estimated that Valley cotton growers could count on just one third of the normal number of transient pickers in 1942. “This is the ideal time for volunteers to try their luck,” he observed on November 1, hoping to motivate locals to pick up the slack. “The weather is good, the first picking is heavy, and the wages—$2 a hundredweight—are the highest ever paid.”[84]


Photo of Hiroko Kamikawa, the last Japanese intern removed from the Fresno Assembly Center, Oct. 31, 1942.

Once again, local school districts ensured that students played a central role in the harvest. Many Valley schools, including those in Tranquillity, Alta Vista, Hanford, and Caruthers, adopted a minimum-day schedule, opening for four hours each morning and freeing up students to work in the afternoon.[85] Other school districts implemented crop holidays. In mid-October, the Madera County Superintendent of Schools announced that its elementary and high schools would shut down for three weeks to enable students to pick cotton.[86] Corcoran and Kerman schools both closed for two weeks, while schools in Tulare, Delano, and Kern counties implemented shorter crop holidays.[87] At an October 29 meeting, the Fresno County War Manpower Committee asked school officials throughout the county to suspend classes while the weather was still good. Although the cotton harvest season lasted into January, the rain and cooler temperatures that typically arrived in late fall would jeopardize the quality of Valley cotton and make picking more difficult. “Every day gained before the advent of bad weather,” maintained the committee’s chairman, “means a higher grade product and increased supplies of cotton and its byproducts so urgently needed by America and her allies.”[88]

On November 17, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors went one step further. Worried that less than 30% of the crop had been harvested—70% was normal by that point—the board adopted a resolution that called on “every able bodied man, woman and child in Fresno County to ‘join the Victory Cotton Army and aid in the harvesting the war crop.’”[89] The Fresno City Board of Education, in turn, pledged “full cooperation” with the Board of Supervisor’s resolution.[90] When city schools recessed for the annual Thanksgiving vacation later that week, School Superintendent Homer C. Wilson urged teachers and principals to encourage as many of the city’s more than thirteen thousand students to assist with the harvest as possible. “No more patriotic Thanksgiving service could be rendered by pupils and teachers than by spending Thanksgiving week…in the cotton fields to save the crop,” he held. “We may as well get used to doing these things voluntarily, because if we don’t, next year we may be drafted to do the same thing.”[91]

***

Truth be told, quite a few people had already been compelled to participate in the harvesting of Valley crops. As the summer proposal to employ Japanese evacuees had already revealed, local farmers and officials harbored no inherent affinity for voluntary labor. The myriad stories of city folk and students sacrificing their time and bodies to pick crops for the war effort certainly buoyed spirits and testified to a wellspring of local patriotism. But coercion was not off the table. Perhaps the most obvious place to look on this score was the military. Several California politicians, including Governor Olson, asked General DeWitt to send soldiers to the Valley to work, for pay, in the fields.[92] On at least one occasion in early September, about two hundred soldiers in Fresno—“all volunteers,” according to the Bee—did participate in the grape harvest.[93] It is unclear, however, how much choice they had. Men who had enlisted in or been drafted by the army were unlikely to have been given, or to have expected, much freedom in determining how they spent their days.

According to War Department policy, troops could only be used to harvest crops when other sources of labor had been exhausted.[94] And Valley farmers and officials, for their part, continued to believe that there were sufficient hands to be found among area residents, though these potential laborers—and their current employers—needed prodding. The emergency meeting of the AAWMC on September 9, at which chairman Irvine S. Terrell threatened merchants with the prospect of governmental labor allocation, provided evidence of this conviction. Terrell announced that “every ounce of authority of the War Manpower Commission is going to be utilized to save these crops. Non cooperators are going to feel the power of the people.”[95]

Some in the audience had concerns about the limits of that power. When Fresno furniture store owner Louis Slater asked whether employees given time off could be forced to help with the harvest under this new proposal, Terrell replied that “such compulsion is not in line with democratic principles.”[96] Yet the AAWMC went on to approve a seven-point program to explore designating several farm districts as emergency areas so that peace officers there would be empowered to roundup “loafers refusing to aid the grape harvest.” This proposal, however, was nixed by the regional director of the manpower commission, who informed Terrell and his colleagues that the conscription of labor was unacceptable. “Such a program,” announced the director from his headquarters in San Francisco, “definitely is not the policy of this office.”[97]

Despite the disapproval of the regional manpower office, many Valley residents and officials embraced measures targeting so-called “vagrants.” “Go down the street,” a woman in Tulare County instructed, “and idle men are in bars drinking…Draft them or put them to work.”[98] Local authorities by and large agreed with this sentiment. The Fresno County District Attorney ordered law enforcement officers to compel unemployed men to find work in the fields or face arrest. “I believe,” he announced, “that these idle persons are either slackers or persons not in sympathy with the war effort of our government.”[99] Hanford judge Harry V. Breton and Delano mayor William B. Smith advocated similar policies, both of which were designed to get idle men off the streets and into the fields. The Delano Chamber of Commerce urged nearby towns to adopt its approach in order to “prevent loiterers from going to other communities and force them into the harvest fields.”[100] According to AAWMC chairman Terrell, such steps were, in fact, being taken—and well beyond Delano. “The skid rows, gambling houses and pool halls throughout the San Joaquin Valley,” he explained in early September, “are being cleaned out and the men ordered to get into the labor ranks where they are most needed.”[101]

State laws nationwide, including in California, gave authorities considerable discretion in defining vagrancy and, thus, in exploiting this potential labor pool.[102] Updated in the summer of 1941, the California penal code classified a wide variety of individuals as vagrants, subjecting them to a fine of up to $500, jail time of up to six months, or both. Prostitutes, drunks, thieves, beggars, and “every idle, or lewd, or dissolute person” and “every person without visible means of living who has the physical ability to work” all qualified as vagrants. Wandering around the streets late at night was a sufficient enough violation for arrest.[103] California officials had long deployed vagrancy laws for a variety of policing and coercive purposes, including compelling the poor to work. But the context of the war provided a patina of patriotism to justify actions that, to some, might otherwise seem to be government overreach. Authorities could argue that destitute men who refused to work in the fields failed not just themselves and their families, but their nation as well.

