Seasonal and Low-Wage Laborers in America: Now and Then

by Joseph McKeown


The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced yesterday a one-time increase of 15,000 additional visas available to low-wage, seasonal workers under the H-2B visa program for the remainder of this fiscal year. This decision represents a 45% increase in the annual H-2B cap Congress has set at 66,000. This final rule, created by the DHS after consulting with the Department of Labor (DOL), requires petitioners to attest, under the penalty of perjury, that their businesses are likely to suffer irreparable harm if unable to employ H-2B nonimmigrant workers during this fiscal year. They must also provide documentation proving that they would not be able to meet their contractual obligations otherwise.

This decision follows recent lobbying from industries that heavily rely on temporary foreign workers, as well as state lawmakers invested in supporting their states’ crucial industries. DHS Secretary John Kelly states in a press release that they are making the one-time increase as a “demonstration of the Administration’s commitment to supporting American businesses.” Critics of this H-2B visa program, however, believe that these industries are only “exploiting foreign workers at the expense of American jobs.”

The issue of foreign laborers taking on seasonal or lower wage work in agricultural and non-agricultural industries in the US goes back hundreds of years. American industries have long relied on temporary and low-wage foreign laborers—so much so that we have visa allowances and exceptions for them—but also at the same time have been quick to ignore or discard their vital contributions. One example is the case of Chinese laborers who came to the US in the 1800s and helped build the world famous wines and vineyards of California’s Sonoma Valley.  

Before Congress eventually banned Chinese immigration in 1882, Chinese laborers built many vineyards in Sonoma Valley, as well as in other areas in California’s Bay Area. “Chinese immigrants were indispensable on multiple levels,” Cecilia Tsu, a history professor at the University of California – Davis, tells South Carolina Public Radio. “They built roads; cleared land for farming; planted, pruned and harvested grapes. They did backbreaking, physical labor, as well as horticultural work that required significant knowledge and skill.” 

California’s wine country ultimately began with two immigrants, a wealthy Hungarian named Agoston Haraszthy and a Chinese labor contractor named Ho Po. In 1857, Haraszthy purchased a ranch, naming it Buena Vista, with hopes of using Hungarian winemaking techniques. He contacted Po, who sent 150 Chinese laborers to Buena Vista to begin building the vineyards. According to the winery’s general manager, Tom Blackwood, these Chinese laborers, who had originally migrated during the Gold Rush, dug the caves in Buena Vista Winery (that are still used today!) out by hand. “They still have the original markings,” Blackwood says. “Those were the same skills they were using through the railroad.” To this day, visitors can find pictures inside Buena Vista’s wine tasting room of Chinese men working in the vineyards and bottling wine. Jean-Charles Boisset, whose family’s company, Boisset Collection, bought the winery in 2011, says: “We feel it’s more important than ever to talk about the reason we exist and the people who contributed to it–Chinese, Hungarian, French."

Chinese-immigrant laborers are also responsible for planting many of California’s most popular wine varieties. These laborers ripped out old grape vines and replaced them with Riesling, Traminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay, and many more. As the vineyards’ popularity grew, however, so did the backlash against Chinese immigrants on the West Coast. Many Anti-Chinese leagues were formed, with whites accusing Chinese of undercutting wages and alleging that they could not assimilate to local culture. Locals refused to hire Chinese immigrant-laborers or support shops that hired Chinese laborers in hopes of “starving them out.” These actions caused many Chinese laborers to leave Sonoma Valley. “They were chewing on weeds down by the riverbanks, things got so bad,” Gordon Phillips, a retired attorney and local historian of Sonoma says. 

Labor-oriented political groups that supported nativist policies and sentiments eventually inspired Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which barred nearly all immigration from China. According to the US Census data, the Chinese population dropped from 1,145 in 1890 to less than 200 in 1930. Anti-immigrant policies, unfortunately, are not just a thing of the past. President Trump’s travel ban bars certain citizens from six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US, and most recently, the Trump administration announced plans to likely end a program for immigrant entrepreneurs. As numerous studies have shown, and stories such as this from history demonstrate, immigrants were and continue to be vital to the US economy.  During the time when the Sonoma vineyards were being built, pro-Chinese activists and local vineyard owners, including Sonoma Valley-native and grape grower John Hill, testified to Congress defending Chinese labor. Hill explained to Congress that Sonoma Valley grape growers depended on the 500 Chinese laborers that were employed in his neighborhood. Haraszthy also refused to stop employing Chinese-immigrant laborers at Buena Vista, having to carry a gun to protect him from the political opposition and backlash.  

"No one knows that we were so much a part of the fabric that established the industry in California," San Francisco wine merchant Raymond Fong tells the San Diego Union Tribune. Members of the Sonoma-Penglai Sister City Committee recently proposed a monument dedicated to these early Chinese immigrants. The construction of a ting, a tile roof pavilion inspired by Chinese architecture, was unanimously approved. Although the city is not funding the cost of construction, many are donating. Penglai, a Chinese city also well known for wine production, has donated $25,000 towards the $75,000 construction costs. “We tend to assume that native-born American growers and maybe some European immigrants were pioneers of viticulture in California,” Cecilia Tsu says. “[But] in reality, they were utterly dependent on Chinese immigrant labor.”