The migrant labor of Hispanics has been vital to the economy of Utah since the 20th century, but these workers remain one of the most vulnerable populations within the state, at one point making less than those on welfare. Their history here in Utah provides further context for current discussions on migrant labor and immigration.
In the beginning of the 20th century, Utah became one of the largest domestic American producers of sugar through sugar beet farming. The industry extended into neighboring states as well. The workers who planted and harvested those beets were mainly migrant Mexican and Mexican-American laborers. Migrant Hispanic laborers were also heavily involved with sheep herding and harvesting onions, potatoes, tomatoes, apples, cherries, pears, raspberries, and apricots. They made the backbone of the agricultural and meat industries in the state then and today, Latino workers (mainly of Mexican descent) continue to be vital to these industries. The history of Hispanic migrant labor in Utah demonstrates both their importance and their vulnerability that has persisted since the start of the 1900s.
Mexican migrant workers became integral to the economy of Utah starting in the early 20th century with the sugar industry, where many of the workers were concentrated in Garland, Utah. In 1918, reports from the Salt Lake Tribune detailed conditions of workers such as lack of running water, stoves, and toilets. Hispanic families nonetheless invested in the community by assisting in the construction of schools in Garland. Additionally, the wives of Hispanic families often worked for families nearby, further contributing to the economy’s function. Many of these migrant workers eventually left due to the lack of economic mobility and low wages, although others at the time incorrectly surmised that the workers’ departure was due to an inability to assimilate their Mexican-Catholic culture into the anglo-Mormon communities.
Poor conditions and treatment was a trend for migrant workers throughout the state. Accordingly, workers did not highly regard Utah. In the 1950s, Utah began an intense effort to attract more migrant workers. At the same time, the state created strict systems that would require those migrant workers to return to their country when the harvest was over. Despite these efforts to draw more workers to the state, many migrant workers did not return to Utah for a second harvest in response to continually poor conditions including lack of education opportunities for their children, poor housing situations, and no health care services. During that same decade, the Mexican Consulate in Salt Lake City officially reported that violations of the housing codes, unfair wages, and labor abuses were being experienced by migrant workers throughout Utah. In 1957 the state created the “Annual Worker Plan” to oversee migrant labor in Utah and prevent bad treatment. New regulations by the state also lessened the number of children being employed in the fields, a practice that had been prevalent since the 1920s. Hispanic groups formed other programs on behalf of migrant laborers. In 1969, due to internal lobbying by Hispanics in Utah and nationwide labor movements, the Utah government started an official program called the Utah Migrant Council on behalf of migrant laborers of all races and ethnicities.
Despite these efforts, Utah continues to struggle with attracting enough migrant workers. In 1986 a research team found that disease and illness were most prevalent among migrant workers in Utah. They face low birth weight, high rates of infant mortality, tuberculosis, and measles. In 2010, the Utah Migrant and Seasonal Farm Worker Coalition estimated that workers entering the state earned an annual income of $7,500 per year. Migrant workers constitute the most vulnerable population within the state—the middle men between economic prosperity and economic disparity for Utah and who have little opportunity for educational, economic, or social advancements in the state.