Authorities also targeted the incarcerated. On September 25, forty Valley police chiefs, judges, and other law enforcement officials unanimously endorsed a plan already adopted by the town of Stockton: unemployed men arrested for minor offenses, including vagrancy and intoxication, who agreed to do harvest work would have their jail terms suspended. Those who refused the offer, however, would receive more severe sentences than they otherwise would have.[104] The secretary of the Fresno County Chamber of Commerce speculated that if implemented throughout the Valley, this plan could net six thousand additional farm workers.[105] One month later, Merced County officials urged Sheriff N. L. Cornell to use prisoners in the county jail to assist with the harvest. “There is no way prisoners can be forced to work under existing laws,” replied Cornell. But the sheriff noted that he had been paroling as many prisoners as possible for farm work.[106]

Valley communities even tried to limit the flow of alcohol. Bar and liquor store owners in Merced agreed in September to close on Sundays for the rest of the harvest season. Doing so, they hoped, would reduce Monday absenteeism caused by hangovers.[107] By November, Merced farmers were asking that bar and pool rooms be shuttered for most of the week, with the lone exception of Saturday nights.[108] In Stockton, Tracy, Marysville, and Modesto, retail liquor establishments reduced their hours of operation, closing at 12 AM rather than 2 AM and opening at 8 AM rather than 6 AM.[109] The Fresno County War Manpower Commission (a subordinate of the Area Commission), farm industry representatives, and local law enforcement agents proposed this same plan to the county’s liquor license holders at a large meeting at Fresno Memorial Auditorium on September 28. “The midnight to 8 A.M. is worth trying,” urged the gathering’s sponsors, “for it will eliminate what seems to be one of the major hindrances in keeping available workers employed steadily.” Alcohol abuse was the worst between 12 and 2, they insisted. And the delayed opening would ensure that individuals won’t “visit bars early in the morning,” before they headed out to work. Although this plan was presented as a voluntary measure, numerous speakers suggested that if it did not pass, the Army might step in and impose a compulsory one. Eventually, four hundred Fresno County liquor license holders—representing roughly half of the establishments selling alcohol in the county—agreed to a slightly modified version of the proposal. Beginning in October and lasting through the end of the war, they would close early and open late every day but Saturday.[110]

***

It is difficult to determine whether shutting down bars and similar venues early had much measurable impact on the farm labor shortage. The same goes for efforts to coerce idle, intemperate, or incarcerated individuals into the cotton fields. Judging by reports in the Fresno Bee, it appears that the bulk of the work in the cotton harvest was performed voluntarily by the local citizenry, albeit with significant prodding by government officials, as had been the case with the grape harvest.

By early December, authorities in some portions of the region were feeling encouraged by the progress that had been made on cotton farms. “The harvest in the vicinity of Fresno is well ahead of that in the rest of the county,” reported Al J. Brown, chairman of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce agricultural committee on December 1. He saw this fact as a testament to “the splendid cooperation and assistance we have been getting from the schools.”[111] But in the county as a whole, not to mention the rest of the San Joaquin Valley, the situation remained critical. According to one cotton processing firm, by December 5, just 43 % of Fresno County cotton had been ginned, compared to the 90% that was typical for that point in the season. With that shortfall in mind, Fresno city and county officials decided to capitalize on the approaching Pearl Harbor attack anniversary, urging locals to “remember the Pearl Harbor treachery” by “doing their part on the home front to help avenge it.” Cotton clothing and equipment is “needed to win the war,” Brown reminded residents. “Our job is to get it picked. By doing that we can deliver a solid blow against the Axis.”[112]

Patriotic pleas such as this one bolstered student turnout for cotton picking in Fresno on December 7 and throughout the Christmas holiday break.[113] By mid-January, the statewide cotton harvest total nearly matched that of the previous year.[114] Two months later, the state reported that the county’s farms had produced $83 million worth of food and fiber in 1942, surpassing the 1941 total by $24.5 million. Looking forward to the next year’s harvest season, Fresno County Chamber of Commerce executive secretary M.P. Lohse predicted that “if agriculture during 1943 is to equal the 1942 record, even greater dependence must be placed on workers recruited from groups not heretofore considered as being a necessary part of the agricultural picture.”[115]

Lohse was correct, at least in part. Through the duration of the war, Valley agricultural interests continued to rely on thousands of local volunteers, especially students, to help with the harvest of key crops.[116]

But volunteerism was only part of the story. The Victory Harvest Army’s success was also the result of intervention by the local, state, and federal governments. The 1942 farm labor crisis thus speaks to a broader continuity in the history of the San Joaquin Valley, of California, and, indeed, of the U.S. West, one that predated and extends beyond World War II. Despite the myth of Western individualism, since the nineteenth century Western farmers, ranchers, and residents in general have depended on federal government interventions and resources—from Native American removal to permits to graze on public lands to the massive flood control, reclamation, and irrigation projects that enabled the region’s growth and booming economy.[117] 

Throughout the 1942 harvest crisis, Valley growers looked time and again to federal officials—as well as to local and state officials—to redress their labor shortage. They asked the U.S. Army to permit them to employee Japanese internees, and they urged the federal government to negotiate a treaty to bring in Mexican braceros. When these efforts failed to solve the problem, Valley farmers relied on local, state, and federal authorities to encourage, coordinate, and at times compel the participation of Valley residents in the 1942 harvest.

In the years that followed, Valley ranchers and growers would continue to rely on the federal government to solve their labor problems by providing an increasingly foreign-born labor force. In 1943 and 1944, the San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Labor Bureau brought in nearly seven thousand Mexican nationals as a part of the Bracero Program.[118] At the end of the 1943 season, Irvine S. Terrell, who managed the labor bureau’s Fresno office in addition to his AAWMC duties, praised these temporary laborers for their remarkably low turnover rate and “highly satisfactory work” on cattle ranches and especially peach, grape, and cotton farms.[119] A Merced County official credited braceros for not only helping to avert major crop losses that year but also making “it unnecessary to issue a general call for volunteer labor from cities in the county.”[120]

Not everyone, however, was enthusiastic about the new labor source. Indeed, anti-Mexican and Japanese sentiments remained as strong among some Valley residents as they had been in 1942, as side-by-side letters to the editor published by the Fresno Bee on February 23, 1943 make clear. In one, Robert G. Williams of Lodi accused Japanese immigrants to the United States of attempting to seize control of the country through propaganda, Japanese language schools, and espionage. In the other, Fresnan Cecil Clark lamented the ongoing “howling” for the importation of “Mexican labor,” which to his mind was inferior to “American white labor.”[121]

The Victory Harvest Army, in the end, ultimately lived up to its name and saved the 1942 season. But such ugly assertions of bigotry against the Valley’s non-white residents—like the thorny questions about the duties of patriotism, the limits of government coercion, and the role of government support for private agricultural interests—reveal that the 1942 farm labor crisis perfectly encapsulated the real meanings, and costs, of victory in this campaign and in World War II as a whole.

Mexican cotton pickers Corcoran, 1940. Photo courtesy of Dorothea Lange – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts are professors of history at California State University, Fresno. They are co-authors of Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy (New Press, 2018)now available in paperback. They are currently writing a narrative history of the 1960 battle to desegregate public schools in New Orleans.


