Migrant Health

By: Amy M. Hay

Type: General Entry

Published: August 29, 2021

Updated: August 29, 2021

Migrant health in Texas did not become a major issue until the Great Depression. Like other agricultural and border states, Texas experienced increased numbers of unemployed agricultural workers looking for employment. Migrant workers’ annual incomes ranged between $278 and $500, well below what a family of four needed to survive at the time. In response, the New Deal Farm Security Administration established operations in several farm labor camps in Texas which were located along migratory paths, near cities such as Harlingen, Weslaco, and Robstown, where workers lived in decent housing and had access to health services (see FARM PLACEMENT SERVICE OF TEXAS). Migrant health problems included malnutrition, poor sanitation, and access to hospitals for severe illnesses. Concerns about migrant health continued during the World War II Bracero Program that brought workers from Mexico in the 1940s and continued to bring Mexican migratory workers during the post-war years through 1964. Labor and health conditions were also complicated by the growing numbers of undocumented workers.

A 1957 study sought to compile medical records for the more than one million migratory workers; the project was considered necessary to address migrant health needs. The study, sponsored by the U. S. Public Health Service and the Texas and Michigan state health departments, focused on the migratory route between Texas and Michigan—a route that hundreds of workers followed each year. In 1959 Texas lawmakers tried to address migrant worker camps with a proposed bill that gave the state health department authority to license farmers operating those camps and was intended to ensure clean water and sanitation facilities for workers. Opposition to the bill highlighted the challenges of addressing migrant health as farm groups worried that such requirements under the control of “centralized government” would increase the costs of migrant labor.

Providing health measures to Texas’s migratory workers continued to be a concern of public health and elected officials. The passage of the 1962 Migrant Health Act enabled Texas public health officials to apply for funding for numerous county-based migrant health programs. These programs addressed issues of clean water, food insufficiency, and sanitary working and living accommodations. Just two years after passage of the act, Texas localities and agencies received more than $160,000 designed to improve the health of migrant farmworkers. One of the grant recipients, the Texas State Department of Health, planned a statewide project to serve the 130,000 Texas agriculture workers who migrated throughout the country. By 1966 the Texas State Department of Health oversaw seventeen migrant health projects. In 1968, eight Texas migrant health projects were funded for a total of $687,213. Texas had more than 700 migrant labor camps located in approximately forty-nine counties by 1970 and twenty-three local migrant health projects.

In 1970 a congressional committee chaired by Senator Walter Mondale condemned migrants’ working conditions. Texas health officials and activists innovated new migrant insurance programs and organizations dedicated to migrant health in 1975, with a Laredo health department program and the creation of the National Migrant Referral Project (later named the National Center for Farmworker Health), located in Austin. By the mid-1970s concerns about migrant worker pesticide exposure became an issue, one which continued into the twenty-first century. A 1986 occupational health survey of sanitation regulations showed Texas in line with other state labor regulations in requiring toilet and handwashing facilities within unimpeded access of 440 yards for field workers, but a 1987 South Padre conference marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Migrant Health Act noted the continued failures of the community health programs in improving migrant workers’ health.

As of 2020 funding remained constant for the Migrant Health Program, which fell under the auspices of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. Texas had more than fifty migrant health centers. Most of the centers existed as non-profits that cooperated with community groups, many religious-affiliated, including the involvement of Protestant and Catholic relief programs that began as early as the 1930s and focused on providing health services to migrants.

Austin American-Statesman, July 20, 1970. Brownsville Herald, April 10, 1959. Corpus Christi Caller-Times, December 19, 1957. El Paso Times, November 3, 1938; April 11, 1987. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, August 23, 1938. Robert Freeman, “National Migration Week,” South Texas Catholic, January 13, 1984. Houston Chronicle, August 4, 2014. Helen L. Johnston, Health for the Nation’s Harvesters: A History of the Migrant Health Program in Its Economic and Social Setting (Farmington Hills, Michigan.: National Migrant Worker Council, 1985). National Center for Farmworker Health, Inc. (http://www.ncfh.org/), accessed August 12, 2021. J. E. Peavey, M.D., “Annual Report 1970,” Texas State Department of Health Migrant Project Grant, Austin, Texas State Department of Health, April 1971.

  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Agriculture
  • Health and Medicine
  • Labor
  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
Time Periods:
  • Great Depression
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Amy M. Hay, “Migrant Health,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/migrant-health.

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August 29, 2021
August 29, 2021

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