Cover image for American Guestworkers: Jamaicans and Mexicans in the U.S. Labor Market By David Griffith

American Guestworkers

Jamaicans and Mexicans in the U.S. Labor Market

David Griffith


$40.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03188-0

256 pages
6" × 9"
4 maps

Rural Studies

American Guestworkers

Jamaicans and Mexicans in the U.S. Labor Market

David Griffith

“Unlike the pundits who debate immigration policy within the context of border security or labor markets, David Griffith focuses on the history and evolution of the H-2 program, examining the efficacy of actual guestworker policies and their effects on migrant workers. The value of American Guestworkers lies in the author’s argument that local history can influence global processes. Throughout the book, Griffith proves his point by moving effortlessly between analysis of the local and national issues related to the H-2 program.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
The H-2 program, originally based in Florida, is the longest running labor-importation program in the country. Over the course of a quarter-century of research, Griffith studied rural labor processes and their national and international effects. In this book, he examines the socioeconomic effects of the H-2 program on both the areas where the laborers work and the areas they are from, and, taking a uniquely humanitarian stance, he considers the effects of the program on the laborers themselves.
“Unlike the pundits who debate immigration policy within the context of border security or labor markets, David Griffith focuses on the history and evolution of the H-2 program, examining the efficacy of actual guestworker policies and their effects on migrant workers. The value of American Guestworkers lies in the author’s argument that local history can influence global processes. Throughout the book, Griffith proves his point by moving effortlessly between analysis of the local and national issues related to the H-2 program.”
“Anthropologist Griffith has written a historical, informational, and gripping ethnographic account of Jamaicans and Mexicans in the U.S. labor market, focusing on sectors such as sugar in Florida for Jamaicans and crab picking and tobacco in North Carolina for Mexicans.”
“I highly recommend this book to scholars, policymakers, and social activists who ponder the issues of temporary migration.”
“This review does not do justice to the breadth of the analysis that Griffith provides. It is a dense but clearly written exploration of complex processes that bring migrants to the United States. Migration today cannot be understood by focusing narrowly on a single migrant group, employer, or industry. This book should be read by pundits and politicians who believe building walls will keep migrants from crossing the border.”

David Griffith is Professor of Anthropology at East Carolina University. He is also the author of The Estuary's Gift: An Atlantic Coast Biography (Penn State, 1999).




Part I: Out of Florida

Introduction: In the State with the Prettiest Name

1. Alleged Shortages at Home, Certain Surpluses Abroad: North American Temporary Worker Programs

2. Occupations Abandoned, Workers Displaced: Seasonal Labor Before and After H-2

Part II: Jamaican Experiences, 1981–2001

3. From Beauty to Truth

4. Aspects of the Machete

5. Guests as Hosts: Jamaicans in the Tourist Industry

Part III: Mexican Experiences, 1988–2003

6. When Owls Die, Ellos Nos Hierieron

7. Bodies on Hold: Gender and H-2

Conclusion: Lasting Firsts




In the State with the Prettiest Name

The state with the prettiest name,

the state that floats in brackish water,

held together by mangrove roots

that bear while living oysters in clusters,

and when dead strew white swamps with skeletons

Elizabeth Bishop, “Florida” (1946)

Florida’s historians agree that Henry Flagler, John D. Rockefeller’s partner in Standard Oil, pioneered economic development all along the state’s east coast. His late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century construction projects and investments in agriculture converted swampy, tangled jungles of palmetto and cabbage palm into first inhabitable and later highly desirable places to visit and live. His hotels in St. Augustine and Palm Beach were among the finest and most expensive in the world, and his railroad, feeder roads, and canals first linked Jacksonville to Key West, stimulating settlements further inland and up and down the coast. Flagler’s men platted and built cities, drained wetlands, planted fruit trees, cleared land for farming, laid hundreds of miles of rail, and erected massive hotels of wood and a mixture of concrete and coquina shells.