[1] Fresno Bee, Sept. 10, 1942.

[2] Fresno Bee, Sept. 9, 1942.

[3] Fresno Bee, Sept. 10, 1942.

[4] Fresno Bee, Sept. 17, 1942; U.S. Department of Commerce, “1950 Census of Population Preliminary Counts,” Sept. 28, 1950, https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1950/pc-02/pc-2-48.pdf.

[5] Fresno Bee, Nov. 1, 1942.

[6] Fresno Bee, Sept. 24, 1942.

[7] Our account of the San Joaquin Valley’s 1942 farm labor crisis builds on and is indebted to the unpublished research of Christina Morales Guzmán. See Guzmán, “Race, Citizenship, and the Negotiation of Space: Chinese, Japanese, and Mexicans in Fresno, California, 1870-1949” (PhD diss., University of California, Santa Cruz, 2012): 151-190.

[8] Heather Cox Richardson, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), xvi, 85-91.

[9] Devra Weber, Dark Sweat, White Gold: California Farm Workers, Cotton, and the New Deal (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 225n1.

[10] Greg Robinson, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 108.

[11] Fresno Bee, Apr. 16, 1942.

[12] Fresno Bee, May 20, 1942.

[13] Fresno Bee, Mar. 27, 1942.

[14] New York Times, Feb. 1, 1942; New York Times, Mar. 26, 1942; Fresno Bee, Apr. 14, 1942;  Hearings Before the Special Committee to Investigate Farm Labor Conditions in the West, United States Senate, Seventy-Seventh Congress, Second Session on S. Res. 299, in Four Parts (Washington: US Govt. Printing Office, 1943), 187-188; Cameron E. Woods, “Mexican Agricultural Labor in California: 1941-1945” (MA thesis, California State University, Fresno 1950), 7-11, 46-7; Erasmo Gamboa, Mexican Labor and World War II: Braceros in the Pacific Northwest, 1942-1947 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), xii; Gerald D. Nash, The American West Transformed: The Impact of the Second World War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 46-7; Fresno Bee, Apr. 4, 1942. This farm labor shortage, it is worth noting, was highly localized. Indeed, California as a whole had a sufficient number of laborers. Yet inefficient worker distribution, transportation challenges, and the perishability of Valley crops undermined growers’ ability to tap into this workforce. Don Mitchell, They Saved the Crops: Labor, Landscape, and the Struggle over Industrial Farming in Bracero-Era California (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 23, 434n9; Otey M. Scruggs, “Evolution of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement of 1942,” Agricultural History 34 (July 1960): 140.

[15] Fresno Bee, Oct. 24, 1942.

[16] Fresno Bee, Apr. 5, 1942.

[17] Fresno Bee, July 1, 1942; Fresno Bee, June 1, 1942; Fresno Bee, Nov. 18, 1942.

[18] Adon Poli and Warren M. Engstrand, “Japanese Agriculture on the Pacific Coast,” Journal of Land & Public Utility Economics 21 (Nov. 1945): 356-57.

[19] Morton Grodzins, Americans Betrayed: Politics and the Japanese Evacuation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), 74-75.

[20] Greg Robinson, A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 127.

[21] Fresno Bee, Mar. 18, 1942.

[22] The long-term consequences of this program were devastating. Few Japanese farm owners realized any compensation for the time, labor, and expenses they devoted to the 1942 planting, and most ultimately lost their land—often unloading it to white neighbors at “fire-sale” prices. Robinson, A Tragedy of Democracy, 122-127; Aaron Mejia, “Dispossessed: Japanese Internment and the California Alien Land Laws,” May 8, 2019, unpublished paper in authors’ possession.

[23] Fresno Bee, Apr. 30, 1942.

[24] Hearings Before the Special Committee, 188.

[25] Fresno Bee, Apr. 13, 1942.

[26] Fresno Bee, June 21, 1942.

[27] Fresno Bee, Apr. 10, 1942.

[28] Fresno Bee, May 10, 1942.

[29] Poli and Engstrand, “Japanese Agriculture on the Pacific Coast,” 353.

[30] Fresno Bee, July 5, 1942; Fresno Bee, May 13, 1942.

[31] Fresno Bee, July 2, 1942; Fresno Bee, June 27, 1942; Fresno Bee, July 1, 1942.

[32] Fresno Bee, July 2, 1942; Fresno Bee, June 5, 1942; Fresno Bee, May 22, 1942; Fresno Bee, June 27, 1942; Fresno Bee, July 1, 1942; Fresno Bee, July 19, 1942; Fresno Bee, May 26, 1942.

[33] Fresno Bee, June 1, 1942.

[34] U.S. Army, Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942 (Washington, D.C., 1943), https://archive.org/stream/japaneseevacuati00dewi/japaneseevacuati00dewi_djvu.txt.

[35] Fresno Bee, June 5, 942; Louis Fiset, “Thinning, Topping, and Loading: Japanese Americans and Beet Sugar in World War II,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly (Summer 1999): 129; New York Times, Sept. 14, 1942; New York Times, Sept. 22, 1942; Gamboa, Mexican Labor, 28-29.

[36] Fresno Bee, July 8, 1942.

[37] Fresno Bee, July 19, 1942.

[38] Fresno Bee, July 23, 1942; Fresno Bee, Oct. 12, 1942.

[39] Fresno Bee, Oct. 31, 1942.

[40] Fresno Bee, July 13, 1942.

[41] Fresno Bee, Aug. 1, 1942.

[42] Fresno Bee, July 8, 1942.

[43] Fresno Bee, Apr. 9, 1942; Fresno Bee, Apr. 14, 1942; Fresno Bee, May 22, 1942; Fresno Bee, June 3, 1942; Fresno Bee, June 30, 1942; Gamboa, Mexican Labor, 39; Hearings Before the Special Committee, 244; Scruggs, “Evolution of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement,” 141; Mitchell, They Saved the Crops, 22.

[44] Fresno Bee, Sept. 23, 1942.

[45] Fresno Bee, Sept. 28, 1942.

[46] Lori A. Flores, Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farm Worker Movement (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 42; Mitchell, They Saved the Crops, 22-23; Wayne Rassmussen, A History of the Emergency Farm Labor Supply Program, 1943-47 (Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1951), 200, https://archive.org/details/historyofemergen13rasm/page/n1.

[47] Gamboa, Mexican Labor, 39-40; Flores, Grounds for Dreaming, 42.

[48] Scruggs, “Evolution of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement,”140; Gamboa, Mexican Labor, 40-41; Flores, Grounds for Dreaming, 47.

[49] Hearings Before the Special Committee, 244-48; Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1986. Fresno, in fact, had two assembly centers, not one.

