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Sponsored Migration: The State and Puerto Rican Postwar Migration to the US

Edgardo Meléndez

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the NiLP Report on Latino Policy & Politics, an online information service provided by the National Institute for Latino Policy. For further information, visit www.latinopolicy. org. Send comments to editor@latinopolicy.org.


In this commentary on my book, Sponsored Migration: The State and Puerto Rican Postwar Migration to the United States, recently published by the Ohio State University Press, I take the opportunity to discuss particular questions it raises. These include what is new about this well-trodden subject, what was the role of the government in the process of migration to counter notions of migration as just the result of individual choice, and how my book's analysis applies to current Puerto Rican mass migration to the United States.

In Sponsored Migration I tackle two questions that are important to an understanding of Puerto Rico's postwar migration policy:

  • Why did the Puerto Rican government have to intervene in the process of migration of its people?

  • If Puerto Ricans are US citizens, why was the intervention of the government required in the process for them to move to the United States?

Answering these questions should give us a better understanding of the nature of Puerto Rican migration to the United States.

Migration is a crucial factor in understanding the Puerto Rican experience under US rule --- be it in Puerto Rico or the United States. Puerto Rican migration to the United States has to be understood within the context under which it occurred: Puerto Rico's colonial relationship with the United States and Puerto Ricans' status within the American polity as citizens.

The government in Puerto Rico had been interested in the issue of migration since the very first days of US colonial rule on the island. In 1919, for example, the government approved its first migration-related law allowing it to regulate labor contracts by foreign contractors. Nevertheless, the extent and nature of the role that the government played in the post-WW II period was much larger and impactful than before.

On December 5, 1947 the Puerto Rican government approved Law 25, known as Puerto Rico's Migration Law. It was based on a report submitted by the Commissioner of Labor, Fernando Sierra Berdecía, to then-Governor Jesús T. Piñero. Sierra Berdecía was sent by the Governor and the Senate President, Luis Muñoz Marín, to study the conditions of Puerto Rican workers in the United States after their growing migration to New York City became a hot political issue in the summer of 1947.

Sierra Berdecía's report set the basis for the government's migration policy: that the government should take a more active participation in the "spontaneous" migration of Puerto Ricans to the United States. In what became the government's leading discourse regarding its migration policy, Sierra Berdecía's report and, later, the 1947 law both established that the government's policy should be one of neither encouraging nor discouraging the migration of Puerto Ricans, but that once this spontaneous movement was initiated it was the duty for the government to help migrants in the process of orientation and adaptation to this new culturally different environment

The law established that Puerto Ricans migrated to the United States as was their right as US citizens. In cases when problems of adaptation caused disruptions in the host society, as it happened during the 1947 so-called "Puerto Rican problem" in New York City, it was the role of the government to intervene to solve these problems and work with the institutions of the host society to facilitate the adaptation of these migrants.

Two of the most consequential acts of the law were, first, the creation of the Bureau of Employment and Migration (BEM) within the Department of Labor, which, among other things, would regulate the hiring of contract workers in Puerto Rico and advise Puerto Ricans moving on their own to the United States. It also created the Migration Office (later to become the Migration Division) to help individual migrants with their adaptation and adjustment in the host society. This structure was conceived to deal with the two migration flows that had been identified by Puerto Rican functionaries since the 1920s:

  • Organized migration, mostly of contract workers from the island's rural areas going to work in US agriculture, and

  • Individual migration, that of individuals, mostly from urban areas, moving on their own to US urban centers like New York City.

What prompted Puerto Rico's government to approve the 1947 migration law that established its migration policy and defined its role in the postwar migration process for decades to come? By 1947 the leadership of the PPD government had reached the same conclusion as previous colonial administrations and conceived migration as the best solution to the perceived problem of overpopulation. Migration became a crucial element in the PPD's social and economic program for postwar Puerto Rico.

As I argue throughout Sponsored Migration, at this time migration was as important for the PPD leadership as were the economic development and the political status issues. In fact, all three were deeply interrelated for them. Migration officials, such as Sierra Berdecía, Clarence Senior, and Joseph Montserrat used to say that the government's migration policy was the other face of Operation Bootstrap. That is, that economic growth and development would have not occurred without the massive exodus of people from Puerto Rico.

But even when the ideological inclination to promote migration was already there, there were several events that prompted the PPD government to enact its migration law in December 1947. A very crucial one happened in New York City that became known as the "Puerto Rican problem." In reaction to the massive entry of Puerto Ricans to the city since the end of the war, by the summer of 1947, a racist and nativist anti-Puerto Rican campaign swept the city. Initially, Puerto Rican and US functionaries and institutions clamored for the federal government to intervene to control this flow of people, which did not happen. Later, US and New York city functionaries urged the Puerto Rican government to intervene, which so it did.

