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Open Access Publications from the University of California

New Migrants vs. Old Migrants: Alternative Labor Market Structures in the California Citrus Industry


Based on fieldwork conducted during 1981 in Ventura County, California, this study helps to explain the relationship between the relative abundance of Mexican nationals willing to pick citrus crops and the institutional forms which U.S. unions, employers, and governments have created to deal with Mexicans in California agriculture. The work should be of particular relevance to those interested in the mechanisms through which Mexican nationals enter U.S. jobs and in the impact that immigrants have on the work opportunities available to U.S. nationals.

The authors, a labor economist and an historian, utilized a combination of personal interviews, documentary research, and economic analysis to examine competition by Mexican migrants for jobs in the California citrus industry. Their research revealed that this competition—which has recently undermined attempts to stabilize the harvest labor market—involves virtually no U.S.-born workers. Rather, new waves of young, economically and legally vulnerable Mexican migrants have displaced older, more secure Mexicans who had won higher wages, improved benefits, and increased job security.

The citrus industry in Ventura County combined several factors, unusual in agriculture, that would allow for improved conditions of employment—a long picking season, a predominantly settled labor force, and institutional arrangements aimed at stabilization. The entrance of new subgroups of Mexican migrants with distinct characteristics, however, has resulted in the fragmentation of the labor market into distinct sectors with different working conditions and employee benefits. The authors’ analysis thus reveals that underlying historical forces—especially a persistently abundant supply of labor—have tended to reverse the progress earlier achieved through the creation of institutions to improve the quality of life for harvest workers in the citrus industry.

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