[50] The Japanese assembly centers in Stockton, Merced, and Tulare were used as “holding camp facilities” for more than five thousand braceros who were either newly arrived and awaiting work assignments or in between jobs. In addition, some buildings from these centers were provided to growers, who moved them to labor camps throughout the Valley. Mitchell, They Saved the Crops, 51-52; Fresno Bee, Sept. 5, 1943.

[51] Fresno Bee, July 8, 1942. Olson previously endorsed the recruitment of white-collar workers and students. Fresno Bee, June 30, 1942.

[52] Sacramento Bee, May 22, 1942.

[53] Fresno Bee, June 1, 1942.

[54] Fresno Bee, Mar. 27, 1942; Fresno Bee, May 22, 1942; Fresno Bee, May 30, 1942.

[55] Fresno Bee, May 30, 1942.

[56] Fresno Bee, July 12, 1942.

[57] Fresno Bee, Nov. 6, 1942.

[58] Nash, American West Transformed, 48.

[59] New York Times, Mar. 18, 1942; New York Times, Mar. 25, 1942; New York Times, Apr. 3, 1942.

[60] New York Times, Apr. 27, 1942; Gamboa, Mexican Labor, 27.

[61] New York Times, Apr. 19, 1942.

[62] New York Times, Sept. 27, 1942.

[63] Fresno Bee, Sept. 17, 1942.

[64] Fresno Bee, Sept. 1, 1942.

[65] Fresno Bee, Aug. 14, 1942; Fresno Bee, Sept. 11, 1942.

[66] Fresno Bee, Aug. 30, 1942.

[67] Fresno Bee, Sept. 11, 1942.

[68] Fresno Bee, Sept. 9, 1942.

[69] Fresno Bee, Sept. 9, 1942.

[70] Fresno Bee, Sept. 11, 1942.

[71] Fresno Bee, Aug. 14, 1942.

[72] Fresno Bee, Aug. 30, 1942.

[73] Fresno Bee, Sept. 11, 1942.

[74] Fresno Bee, Sept. 16, 1942.

[75] Vernon Selland, interview with Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle, Fresno, CA, June 3, 2020.

[76] Although the 1942 grape harvest was not the disaster many thought it would be in late August and early September, the state’s total raisin grape yield did drop from 1,421,000 tons in 1941 to 1,326,000 tons in 1942. In addition, California growers failed to meet the total of 350,000 tons of raisins requested by the War Production Board for 1942, producing just 250,000 tons. Fresno Bee, Nov. 11, 1942; Hearings Before the Special Committee to Investigate Farm Labor Conditions, 26.

[77] Fresno Bee, Oct. 14, 1942.

[78] Fresno Bee, Nov. 18, 1942. 

[79] Weber, Dark Sweat, White Gold, 34.

[80] Fresno Bee, Oct. 30, 1942.

[81] Fresno Bee, Oct. 28, 1942; Fresno Bee, Oct. 29, 1942.

[82] Fresno Bee, Nov. 1, 1942.

[83] Fresno Bee, Oct. 30, 1942.

[84] Fresno Bee, Nov. 1, 1942.

[85] Fresno Bee, Nov. 2, 1942; Fresno Bee, Nov. 6, 1942.

[86] Fresno Bee, Oct. 21, 1942.

[87] Fresno Bee, Oct. 28, 1942, Fresno Bee, Nov. 2, 1942; Fresno Bee, Nov. 10, 1942; Fresno Bee, Nov. 11, 1942; Fresno Bee, Nov. 12, 1942.

[88] Fresno Bee, Oct. 30, 1942; Fresno Bee, Nov. 1, 1942; Fresno Bee, Nov. 18, 1942.

[89] Fresno Bee, Nov. 18, 1942.

[90] Fresno Bee, Nov. 18, 1942

[91] Fresno Bee, Nov. 20, 1942.

[92] Fresno Bee, Aug. 13, 1942; Fresno Bee, Sept. 10, 1942.

[93] Fresno Bee, Sept. 9, 1942.

[94] Fresno Bee, Nov. 6, 1942.

[95] Fresno Bee, Sept. 9, 1942.

[96] Fresno Bee, Sept. 10, 1942.

[97] Fresno Bee, Sept. 10, 1942.

[98] Fresno Bee, Sept. 28, 1942; Fresno Bee, Sept. 23, 1942; Fresno Bee, Oct. 5, 1942.

[99] Fresno Bee, Aug. 13, 1942.

[100] Fresno Bee, Nov. 15, 1942; Fresno Bee, Nov. 12, 1942.

[101] Fresno Bee, Sept. 9, 1942. The San Joaquin Valley was not the only agricultural region where coercive tactics were used to secure farm laborers during World War II. In the Arkansas and Mississippi deltas, for instance, cotton planters employed government programs not only to depress wages among their workers but also to make it difficult for them to leave the region. See Nan Elizabeth Woodruff, “Pick or Fight: The Emergency Farm Labor Program in the Arkansas and Mississippi Deltas during World War II,” Agricultural History 64 (Spring 1990): 74-85.

[102] Risa Goluboff, Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 1-4.

[103] California Penal Code § 647 (Deering 1941).

[104] Fresno Bee, Sept. 24, 1942; Fresno Bee, Sept. 25, 1942.

[105] Fresno Bee, Sept. 24, 1942.

[106] Fresno Bee, Oct. 26, 1942. Although California prohibited contract convict labor, some prisoners in the state were employed in harvest camps during World War II. See Ward M. McAfee, “A History of Convict Labor in California,” Southern California Quarterly 72 (Spring 1990): 22, 30.

[107] Fresno Bee, Sept. 16, 1942.

[108] Fresno Bee, Nov. 10, 1942.

[109] Fresno Bee, Sept. 28, 1942.

[110] Fresno Bee, Sept. 28, 1942; Fresno Bee, Sept. 29, 1942.

[111] Fresno Bee, Dec. 1, 1942.

[112] Fresno Bee, Dec. 5, 1942.

[113] Fresno Bee, Dec. 8, 1942; Fresno Bee, Dec. 1, 1942; Fresno Bee, Dec. 23, 1942.

[114] Fresno Bee, Dec.  26, 1942; Fresno Bee, Dec. 13, 1942. Although the 1942-3 harvest was only slightly behind the 1941-2 harvest, it trailed the 1940-1 harvest significantly.

[115] Fresno Bee, Mar. 26, 1943.

[116] Fresno Bee, May 7, 1943; Fresno Bee, June 25, 1943; Fresno Bee, Dec. 13, 1945; Fresno Bee, Sept. 5, 1943; Fresno Bee, Oct. 25, 1943; Fresno Bee, Nov. 29, 1943; Fresno Bee, Dec. 13, 1945.

