Immigration Workshop

Discussant: Pedro Gerson, Instructional Professor in the College and Director of Practice at the Pozen Center


This chapter is a socio-legal analysis of “Green Card Commuters,”  — workers who were admitted to the United States for permanent residence but maintained their homes in adjacent Mexican cities opting to cross the border to their place of work on a daily or seasonal basis. It examines how the status was created by the Immigration Service as a “device of convenience” to relieve Canadian border traffic congestion in 1927 and ultimately evolved into a de-facto Mexican guest worker program by 1959. Unlike traditional temporary worker programs which were, at least theoretically, governed by a set of binational regulations, bureaucrats managed the Commuter Program through informal policies of structured ambiguity, administrative discretion, and systemic abandonment. As the status did not “fit into any precise category found in the immigration statutes,” I argue that it was possible for administrations within the US State, Justice, and Labor Departments to devise a set of esoteric precedents which provided borderland capitalists and agricultural industrialists, with cheap and tethered foreign labor. This chapter demonstrates that the creation and application of commuter procedure occurred outside the official and public-facing channels of traditional law making. It shows how federal agencies administered a legal status outside Congressional purview by stretching definitions of immigration law far beyond their jurisdictional bounds. Ultimately, this chapter argues that migrant labor policy was constructed and negotiated across the scales of the state.  While my work focuses on bureaucratic violence and informal governance, it should not be categorized as a purely top-down or statist analysis. Part two of the chapter examines how unions and labor advocacy groups combatted legal informality by building information networks, or put crudely, spreading chisme. Rumor, conceptualized here as that which was widely known but unconfirmed, functioned as an organizational process. Labor organizers spent years filtering through social and legal fictions to understand the effect transnational workers had on the regional economy. After initial setbacks, worker chisme ultimately formed the sinews of an emergent borderland labor movement. The shift occurred when workers at the Peyton Packing Plant went on strike in 1959 and were promptly replaced by commuting Mexican laborers. As I will show, the strikers ultimately used information about the strikebreaker’s actual residency, not only to bring a case against the Commuter Program but also to influence its adjudication. The chapter’s source material included, but was not limited to, Immigration Service Correspondence, newspaper articles, oral history, government reports, letters, rumor, and various other works.

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