What is new in Sponsored Migration? Much of what I have discussed so far here has not been thoroughly examined before. For example, I questioned the commonly accepted notion that the island's migration policy was conceived by Clarence Senior in the Migration Division. It was actually formulated and later implemented in San Juan by Sierra Berdecía and others close to the center of power, namely Luis Muñoz Marín. Migration policy was not an afterthought for the PPD top leadership. It was an intrinsic element in their postwar economic and political development project for Puerto Rico.

Several scholars have studied Puerto Rico's Farm Placement Program (FPP) (also known as the Farm Labor Program), as the best example of organized migration from the island. I examine the FPP to analyze two crucial aspects that have not been adequately addressed before: the fierce lobbying of the Puerto Rican government to declare Puerto Rican farm workers as domestic labor in the United States, and the role of the Puerto Rican government as a labor contractor for US agricultural interests.

Many agricultural employers and federal officials (e.g., from the US Labor Department) refused to acknowledge that, as US citizens, Puerto Ricans were part of the US domestic labor force. The Puerto Rican government had to confront them and demand that as US citizens Puerto Ricans should be considered domestic labor with priority over foreign workers. The Puerto Rican government, as a colonial state, had to confront institutions within the metropolitan state regarding the nature of citizenship as it related to the island's colonial subjects once they moved to stateside.

The longevity of the FPP was due to the role played by the Puerto Rican government as a labor contractor that could move massive amounts of screened and selected workers quite efficiently. Through the BEM the government built a massive infrastructure that could move thousands of workers in short notice wherever they were needed, although by the 1960s they were providing Puerto Rican labor to only a handful of farmer associations in the Northeastern United States.

However, although government officials boasted that island workers were going to the US under the protection of a labor contract (like foreign guest workers), the stipulated wages in the latter were actually defined by the so-called prevalent wage, an artificial wage scale set up by the farmers themselves. In the end, no matter what the government argued, Puerto Rican farmworkers were sent to work in US farms as cheap labor in the same way that workers in Puerto Rico were being marketed to US corporations moving to the island.

There are two areas of Puerto Rico's migration policy that have remained unexplored until now:

  • The role played by the government in building an air transportation infrastructure that would sustain the massive postwar migration, and

  • The use of the island's education department to encourage migration, particularly through the expansion of English classes to potential migrants and to regular students as well.

How the literal movement of people from an island in the Caribbean to stateside was made possible remained unexamined up until now. Paraphrasing a statement attributed to Governor Muñoz Marín: |there ain't no buses from San Juan to the Bronx." Immediately after it approved its migration law, the island government prioritized advancing the expansion of a modern and efficient air transportation infrastructure. If migration was seen as a crucial part of its postwar economic and political project, then making it easier for people to migrate was a priority.

The government of Puerto Rico fiercely lobbied the federal government to allow more flights to the island, and promote more competition among airlines to produce cheaper airfares that would allow more migrants to fly to the United States for work. One of the issues that worried Puerto Rican government officials was the large number of air accidents that clouded the Puerto Rican sky until the mid-1950s. Most of these crashes were by the so-called unscheduled airlines that moved passengers on charter flights sold by air travel agencies in Puerto Rico and the United States. These airlines were not properly regulated by federal laws.

Large numbers of the casualties in these air accidents were Puerto Ricans living in the United States going to Puerto Rico for vacations or to see family. Many others were farm workers going to work in the United States. After one of the worst air crashes of a plane carrying farm workers going to work in the Michigan sugar beet fields under a government-sponsored contract in 1950, the public began to link these accidents to the government's migration policy. After this tragedy, the government increased its regulation of unscheduled airlines doing business in Puerto Rico and entrusted the movement of farm workers under the FPP to the two scheduled airlines, Pan Am and Eastern, which monopolized the island market for decades to come.

In Sponsored Migration, I debunk the widely held notion that tourism was the reason for the expansion and modernization of Puerto Rico's postwar air transportation infrastructure. It was not. It was migration. The government itself began to make this false argument by the late 1950s to dispel the accusations in the United States that it was encouraging migration stateside. The island government was behind the construction of the modern international airport in Isla Verde (now called Luis Muñoz Marín) and how the main reason for this project --- based on the government's own statements and documents --- was to move migrants from the island.