[117] Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: Norton, 1987), 82-83, 138-39; Norris Hundley, Jr., The Great Thirst: Californians and Water A History, Revised Edition (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001).

[118] Fresno Bee, Dec. 23, 1943; Fresno Bee, Dec. 19, 1944.

[119] Fresno Bee, Dec. 23, 1943.

[120] Fresno Bee, Nov. 29, 1943.

[121] Fresno Bee, Feb. 23, 1943.

Reviews

Breathing Life into the Archive: A Review of Richardson’s Bearing Witness While Black

Elizabeth E. Sine

Seas of cellphones floating above the anchors of outstretched arms; the litany of hashtags bearing the names of the dead; livestream footage broadcasted by protestors with boots on the ground; the videos that capture for the world to see the life being taken from Black bodies by police—all of these have become recognizable features of the movement against police brutality and for Black lives, which has swept the nation and the world over the past decade.  But they are more than mere characteristics. They are critical mechanisms by which the movement travels, transmits messages, grows, and pushes back against the daily horrors of structural racism and state violence within the United States.  They are examples of a political practice that Allissa V. Richardson calls “Black witnessing,” which has played a constitutive role in what has arguably become the most powerful movement of our time.  In her book, Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism, Richardson examines the forms of Black witnessing that animate the Black Lives Matter movement, while situating them within the much longer arc of witnessing practices that have helped shape historic struggles for Black liberation.  In the process, her book brings into focus just how much efforts to combat the horrors of white supremacy and to sustain movements for racial justice have relied on often-overlooked acts of seeing and truth-telling that have been undertaken by Black witnesses past and present.

As she builds on a growing body of research that investigates African Americans’ use of cell phones and social media, Richardson bases her study especially on a pool of interviews she conducted with fifteen prominent Black witnesses, along with in-depth analyses of their Twitter timelines.  Her interviewees are diverse in their gender identities, sexual orientations, and relationships to the Black Lives Matter movement, offering important insight into the patterns, interconnections, and differences that characterize their experiences and perspectives as Black witnesses.  She organizes her analysis into three parts: Smartphones, Slogans, and Selfies.  Across these three sections, the broad strokes of her work situate the smartphone era in a longer history of Black struggle, provide an archaeology of contemporary Black witnessing practices, and examine the visual iconography of Black protest journalism in the age of Black Lives Matter, along with its implications for Black witnesses and broader efforts for racial justice.

Courtesy of Pew Research Center

One of Richardson’s core contributions in Bearing Witness While Black is her centering of Blackness within her exploration of witnessing and its relationship to movement formation.  In positing a distinctly Black witnessing as the focus of her study, she makes the case not only that Black people bear witness differently than others but, further, that witnessing has been a vital arena in which Black people have staked the evidentiary foundations of an oppositional narrative about race, power, and democracy within the United States.  Black witnessing carries important legal weight for the pursuit of racial justice in courts.  It also has a powerful capacity to mobilize public action, fueling pushback against racist policing patterns and the institutional racism that undergirds them.  At least as significantly for Richardson is the role that it plays in linking Black people to one another.  Particularly in the context of crisis, as Richardson puts it, Black witnessing functions as “a form of connective tissue among Black people that transcends place.”[1]  Rather than distancing or depersonalizing the connection between the victims of atrocity and the viewers, as the main currents of media witnessing scholarship suggest, she argues that cellphone footage of anti-Black violence, when seen by Black people, “blurs [the line] between viewer and victim.”[2]  For those who bear witness while Black (and some allied people of color, whom she includes in her analysis), Richardson’s work underscores that incidents of anti-Black violence are never isolated or episodic in nature.  Rather, they grow out of, occur within, and are experienced through the context of systemic violence and generational trauma that history has wrought upon Black people for centuries.

As richly nuanced as it is in the ways it engages and builds upon media witnessing theory, Richardson’s work is also firmly anchored in and driven by the imperatives of praxis.  Drawing on her experiences as a journalist, as a teacher of mobile journalism, and as an African-American woman who grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland in the age of the police assault on Rodney King and the L.A. Rebellion, she writes with an acute attentiveness to the stakes of the news-making practices she analyzes, including for witnesses themselves.  Having worked with citizen journalists in a wide range of contexts, including in South Africa at the front lines of the country’s HIV/AIDS crisis and in Morocco in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, she also speaks to the comparative dimensions of witnessing practices across a variety of social movements.  She highlights a certain degree of relatability that links the use of smartphones and social media by participants in the Black Lives Matter movement with that of people in the Occupy Wall Street protests and the Arab Spring.  

Yet, in significant ways, she also emphasizes that the scope, scale, and systematic nature of racial violence to which African Americans bear witness make their witnessing even more akin to that of Holocaust survivors than to protestors in these other movements.  As she explains, when Black people bear witness to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and far, far too many others, their actions simultaneously memorialize “the more than 10 million Africans who were sold into bondage across the Atlantic Ocean . . . the 5,000 African American men, women, and children who continued to be victims of lynching across the United States . . . [and] the more than 1 million African American and Latinx men and women who have fallen victim to mass incarceration since the late 1970s.”[3]  Black witnessing honors those subjected to suffering and premature death, all the while refusing to let the public forget the past, or, for that matter, look away from the horrors of the present.  Therein lies its urgency.

It is not only the long history of anti-Black racism that weighs on the present.  As Richardson demonstrates, contemporary Black witnessing practices also carry forth the legacies of Black survival, struggle, and resistance.  As she situates the Black Lives Matter movement within a much longer genealogy of Black liberatory struggles, Richardson charts a history of Black witnessing that links the role of slave narratives, African American newspapers and magazines, television, early internet-based social networks, and Black Twitter along a historical continuum—forming “an unbroken chain of brave seers.”[4]  Earlier generations laid the groundwork for the modes of witnessing we have seen in the past decade, Richardson argues.  The primary factor that distinguishes the witnessing practices of our contemporary moment is the accessibility of the technology involved.  With the introduction of the smartphone, witnesses the world over acquired “a tool that would allow anyone to create and distribute media quickly, without the need for a privileged gatekeeper.”[5]  Combined with social media platforms and speedy internet connections, the smartphone has equipped today’s Black witnesses to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors, while at the same time enabling them to share, collectively grieve, strategize, and organize in response to news of police brutality at a more rapid pace and on a more thoroughly mass scale than ever before.

While Richardson makes clear her position on the side of viewing Black witnessing as a positive force for racial justice, her endorsement is not the kind that romanticizes.  In fact, some of the richest parts of her analysis are those where she explores the tensions and contradictions inherent in the practice.  Among the troubling aspects of Black witnessing she examines is the way that the smartphone technology on which today’s protest journalists rely—“the very tool that empowers the activists”—carries with it “the potential to extinguish them.”[6]  Highlighting the growing use of Stingray tracking technology by authorities and harking back to the role of COINTELPRO in the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Richardson complicates any inclination to celebrate the smartphone’s democratizing effects without reckoning with the ways it expands the terrain for surveillance and political repression. 

