The Origins of the El Centro Detention Camp: Mexican Detainees, Runaways, and Laborers, 1945–49

Thursday, January 5, 2017: 4:10 PM
Room 203 (Colorado Convention Center)
Jessica Ordaz, University of California, Davis
Using archival documents from the U.S. and Mexico and fieldwork conducted in El Centro, this paper examines a part of what James Cockcroft calls, “the revolving door” of U.S. immigration policy, or cycles of labor importation and deportation. With the onset of the Bracero guest worker program, government officials opened reception centers throughout the U.S., where Mexican nationals were processed, screened, and transferred to labor camps. One of the reception centers was located in El Centro, California, part of Southern California’s agricultural empire. There as the Bracero program stimulated irregular migration, the Mexican workforce in El Centro transformed from documented to undocumented migrants. In El Centro, bracero reception was shortly followed by the emergence of an INS detention camp in 1947 that held Mexican men awaiting deportation. These camps show the relationship between bracero migration and undocumented migration as the detention camp did not open until the bracero program increased the movement of Mexicans into the area. For instance, some braceros skipped out on their guest worker contracts but continued to work in agriculture there.

By comparing labor and detention camps, we can see that braceros and irregular migrants shared similar systems of exploitation due to their non-citizenship status. Mexican men were racialized as disposable workers regardless of their status as they faced harsh conditions inside El Centro’s reception center and immigration detention camp. By examining these camps, where bracero men come in, and undocumented Mexicans were held and then pushed out, I show the similarities between these labor systems.   Finally, I argue that even in the earliest years of the Bracero program, the U.S. government neither welcomed nor fully excluded Mexicans entering or exiting the country and thus in this local context, revealed the conflicted, mostly exclusionary and punitive nature of an immigration system otherwise depicted as purely administrative.

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