Sixty-nine years ago today, Harry Truman signed legislation granting guest workers legal status in this country. The rationale wasn't humanitarian; it was economic. In the 1930s, huge disruptions in the U.S. farm economy and labor market during the Great Depression led to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Mexican nationals living and working in the United States. After World War II, the opposite problem arose. A shortage of agricultural employees created pressure on Congress to allow workers to come north for the growing seasons.
Officially called Public Law 78, it was always known as the "bracero program" and it mandated that the foreign-born workers laboring in what writer Carey McWilliams had dubbed the "factories in the field" stay in the United States only temporarily. It was a proviso that would prove problematic: Difficult to justify morally, and even more difficult to enforce.
"It is absolutely impossible, without the expenditure of very large amounts of manpower and money, to seal off our long land borders to all illegal immigration," President Truman noted on July 13, 1951, while signing the bracero program into law. "But," the president added, "Congress will give us the tools we need to find and deport illegal immigrants once here and to discourage those of our own citizens who are aiding and abetting their movement into the country."
Truman's reassurance to those who believed that the U.S. should control its border would prove wishful thinking, just as it would when Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. That law granted amnesty to some 3 million new immigrants, most of them from Mexico, while also purporting to crack down on future illegal immigration. It fulfilled the former promise, but not the latter one. Lofty pronouncements about bringing order to U.S. immigration policy often prove empty. Foreign migration has not only always been the lifeblood of our economy, it's also a force of nature that no wall or sanctions can staunch.
* * *
Today is the 51st birthday of one modern pilgrim named José Ramón Andrés Puerta. Born in Spain, he has made the most of his chances in the land of opportunity. The owner of cutting-edge restaurants in Beverly Hills, Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., and Miami Beach, he became a wildly successful chef. In the past four years, José Andrés has attained fame far beyond the world of foodies. First, he backed out of an agreement to open a restaurant at Trump International Hotel in the nation's capital. Second, in the wake of natural disasters from hurricanes in Puerto Rico to COVID-19, he has emerged as the human dynamo who knows how to feed masses of hungry people under the most trying circumstances.
Five years ago, I wrote about José Andrés mainly in the context of his innovations in small plate dining. He's gone far beyond that now -- a national treasure who engenders international goodwill. "The first time I saw America was from my perch on the mast of a Spanish naval ship, where I could spot the Statue of Liberty reaching proudly into the open, endless American sky."
He wrote those words in December 2013, three weeks after becoming an American citizen, about his first impressions of the United States. "At night, I would often wonder whether that sky was the explanation for the stars on the American flag -- put there so the world would know that this is a place of limitless possibility, where anyone from anywhere can strive for a better life."
"I recalled that starry sky on Nov. 13, when after 23 years in America, my wife, Patricia, and I were sworn in as United States citizens," he wrote. "The naturalization ceremony in Baltimore, attended by 72 other tearful immigrants from 35 countries, was a moment I had dreamed about since the day I arrived in America with little more than $50 and a set of cooking knives, determined to belong."
America being an idea as well as a place, pilgrims like José Andrés have been coming here since before it was a nation. They have come by boat, horse, wagon, airplane, truck, car, railroad, or raft. Many have simply walked across the border, or in some cases swum across the body of water we know as the Rio Grande, but which our southern neighbors call the Rio Bravo.
José Andrés' attitudes are timeless -- and transcend race, ethnicity, and religious background. I've also previously written about a 19th century Dutchman named Johannes Remeeus, who made his way, with his family, from his homeland to Belgium, then sailing from Antwerp in 1854. Remeeus kept a diary intended to be a memoir for his descendants, which is how we know what he was thinking 166 years ago today -- and almost every day from May 30, 1854 to August 28 of that year. Its pages reveal that the journey required every kind of conveyance to get to their destination. The trip also took up all the Remeeus family's money -- and still depended for its success on fortitude, good luck, and the generosity of strangers.
The Hollanders, as Remeeus called himself and his countrymen, sailed aboard the Robert C. Winthrop, a sturdy New England vessel with a proud Massachusetts name. They were paired on ship with an equal number of Germans. Language barriers between the two groups -- and the ship's crew -- was an issue, which may account for the fact that the Dutch passengers thought they were heading to New York, instead of Boston, their actual destination.
Johannes Remeeus' diary eventually made its way into the Wisconsin public library system and can be viewed here. I will leave you with four entries, including the last one in which Johannes is already referring to himself as "John" Remeeus. In less than 90 days, he'd practically transformed himself from a Dutchman to an American.
June 11: Today, the hardest wind we had as yet experienced. Many were sick, and mother who had been feeling so much better for the past few days was compelled to go to bed. The ship rolled violently. We now learned what a terrific force water exerts when stirred by a gale. … There was much rain until June 15.
June 23: Fair weather, the ship was steady. In the evening the Germans fittingly celebrated Saint John's Day, which also was the 25th birthday of one of their group. This man was escorted to the aft deck where his sister presented him with a bottle of [Rhine] wine, of which they had a plentiful supply. ... After having given him our congratulations, we all drank to his health with many bottles of beer which the captain had in store. We also proposed a toast to the captain, the officers of the ship, and in fact everybody and everything. That evening we learned how the Germans surpassed all other peoples at singing.
July 4: Declaration of Independence, which is celebrated by every American. So did we. Early in the morning flags were run up, and at 8 the crew fired salutes. One man who had been a dealer in fireworks got permission to open a box of guns. Everybody who had a liking for shooting could do as much of it as he wished. At 10 one of the pigs was distributed among the passengers. Saw many fish, also a ship. We had a fresh breeze; the evening was fair but cold. At the request of Mr. Westven, the captain gave the Hollanders permission to sing psalms. The captain sang the last psalm with us. We were approaching the Newfoundland Banks.
August 28: I began to work for an English-speaking man, earning $1.25½ a day. Soon I became a citizen of Milwaukee, a youthful and beautiful city, ideally situated for commerce.
Your Father, JOHN REMEEUS.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.