Graphic illustration of the impact of COINTELPRO by Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas, 1976

Another set of challenges Richardson investigates is the potential harm that comes from seeing itself.  On one level, bearing witness to atrocity can have serious emotional and psychological effects on the viewer, not to mention the threat of backlash from authorities to which they expose themselves.  (Many will remember Ramsey Orta in this respect, the video witness who was the only one from the scene of Eric Garner’s death in 2014 who was arrested.)  On another level, when footage of Black police victims’ last moments is shown repeatedly, often unedited and without freeze frame or face blurring techniques, the imagery may do more to normalize racist violence and uphold the terror of white supremacy than to challenge it.  All this leads Richardson to the assertion that how such footage is shared is as significant as whether it is shared. 

Poster by Tony Carranza

It is noteworthy that Bearing Witness While Black entered into print in June 2020, at the very same moment that the nation’s racial uprisings reached peak levels of intensity following the deaths of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among others.  While Richardson could not have anticipated the exact synchronicity of events, it is a testament to just how “on time” her work truly is.[7]  Questions remain about how Black witnessing practices may vary across class lines, since Richardson’s interview sample overwhelmingly comprises graduates of prominent universities with advanced degrees, a factor that Richardson herself acknowledges.  The relational dynamics that link the experiences and perspectives of Black-identified witnesses with those of non-Black witnesses of color is another topic that some readers may wish to see analyzed further, as her discussion on this front is relatively brief.  Still, well researched and engagingly written, the book offers a fresh critical lens on the Black Lives Matter movement and on the possibilities and perils of efforts for social change more generally, adding significantly to both scholarly and broader public conversations.  It will be of particular interest not only to media and journalism scholars, but also scholars of race/ethnicity, social movements, technology and history, as well as social activists and organizers for whom it bears lessons.

Elizabeth E. Sine is a historian of race, labor, and social movements in California and the broader United States (Ph.D., University of California San Diego) and Lecturer in History at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She is author of the recent book, Rebel Imaginaries: Labor, Culture, and Politics in Depression-Era California (Duke University Press, 2021) and co-editor of Another University Is Possible (University Readers, 2010).  She is also on the steering committee of R.A.C.E. Matters in San Luis Obispo, California.


[1] Allissa V. Richardson, Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism (Oxford University Press, 2020), 12.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Richardson, xii-xiii.

[4] Richardson, 44.

[5] Richardson, 39.

[6] Richardson, 114.

[7] The reference here to being “on time” comes from Ivory Perry, qtd. in George Lipsitz, A Life in the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 269.

Interviews

Forever Prisoners: An Interview with Elliott Young

Adam Goodman sat down with professor, author, and human rights advocate Elliott Young to discuss his new book which shines a light on the often cruel and senseless policies that make up the intersection of immigration and criminal justice in the United States.

Adam Goodman: The book’s title, Forever Prisoners, is provocative. How did you come up with it and what does it mean?

Elliott Young:  A friend who does prison abolition activism work and criminal justice said that the stories I tell sound a lot like the Guantanamo prisoners who have been there for twenty years, many of them not charged with any crimes. And so, this moniker: forever prisoners. The more I thought about it, I said, “Yes, forever prisoners is exactly the state in which many of these immigrants found themselves.” Of course, most of them didn’t spend their entire lives in prison. Some died after being detained, but many got out; but even when people get out, immigrants found themselves in positions of rightlessness or diminished rights. For people deported to places in Central America where there is lots of gang violence or political violence, they find themselves also like prisoners, in the sense of being trapped in their houses. So, the long reach of the tentacles of the prison seemed like an apt metaphor to think about the condition in which immigrants have been living for the last 140 years.

AG: Many scholars of immigration detention focus on the 1980s to the present. You start a century earlier. Why? What do we learn by tracing that longer history?

EY: My previous book was about Chinese immigration and starts off in the mid-nineteenth, so I knew that the Chinese were being detained and deported (obviously not in the numbers that we have today) right from the beginning of when the federal immigration system was set up. It seemed that the origins of that system were important to understand and to try to understand the trajectory from the late nineteenth century all the way through to the present. Not to say that there were no changes, but to track those changes so we don’t make the mistake of thinking we could return to an idealized earlier era. Sometimes people say 1954, “Oh, that was the moment like immigrant detention ended.” Well, 1954 to the 1980s was not a good time for Mexicans who were coming across the border without authorization.

AG: One of the things I found most compelling about your book is that you tell the history of immigration detention through a series of incredible, incredibly revealing, and often disturbing stories. The book’s first story takes place not on Ellis Island or on Angel Island, but on McNeil Island, off the coast of Washington. Why there?

Fong Sun was arrested in Santa Barbara in 1916 and eventually sentenced to two years on McNeil Island for forging a residence certificate. Source: Fong Sun, inmate 2733, Photos and Records of Prisoners Received, 1875-1939, McNeil Island Penitentiary, RG 129, NARA, Seattle.

EY: McNeil Island was a remote prison island off the coast of Tacoma, one of the three penitentiaries in the United States in this period. I started to do research on Chinese imprisoned there and discovered that they were put there for unauthorized entry—but they were sentenced to hard labor, which was a prison sentence. They were not simply put in this prison pending deportation, which is now the justification for imprisoning immigrants. In this case, they were actually given sentences, but they didn’t go through a judicial trial, so this is completely illegal based on the Constitution. Eventually the Supreme Court, in a landmark 1896 case, decided that you couldn’t do that. You could imprison or detain immigrants pending deportation, but you couldn’t impose criminal sentence on them without a judicial trial.

In this early period, they are experimenting with what to do with immigrants, so they put them in McNeil Island. It was clear that Chinese at that point were crossing the border from Canada to come across into the Pacific Northwest without authorization. The easiest thing for the immigration authorities was to just take them to the border of Canada and push them across. But at that point, Canada had established a head tax requirement for the Chinese and the migrants didn’t have the money to pay. So, Canada refused them entry and they ended up in McNeil Island prison for years, while there were diplomatic negotiations with the Canadian government. Eventually, in the early 1890s, U.S. officials deported them back to China. It’s in this early period that you see the U.S. government trying to work out both the legal grounds for holding immigrants as well as developing the whole bureaucracy and mechanisms for deporting people across the globe.