Less well documented are the circumstances of the men who worked for Flagler, even though the construction and land development projects of the kind Flagler financed required thousands of skilled and unskilled workers. Among Flagler’s most daunting tasks were the recruitment and retention of labor—the construction, in short, of an adequate labor force. This was especially difficult because Florida’s forbidding landscape did not attract large numbers of people willing to work in jobs like digging canals and laying railroad ties. With the exceptions of Key West and Tampa, which together had around seventeen thousand inhabitants, most Floridians lived in the northern region bordering Georgia and along the Panhandle. Inhabiting the state’s interior and east coast were primarily Seminole, plume hunters, Bahamian and other West Indian fishing families, and various explorers, fugitives, and Civil War deserters. One of the first permanent dwellings was built on Palm Beach by a Civil War draft dodger named Charles Lang, and a second by a fugitive from Chicago, Charles Moore. In the early 1890s, when Flagler began quietly acquiring land on Palm Beach, fewer than a dozen families lived on the island, and neither West Palm Beach nor the town of Lake Worth existed. Labor, therefore, would have to be enticed, brought in, provisioned, and housed.

The African Americans, West Indians, Irish, Italians, and other immigrants who built Flagler’s Royal Poinciana Hotel arrived in Florida by different paths. Some were recruited through labor-contracting firms in Philadelphia and New York. Some came by sea as fishermen, and others filtered into south Florida from communities in the Deep South where opportunities for sharecropping or working the lumber mills or turpentine stills had dwindled.

However they arrived, by May 1893, when the first work on the Royal Poinciana began, many of the African American and Caribbean workers had begun building their own small settlement north of the hotel construction site. Named after the mythological river that led to hell, the settlement came to be known as the Styx. Surviving photographs of the Styx show it to be a long, cleared avenue of wooden houses and fences built from a mix of good lumber, flotsam, and scrap. It looks to have been an active, outdoorsy kind of place, lively and busy, small groups gathering on the street or sitting together on porches. A few cabbage palms and live oaks heavy with Spanish moss provided mattress stuffing, mistletoe, and shade. Descriptions of the Styx portray a neighborhood of juke joints, rum shops, and other small businesses, scattered gardens and livestock, and enduring ties to the sea. After construction on the Royal Poinciana was finished, some residents returned to fishing, salvaging shipwrecks, and hunting, while others continued working for Flagler’s hotels.

Founded in 1893, the Styx was not part of Henry Flagler’s plan. A lively black neighborhood this close to his exclusive resorts was out of step with the structured luxuries enjoyed by the John J. Ashtons and Vanderbilts and out of his direct control—a kind of frontier settlement of alternative cultural backgrounds that undermined his own Disneyesque world. Consequently, shortly after he began construction on the Royal Poinciana, he began building West Palm Beach specifically as a town for his workers. His engineers, in typically methodical fashion, laid it out in a grid pattern and named the streets alphabetically after local flowers and plants. Many Styx residents, at his bidding, moved to West Palm, but others preferred the cool island breezes and the proximity to the resorts, and the Styx remained a viable and vibrant community—the first and last black presence on the island of Palm Beach—for a dozen years.

November 5, 1905, the last day of the Styx’s existence, was Guy Fawkes Day, the day commemorating the foiling of Guy Fawkes’s attempt to blow up the English king and Parliament for what Fawkes perceived as their growing repression of Roman Catholics. Because many of the West Indians were part of the British Empire, Guy Fawkes Day had been an annual celebration and festive event every year since 1893. And because November 5, 1905, was the tercentennial anniversary of the failed assassination attempt, the day promised to be especially festive. Having witnessed how heartily his workers celebrated the holiday, Flagler marked the occasion himself by sponsoring a circus in West Palm Beach and providing transportation across Lake Worth. Joining family members and friends across the lake, Styx residents left their homes that evening not knowing that they would return to charred ruins. Later that night, after the neighborhood had emptied, a fire roared through the Styx—a fire started, local black historians say, by Henry Flagler’s men—and every dwelling burned to the ground.

The Styx was no phoenix. Whether or not Flagler ordered the burning of the Styx, no new neighborhood arose from its ashes, nor was there ever again a black community on the island of Palm Beach. On the contrary, the island hangs on to this day to antiquated laws similar to those enforced under apartheid in South Africa, requiring nonresident workers to carry passes explaining their business on the island after certain hours. Flagler developed the area where the Styx burned—its center today is the nondescript corner of Sunrise Avenue and North County Road—and it bears no indication that the area was ever the site of the only black community on the island. No interpretive sign, no plaque, and certainly no statue or monument exists to honor the Styx’s dozen years of resistance to Flagler’s vision.