Puerto Rico's modern air transportation infrastructure preceded and made possible the island's tourist boom, not the other way around. Furthermore, the government's own records show how the largest number of air travelers going to the US after the early 1950s were islanders flying there to visit relatives or in search of jobs; and how most of the visitors (the category used by the government than for tourists) were Puerto Ricans living in the United States, not foreign or American tourists.

Another issue I address is how the government used the island's education department to encourage and instill the idea of migration in the minds of potential migrants and regular students as well. The government used the Department of Education (DE) --- its largest and farthest reaching bureaucracy --- to prepare Puerto Ricans to move to the United States and promote the idea of migration as one worth considering. Since the days of the "Puerto Rican problem" in New York City, the city's and Puerto Rican migration officials --- particularly Sierra Berdecía --- argued that the most important problem facing migrants in the United States was one of adaptation to the host society, and that their lack of proficiency and knowledge of the English language was the main obstacle to achieve this goal.

English language education became once again a matter of public controversy, this time not due to the policy of Americanization espoused by colonial functionaries since the first days of US rule on the island but linked to the government's project for migration. English classes expanded throughout the regular curriculum, particularly in the rural areas that provided most of the migrants for the government's FPP. The DE turned its adult literacy program into its English-for-migrants program, which increased rapidly and spread throughout the island during the 1950s. By the end of the 1950s the main institutions of socialization in the hands of the Puerto Rican government --- education, radio and television ---  were promoting English language education and encouraging migration. By this time, the policy of the government was to make every Puerto Rican a potential migrant.

How does all of this relate to the present wave of mass migration from Puerto Rico? The Puerto Rican government is not playing any major role in migration these days, although recent administrations have encouraged Puerto Ricans to migrate in the face of the current economic crisis. Nowadays there is no BEM and no Migration Division. Current Puerto Rican migration to the United States is of individual migrants (including a tiny number of migrant workers still coming to the United States on their own). No one today argues that overpopulation is the underlying reason for the massive exodus of people from the island. These days we do not hear of a "Puerto Rican problem" throughout the many communities Puerto Ricans are moving to, even though the number of islanders migrating to the United States during the last two decades is similar to those who came during the 1940-1960 period.

But we still can still see some elements of the legacy that the Puerto Rican government's postwar migration policy left behind. Almost all of the postwar Puerto Rican communities in the United States were influenced, one way or the other, by the government's migration policy. In many cases the growth of Puerto Rican communities outside of New York City needs to be related to the government's policy of moving migrants away from the city in reaction to the "Puerto Rican problem" there, or it can be linked to the FPP because many farm workers stayed behind and did not return to Puerto Rico, moving to nearby cities and stimulating the growth of communities there.

An important legacy of the Puerto Rican government’s postwar migration policy is the development of what could be called a "culture of migration" among Puerto Ricans. US and Puerto Rican colonial functionaries since 1900 constantly complained that one obstacle to a policy of migration was that Puerto Ricans did not want to migrate, to leave their homeland. One of the most important consequences of Puerto Rico's postwar migration policy is that it made migration not only possible but also accessible by providing efficient and reliable air transportation and cheap airfares while encouraging people to migrate through programs like the BEM's Farm Placement Program or through the use of the Department of Education. Migration came to be seen in Puerto Rico as a viable alternative available to all no matter of what class or status. Every Puerto Rican, in fact, became a potential migrant, which was a major goal of that policy.

Many of the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans leaving the island in recent years do so without acknowledging that a similar number of migrants did the same in decades past. They take for granted the fact that the spaces and institutions that these earlier migrants created make it possible for them to enter the United States without the extensive and rampant prejudice and discrimination experienced by their predecessors.

Most Puerto Ricans are also unaware that the island government once created and sustained a vast structure that encouraged, organized, and made it possible for Puerto Ricans to migrate to the United States. Some of that legacy is still visible for those leaving the island today.

The contemporary air transportation infrastructure in Puerto Rico makes it almost a normal thing for Puerto Ricans to take a plane to the United States or to Puerto Rico at any time at a modest expense. This is a modern infrastructure linked to Puerto Rico's postwar migration policy. The overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans flying to or from Puerto Rico will probably be doing so using the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, not built by the Puerto Rican government in the early 1950s to move US or Puerto Rican tourists back and forth Puerto Rico. It was built to ease the movement of Puerto Rican migrants going to the United States. It still does.


Edgardo Meléndez is Professor of Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies at Hunter College-CUNY. His previous books include "Puerto Rican Government and Politics: A Comprehensive Bibliography," "Partidos, política pública y status en Puerto Rico," "Puerto Rico en 'Patria'," and "Movimiento anexionista en Puerto Rico". 

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices 25 September 2017.