This photograph depicts, from left to right, Hop Key (1144), Chung Fung (1139), Hing Tom (1141), and Jan Jo (1142). Source: Photograph of Chinese prisoners and McNeil Island Prison, Photos and Records of Prisoners Received, 1875-1939, McNeil Island Penitentiary, Records of the Bureau of Prisons, NARA, Seattle, Record Group 129.

AG: That raises the question: What do U.S. officials do when there’s nowhere to deport someone? What happens when there’s a country that’s not willing to accept them? This comes up in the case of Nathan Cohen, who found himself in extended—perhaps even indefinite—detention.

EY: Nathan Cohen came from a part of Russia that’s kind of a borderlands region. He was Jewish, he had migrated to Brazil and spent a few years there, then went to New York in 1912. He ends up going to the Deep South, because he has relatives there, and opens a business with his uncle in Jacksonville, Florida. Within a short period of time, he gets married and then he’s swindled by his family. He loses his busines and his wife runs off with his best friend, and this sends him into a funk where he essentially becomes mute. He goes to Baltimore, where his sister was living, and gets put into a mental hospital run by the state, a public mental hospital, and gets declared insane. And because he had immigrated within three years, that declaration of insanity was grounds for deportation. So, he gets sent to Ellis Island and they put him on a ship to go back to Brazil. But Brazil refuses to take him. The ship goes on to Argentina, who also says they don’t want him. The U.S. government is trying to contact the Russians. This is during World War I, Cohen is a Jew, and there’s anti-Jewish programs going on in this region, so Russia isn’t interested in taking him. So, he’s essentially stateless. The press describes him as the wandering Jew, the man without a country. And so, he gets sent back to New York. After spending several months in detention on Ellis Island, they try to deport him again. The same thing happens. 

AG: It’s a nightmare.

“He has no address, belongs nowhere, is wanted nowhere.” Drawing of Nathan Cohen in The Pittsburgh Press, 18 Apr. 1915.

EY: It’s a nightmare; a Kafkaesque nightmare. The last time when he comes back to New York Harbor. The authorities don’t even let him off the boat because they realize that once he’s on U.S. soil he could have legal claims. What happens with Nathan Cohen, eventually the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the Knights of Pythias, which was a fraternal organization of which he was a member, intervene and agree to pay for his upkeep in a private sanatorium in Connecticut. He’s taken off the ship and lives in that sanatorium for about a year. Then he just dies, kind of mysteriously, since he’s still a young man at this point (mid-30s), and is buried on Staten Island.

Nathan Cohen’s story is fascinating on its own, but it also led me to discover that there was this whole other system of incarceration in the early twentieth century. Mental hospitals held many more citizens and noncitizens than detention centers or even in jails and prisons. By the 1960s, they started phasing out mental institutions in part because of the critiques of the way mental institutions were handled, and then we see the rise of mass incarceration. What we have now is lots of people who have mental illness, but instead of being in mental institutions they are in prisons and jails. 

AG: Something else that stands out is the history of the U.S. government deporting people from Latin America to the United States, rather than vice versa, and detaining them during World War II.

EY: During World War II, there was this semi-secretive FBI program to identify and roundup Axis nationals in Latin America through the U.S. embassies in various countries. Thirteen countries participated in this program. I focus on the case of Seiichi Higashide, who is of Japanese origin, went to Peru as a young man, developed a business there selling goods, and married a Japanese Peruvian woman. He’s put on this list but manages to evade detection for a few years with the help of a local police chief. When he’s finally picked up, Peruvian officials force him onto a U.S. military transport ship and he’s taken to Panama. He’s briefly held at a U.S. military camp there, then put on another ship and taken to New Orleans. From New Orleans they put him on a train and he ends up in Texas. His wife and two children eventually decide to follow him to the United States to keep the family United. The story raises all these questions that we’re facing today about family separation. According to the government, all these people voluntarily went into detention, but it wasn’t so voluntary when the father was forcibly picked up and taken away and the family ends up joining him. U.S. officials detained them in a camp in Crystal City, Texas, which is actually 40 miles from the current family detention center in Dilley. There’s a long history of family detention in the heart of South Texas that continues to this very day. 

AG: Another connection to the present is the history you trace of people resisting and organizing against detention. Tell us about the detention of Haitians and Cubans in the 1970s and 1980s, the uprisings in Oakdale, Louisiana, and Atlanta, Georgia, which you describe as “the longest prison takeover in U.S. history.” 

EY: In the 1970s, you have Haitians escaping from political unrest and political violence thrown into detention. And almost universally, their asylum claims are rejected. Then, in 1980, there’s this massive boatlift of people from Cuba, the Mariel boatlift, and these are people escaping from a communist country. Initially, Carter sort of welcomes them with open arms into the United States. But this group of 125,000 Cubans was unlike the Cubans who had fled Castro in the early 1960s. Many of them are Black, and they come from lower socioeconomic groups. Their reception in Miami was not as welcoming as the reception in the 1960s had been. They were seen and stigmatized as criminals and as being mentally ill, because there was this idea that Castro just sort of emptied his jails and mental institutions. 

The U.S. government responds by establishing mass immigrant detention spaces on military bases around the country. And the idea is they need to be processed to figure out who are the criminals, who are the mentally ill people, and figure out who has family sponsors. After a couple of years, it’s almost entirely Black Cubans who are still in detention. After about a year, almost all of them are paroled into the United States, but they still haven’t regularized their status. Some of those people commit low level offenses, many of them are picked up on marijuana possession charges. Some of them have assault charges and a handful of them do have more serious violent crimes like homicide. So those people are then criminally sentenced and do their time. But after they do their time, because of the immigration regulations, they are now ineligible for their status to be regularized. They face indefinite detention pending deportation.

Eventually, they are sent to Atlanta Penitentiary and to Oakdale, Louisiana, where there was another detention center. Many of them languish there for years. They arrived in 1980 and a few hundred of them were held until the late 1980s. The Castro regime was not interested in having these people return, so they were essentially in prison indefinitely. Then, in November 1987, the Cuban government agrees to take back 2,000 people. Word spreads to these two prisons that they’re going to be deported to Cuba, and that sets off an uprising, first in Oakdale and then a couple of days later in Atlanta. 

AG: It’s incredible that these uprisings were more or less coordinated.

Cubans on roof of Atlanta Penitentiary during takeover in 1987 with US and Cuban flags. Scott Robinson, Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP.

EY: They had word through the grapevine and through the media that this was going to happen, that these deportations were imminent. So, the uprising happens in Oakdale, they take over the prison, they seize hostages, and they start torching the buildings. Then the same thing in Atlanta. This is not too long, around 16 years, after Attica, and in that case the National Guard was called in and more than 40 people were massacred. So, the question was, “How is this standoff going to end?” Somewhat miraculously, only one Cuban was shot and killed in Atlanta. No one else died in this episode and after two weeks they finally come to an agreement thanks to the intervention of a Cuban American Bishop from Miami who encouraged the people to give up the hostages and to end the siege. They also received a commitment from the U.S. government to conduct individual asylum reviews. Finally, after Thanksgiving, they leave the prison with salsa music blaring and they give themselves up and turn over the hostages. The larger point of this story is that these uprisings offer insights into the beginnings of “crimmigration,” or the overlapping of criminal justice and immigration.