Given Henry Flagler’s penchant for constructing labor forces that he kept separate from the places where the laborers worked, it should come as no surprise that the nation’s longest-running guestworker program began on the western edge of Palm Beach County, less than fifty miles from Flagler’s Royal Poinciana, thirty-eight years after the Styx burned. I refer to the H-2 program, or that labor-importing program that brought West Indians into Florida as early as 1943 and today brings Mexicans, Jamaicans, and others into the United States to harvest crops, pick meat from blue crabs, clean hotel rooms, and perform several other low-wage, low-skilled jobs on a temporary basis. Florida’s social and economic landscapes, like many throughout the South, have influenced social formations up and down the Atlantic coast and across the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and beyond. Over the past two and a half decades, I have had the good fortune to study relationships between Florida and southern history and the formation of lifestyles and labor markets in areas as far from one another as Los Mochis, Sinaloa, Mexico, and the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. This book, focusing on the H-2 program, draws on this quarter-century of research.

The research took place in several phases. My first experience with H-2 workers was as one of a dozen graduate students who interviewed cane workers in southern Florida on a project directed by University of Florida professors Charles Wood and Terry McCoy. This consisted of ten days of fieldwork in March 1981. We took over most of the small El Patio Motel in Clewiston and spent days and early evening hours interviewing West Indian cane cutters and nights coding the interviews we had completed during the day.

Following Wood and McCoy’s data, I then chose central Jamaica as a research site for doctoral research that lasted from January 1982 to December 1983. Most of the cane cutters in Wood and McCoy’s study came from Jamaica’s interior, so from January to August 1982 I lived with my wife and two young daughters on a small plantation north of Christiana, Jamaica, that grew coffee beans, oranges, and bananas, making daily visits to an area across the asphalt road called the Two-Meetings Watershed. In Two-Meetings I conducted interviews and observed peasant families at work in their fields and spending time in leisure or at work in their homes; in Christiana and Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, I collected background information from agricultural marketing organizations, development agencies, local bookstores and libraries, and university and government archives.

In September 1982 I followed the first waves of Jamaican H-2 workers to the apple orchards of the United States, meeting with several men I had befriended in the watershed and others who worked and lived with them in Virginia, West Virginia, New England, and upstate New York. I traveled through much of New England’s apple country in September and October before working my way back through Virginia and West Virginia, interviewing Jamaicans and observing patterns of labor organization and control. In November, as apple workers were either returning to Jamaica or, more often, leaving apple country to cut sugar in south Florida, I traveled back to south Florida sugar country to spend the rest of 1982.

In early 1983 I returned to Jamaica for four months, this time to Black River, on the southern coast, where I hoped to collect data from H-2 workers on a different part of the island for comparative purposes. I also wanted to index my field notes, outline and begin writing my dissertation, and visit families of H-2 workers in the highlands, filling gaps in my field notes and knowledge. During this time I became particularly interested in the ways that women, left behind when their husbands, boyfriends, and sons left for the United States, dealt with their absence and how they used the money the men sent home to them. I also became keenly aware of distinctions between coastal and highland Jamaica and the ways that people in each area cobbled together a living. Through these initial two phases of research I collected detailed data on 134 peasant households, fifty-four of which had at least one member participating in the H-2 program.

Following this research, in the mid- to late 1980s, I conducted research on food processing and rural labor markets in the U.S. South, research that led eventually to additional projects in the apple-growing regions of the eastern United States and south Florida agriculture, much of it funded by the U.S. Department of Labor and the Commission on Agricultural Labor. While working with the commission I met its research director, Monica Heppel, and legal counsel Luis Torres, and we three began planning, in the early 1990s, a second major phase of research on H-2 workers. This research phase began nearly ten years after I’d completed my dissertation, in 1993, but focused on H-2 workers in several economic sectors outside agriculture, where the workers carried H-2B as opposed to H-2A visas. People with H-2B visas work in nonagricultural seasonal jobs like seafood processing and the tourist industry, while people with H-2A visas work in seasonal agricultural jobs. During the study of H-2B workers, we interviewed 473 workers and 183 of their employers in seafood processing, shrimping, hotels, ornamental stone quarries, racehorse stables, and forestry. While information from all these sectors informs this book, I pay closest attention to the two sectors I examined in greatest detail, seafood processing and hotels. This detail was made possible by additional funding from the National Science Foundation to focus on the convergent experiences of H-2B workers from Jamaica and Mexico and African American workers who worked in seafood-processing plants and as chambermaids in South Carolina coastal resort hotels; this was my focus from 1998 to 2001. The U.S. Department of Labor and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health also provided funds that allowed me to investigate immigrants in U.S. rural communities and the conditions of children working in agriculture.

