Null Contracts and the Story of Mexican Laborers

By: David Alexander

Case file: 53498/43

Immigrants: Cayetano Santos, Et al.

In 1911, the Medina Irrigation company started construction on the Medina Dam in southwestern Mico, Texas. The project was massive, and it would be the largest dam built west of the Mississippi River. The project needed to be done quickly, however, because the river could flood at any moment and break the dam walls before they were finished. Therefore, the company needed to recruit many workers immediately, and they wanted them to work for lower wages to keep costs down. To do this, numerous companies sent company men to Mexico to promise Mexican laborers a job with a steady wage. Unskilled Mexican workers were willing to work for less, so many companies in the Southwest were contracting Mexican laborers to work for them. 1,500 men ended up working on the Medina Dam, and eight of these men were eventually deported from the United States.

Cayetano Santos, Tomas Jaso, Jose Santos, Guillermo Rodriguez, Hilario Quiroga, Gregorio Gonzalez, Miguel Mendiola, and Lucas Rodriguez were the eight deported workers who were contracted to work in the United States. At the time, there were few laws that restricted movement between other countries in North America into the United States. Contract labor laws passed in 1885 and 1907 had barred any immigrants from being contracted for work and having their passage paid for by a third party. However, these men were deported because of an 1891 law that allowed contract laborers to be deported. American working unions lobbied for these laws so that their wages would be controlled. However, most companies ignored this provision, especially since it had little effect on them, so many of the men coming to America were dealing with a regulation that did not work.

These men entered “legally” through the port of Laredo, Texas. This means the border officer could not exactly prove they were coming to the United States as contract laborers. They all came from the same town of Sabinas Hidalgo, Nuevo Leon, Mexico, and they were all entering the United States with the intention of working at the dam. To aid their case, each of them claimed to have a relative living in the United States. In reality, they were simply contracted by the Medina Irrigation company to work on the dam.

Cayetano, who had previously worked at the dam, was probably hired to bring other men to work for the dam as well. They had talked to contractors for railroads and farms in Laredo and had told them they already had jobs in Mico. These contractors were probably the ones who turned the immigrants in.

The Bureau of Immigration picked up the immigrants from their job site and took them to be interrogated at the Mexican-American port of Laredo. However, it was strange because the contract labor system was so endemic to the southwest that this law was often ignored, especially for Mexican laborers. These eight were some of thousands that worked on the project, and the other contractors were probably tired of losing workers to the dam.

The inspector eventually found each man guilty of violating the contract labor provision of the Immigration Act of 1907. However, The immigrants were simply following incentives that the company had given them: relatively high wages and steady pay as long as the dam was under construction. Unfortunately, they were caught between a liberalized economy and oppressive regulations that ultimately stopped them from continuing their work.

Document Analysis
Arrest warrant request for the eight immigrants

This request for a warrant for arrest was required by the inspector in order to show reason for the arrest to a judge, who would issue the actual warrant. This request, which was eventually granted, was supposed to stop the many men who all came to work on the dam. In the request, the inspector claimed that Cayetano Santos, the man who had already worked at the dam, told the inspector he had gone to his hometown to persuade his friends to work at the dam. This confession essentially guaranteed the arrests and deportations of Cayetano and the rest of the men.

Later, the inspector was given a tip by the official who admitted the group into the country and George Pulsford, the man who arrested them and had later followed them to their destination of Mico, Texas. The inspector’s statements pointed towards a theory where the company asked Cayetano to go back to Mexico to bring men to work on the dam. This theory is confirmed in later pages of the case file.

Inspector Pulsford’s job was to apprehend the networks that brought laborers into the country. However, the effectiveness is subject to criticism. Inspector Pulsford had to travel at least 200 miles to have these men arrested and deported. This was a significant waste of government resources to get rid of eight men who were contributing to the economy.

Also, there was nothing stopping them from re-entering. One of the immigrants had been convicted of breaking the exact same contract labor law a few years earlier. This law was not taken seriously, especially by the Mexican laborers. When the men were deported, they lost a few dollars, but if another opportunity was good enough, they probably would have re-entered. However, the United States government had to spend hundreds of dollars transporting, investigating, and deporting these men, who would still potentially come back.

Why it Matters

The deportation of Mexican laborers in 1912 and in 2018 are extremely similar. The men in the case file were subject to contract labor restrictions for Mexican immigrants, and although they were caught and deported, this was uncommon. Thousands of people in 1912 were arriving in America without problems from the Immigration Bureau. They were coming to look for work and they were escaping civil wars. In the early 1900s, thousands of Mexican immigrants were fleeing a brutal war that destroyed their country.

Today, most immigrants who want to come to this country for safety or for better opportunities often cannot. They are still fleeing oppressive regimes and civil unrest similar to the past, so they are usually subject to vetting for refugee status. However, if they want to work in America, they can only hope to be granted a working visa by the United States INS’s visa lottery system. Although many laborers are granted guest laborer status, they often work for below minimum wage because of their seasonal worker status. This shows that the immigration policy for laborers into this country has adjusted to the need for a reliable inexpensive labor source.

Contract laborers working in America have become necessary for our country to function. Thousands of men from Mexico worked on the Medina Dam and thousands more worked on other infrastructure projects in the southwest. It was necessary for that region to develop into the economic powerhouse it is today. However, that is not the end of this trend, since seasonal work on farms today is done mostly by contract laborers from Mexico and Central America. Thousands of construction workers in America are Mexican and Central American immigrants, and some of these workers arrived illegally just as the men in the case file did. They are wanted by companies across America but they are barred from entering. In some cases, these immigrants are forced out just like the men in the case file.

Other Questions

1) How has immigration policy for laborers changed since 1912?

2) How does supply and demand for labor work in relation to current immigration policy?

3) How does civil strife in other countries influence emigration into the U.S.?