AG: Throughout the book you show how the criminalization of noncitizens has resulted in the detention and deportation of long-term residents, many of whom have U.S. citizen children. One of the book’s most moving stories is that of Mayra Machado.

EY: I knew for the last chapter I wanted to focus on crimmigration today, and probably a Central American case, since increasingly those are the people detained. As I was looking for media stories, one day I get a call from a detention center in Louisiana. I accepted the call and it was Mayra Machado, who I had done an expert witness asylum declaration for a couple of years earlier. That case was unsuccessful; she was deported.

Mayra was brought to the United States from El Salvador when she was five years old and grew up in Southern California. Then her family moved to Arkansas. When she was eighteen years-old she wrote a hot check; clearly a crime, a mistake. She was picked up, charged, and sentenced to six months in some camp for rehabilitation. She did her time, got out, and ended up having children. Then, in 2015, around Christmas time, she went to Hobby Lobby to buy decorations. Her son left his glasses at the store, and when they returned to get them, she was pulled over on failure to yield traffic violation. Because of the expansion of these Secure Communities agreements and 287(g) agreements, where local law enforcement was basically authorized as immigration agents, they ran her information through the system and discovered that she didn’t have authorization to be in the country. In reality, this is a woman who grew up in the United States, was a working mom—wasn’t some kind of violent criminal—and she’s all of a sudden faced with permanent banishment from the country and separation from her three U.S. citizen children. 

I hadn’t actually even been in contact with her personally, but she had my number and she called me up and she said, “I came back into the United States.” Police had picked her up on a traffic violation and put her back in detention while awaiting deportation. At this point she was representing herself. Immigration law is extremely, extremely complicated. When immigrants, as smart as they are, try to represent themselves, the chance of them succeeding is almost nil. I was able to get her a pro bono lawyer from Loyola Law School (New Orleans). And I agreed to work on her case as an expert witness. 

Mayra Machado and her children in hearing in Arkansas on Jan. 18, 2019. Photograph by Magaly Marvel. Courtesy of Mayra Machado.

AG: How did you start providing expert witness testimony in immigration and asylum cases? What is immigration court like?

EY: This book is really about the present and from my perspective it’s sort of ethically obligatory to not only write about this from the ivory tower, but to actually use what you know to try to have an impact. And one of the ways to do this as an academic is by working on asylum cases.

In 2014, Steven Manning, a great immigration lawyer who runs the Innovation Law lab here in Portland, Oregon, contacted me and asked if I would do an expert witness country conditions declaration to inform the court about the political context related to claims being made. At this point I’ve done more than 400 of these.

Immigration courts are kind of like the Wild West. Immigration judges could decide what they will and won’t accept, so whether your claim has any grounds entirely depends on which immigration judge you get. In Louisiana, the rate of denial is over 90 percent, and some of the judges have 100 percent denial rates. Essentially, no matter what your claim, they’re going to deny it.

AG: It’s farcical.

EY: Yeah. In New York or San Francisco, you’ve got a much better shot. That being said, in almost all of the cases that I’ve worked on, the people actually do gain status or are able to avoid deportation. So, if you have a good lawyer and an expert witness—and if you’re also not in Louisiana or in one of these terrible jurisdictions—you can actually gain asylum. But the problem is, most immigrants are not represented by lawyers and most don’t have expert witnesses.

The hero of this story is Mayra, because if she hadn’t advocated for herself none of us would have gotten involved. Isabel Medina, Mayra’s lawyer, advocate Pablo Alvarado, the head of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, and I went down to an ICE facility run by GEO, the private prison company, in a remote part of Louisiana. We presented all the evidence that when she had been deported back to El Salvador, she had been threatened by gangs with sexual assault and had also received serious threats against her life. But the immigration judge decided against her. Her lawyer appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court, and while the appeal was pending (this was in January of 2020, a year ago), one night at 7:00 p.m. officials told Mayra that they were going to deport her and at 3:00 a.m. that same night they took her to an airport in Alexandria, Louisiana. She argued with them, saying, “No, I’ve got an appeal pending.” But they shackled her and put her on a plane back to El Salvador. 

AG: That’s harrowing, and also speaks to how detention and deportation affect U.S. citizens, like Mayra’s children. Something else that we’ve been circling around is the larger story you tell of how immigration detention became intertwined with the rise of mass incarceration writ large. 

EY: I’m glad you brought up the mass incarceration question because it’s really what brought me to this project. I was concerned about the mass incarceration of citizens, and also noticed that the literature tended not to focus on immigrants. I wanted to show how immigrant detention is inextricably linked to the mass incarceration of citizens since the 1980s. It’s not a coincidence that the immigrants you find in detention are almost entirely Black and Brown people. This is a racially biased system, enforcement is targeted against particular people, and so in that sense it’s very much linked to the mass incarceration of citizens and the rhetoric that we had from Trump about the “criminals” who are supposedly crossing the border. This is an especially exciting moment when the people arguing against mass incarceration and the folks arguing against immigrant detention can really see how these two systems work together, and then fight to end detention, to end prisons. 

AG: How can we accomplish that? Through abolition? Are there other solutions?

Immigration Enforcement Spending, Department of Homeland Security, Budget in Brief, 2003-2021.

EY: I’ll come out and tell you that I’m someone who has an abolitionist horizon. I believe that we should construct a world where there are no prisons, where there are no immigrant detention systems. People should not be in prison because they have come to this country without authorization or they’ve come to this country seeking refuge. It is an abomination, it’s inhumane, and it doesn’t need to be this way. We had 50,000 people a day in ICE detention a year ago. Now, because of Covid, that’s down to 16,000 a day, which is still way too high, but it shows that this system could be dramatically reduced and the sky won’t fall. So, I’m hoping, against my better judgment, that the new Biden administration will not return to the policies of Obama—which were terrible for immigrants and which led to the greatest number of immigrants detained and formally deported in U.S. history—and will instead push for radical transformation of the massive bureaucracy that criminalizes and prevents immigrants from coming to this country in the first place. 

Elliott Young is a professor of history at Lewis & Clark College and author, most recently, of Forever Prisoners: How the United States Made the World’s Largest Immigrant Detention System (2021).

Adam Goodman teaches history and Latin American and Latino studies at University of Illinois Chicago. He is the author of The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants (2020).