Monica, Luis, and I did further comparative work on H-2A and H-2B from 1999 to 2002, with the generous aid of the Ford Foundation. In combination with the National Science Foundation research, we interviewed more than eight hundred workers in Mexico, Jamaica, and the United States. The express purpose of this work was to provide a general overview of the H-2 program with Mexico and recommend ways to improve it. I was able to continue this work as I put the finishing touches on this book, as part of a multisite study of the impact of immigrants on rural communities around the United States, both as part of a research team examining the Canadian Migrant Agricultural Workers Program and as part of a working group assembled by the Farmworker Justice Fund and Aguirre International to formulate a research agenda in the wake of proposed legislation to create yet another guestworker program.

In all of these studies I paid attention to workers’ and their families’ experiences with programs where the management of migration was accomplished by large, highly developed state systems working with, or at times against, employers and employer associations. Yet formal guestworker programs like H-2 are not the only means nation-states use to manage labor migration. Historically, nations have used a peculiar combination of legislative activity and political will to enforce or ignore laws governing labor, housing, occupational safety, border regions, and work in low-wage, difficult jobs (Heyman 1998). North American temporary worker programs are instances of highly managed labor migration, based on premises and arguments that date to the early twentieth century—specifically, in the United States, the ninth proviso of the Immigration Act of 1917, which allowed federal labor and immigration officials to ease immigration restrictions for the temporary entry of workers who otherwise might be denied the right to work in the United States.

One of the core premises of managed labor migration programs is that a labor shortage exists, usually stimulated by political economic developments, such as war, that are clearly beyond the control of individual employers. In 1917 the immediate threat to the nation’s labor supply came from World War I, and one of the solutions was to grant citizenship to Puerto Ricans, whose homeland the United States had occupied since 1898. In 1943, when the first government-to-government agreements that effectively initiated the H-2 program were signed, the threat to the agricultural labor supply, supposedly, was World War II.

Whether or not wartime labor shortages actually existed is a contested issue. Labor historian Cynthia Hahamovich argues that the agricultural labor supply, at least since the nineteenth century, has been manipulated by government agencies working in concert with private growers and labor contractors, using housing in particular as a tool to attract, retain, and control workers (1997). Like other researchers, Hahamovich argues further that the alleged labor shortages of the war years were shortages only of workers willing to work under prewar wages and conditions. They were not, in other words, absolute shortages, but shortages of workers desperate enough to accept prewar wages and working conditions while economic expansion was raising wages elsewhere in the United States.

In agriculture, farmers and farm managers who recruit immigrant workers commonly view either a shortage of highly disciplined, reliable workers, or the absence of a surplus of workers, as a shortage of agricultural labor. Without the discipline and reliability that H-2 workers bring to agricultural labor forces, there are several reasons why agricultural employers might desire a labor surplus, including the reduction of upward pressures on working conditions and pay, and a ready supply of new workers as jobs are abandoned because of hardship, injury, or other opportunities. Agricultural jobs, like most of the other low-wage jobs that temporary foreign workers occupy, are generally unpleasant and plagued by high turnover. As I wrote in an early work on low-wage labor: “There isn’t much romance in jobs like these. They don’t pay well. Often they’re dirty, they’re hard, they stink, they cause injury and illness, and they earn the people who work them no prestige, teach them no skill, prepare them for no promotion” (Griffith 1993, 4–5). Staffing such jobs involves actively constructing labor forces through a combination of enticement and coercion.

This process often extends beyond the work site or labor market to include controlling workers’ time and space to an extent that approximates conditions of slavery or imprisonment, creating what sociologists call total institutions: places, like prisons, that provide everything required for bare survival, where a person can live and work for days, months, or years⎛sometimes an entire lifetime⎛without ever leaving the grounds. Constructing labor forces and quasi-total institutions often go hand in hand. In the 1920s Henry Ford built his auto factories and workers’ living quarters in tandem with each other and enforced, through a private police force, lifestyles that conformed to his own vision of what a good American should be. Worker, spouse, language, diet, faith, household⎛all were supposed to conform to what Ford believed were healthy family values and proper ethics regarding work, marriage, and home. In the 1940s and 1950s the United Fruit Company established banana plantations in isolated regions of Ecuador’s coast, patrolling them with their own police forces, building houses, schools, a hospital, and a company store, and even influencing workers’ leisure time through the creation of social clubs. Workers who conformed to the company regimen lived relatively well, but those who stepped out of line were swiftly fired and shuttled away (Striffler 2002). In his chronicle of two Mexican brothers who migrated to California as young men in the 1970s, Roger Rouse shows how various institutional settings drove the once rowdy brothers toward the kind of lifestyle that feeds pliant workers to factories and fields and herds consumers into Wal-Mart (1992). Following the U.S. Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, debt peonage emerged as a means of binding workers to plantations, farms, and other highly controlled production centers throughout the South, controlling their lives so fully that they lived in a state of virtual slavery (Daniel 1972).

Florida’s historical and contemporary landscapes are peppered with total institutions—not only prisons but turpentine camps in the pine barrens of the north, sugar plantations in the south, refugee detention centers, worker dormitories, labor camps of undocumented immigrants, even golf and baseball camps and the fantasy worlds created by Disney and Anheuser-Busch. Total institutions attempt to construct and control complete social contexts, yet they almost always fall short: in spite of their schedules and regimens of work, meals, and sleep, imported cultural practices gradually surface, offering residents comfort, identity, and orientation and influencing the ways that work is performed, meals are spiced, and sleep is resisted or welcomed.

Jamaicans brought into Florida’s sugar fields to cut cane for nearly half a century, beginning in 1943, were housed and fed in dormitories and worked according to schedules like those of total institutions. The Immigration and Naturalization Service issued them H-2 visas, which allowed them to enter the country legally on the condition that they work, throughout their stay, for a single, predesignated employer. Despite the control that this limited access to the labor market gave their employers, these workers brought to the sugar plantations their tastes and styles of speech, and some of them settled in Pahokee, Belle Glade, Clewiston, and South Bay. Neighborhoods in communities ringing the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee began looking, sounding, smelling, feeling, and tasting more and more West Indian. Supermarkets stocked yams and Jamaican pastries, and the minibuses that transported workers between labor camps and town adopted the same flexible schedules and methods of recruiting passengers that you find throughout Jamaica.

As Jamaicans slipped away from the sugar fields, establishing a West Indian presence in southern Florida, they showed us that cultural practices nearly always leak out of and percolate up through the structures and rules meant to regulate time, space, and human interaction. Managed migration like the H-2 program can never fully dehumanize individuals, making them merely, or even primarily, workers. New, more vibrant cultural practices gradually emerged along the margins of the sugar plantations, nipping at the rules and regulations of sugar work with enticing aromas from home.

Similar patterns emerge around Disney World, Busch Gardens, and the golf and beach resorts where tourists stay for a week or two at a time. These fantasy worlds depend on large numbers of security guards, performers, landscapers, and service and maintenance personnel. Most of these people require low-cost housing because they earn low incomes that fluctuate seasonally, yet still pay the inflated prices that local businesses charge tourists for basic goods like food and basic services like medical care. It is in the best interests of the fantasy that these people disappear at the end of their shifts into neighborhoods that bear little resemblance to the fantasy worlds where they work.

I was first struck by this on a trip to south Florida’s interior in 1981, when several of us graduate students from the University of Florida went into the sugar fields to interview a few hundred West Indian cane cutters for Professors Charles Wood and Terry McCoy. We stayed in Clewiston, one of half a dozen towns along the southern rim of Lake Okeechobee that served as the winter home to people who lived a hand-to-mouth existence. At least three of these towns Belle Glade, South Bay, and Pahokee had large sections of tenement housing occupied by refugees, illegal immigrants, and the working poor. They were two- and three-story apartment buildings with sagging balconies, torn screens, and flaking, fading paint that had once boasted bright Caribbean colors. I learned later that many of these tenements doubled as labor camps, occupied by families or single men on the condition that the residents work either directly for their landlord or for someone related to their landlord.