U.S. attitudes pertaining to foreign contract workers have changed several times over the history of the country. During colonial times and the early days of the Republic indentures (a contract to work for a specific time in exchange for transportation expenses) were fairly common. By 1800 indentured servitude had declined significantly in the U.S. By mid 19th century contract labor increased in popularity as the demand for workers in mining, canal and railroad construction increased.
In 1884 the United States Congress moved to prohibit the importation of foreign contract labor. In this report from the House of Representatives Committee on Labor, Congressman Foran lays out the reason that the committee recommended the passage of the prohibition, including the idea that foreign contract laborers had no stake in American institutions and that they would accept wages far below the prevailing rate for American workers. The final prohibition was signed into law in 1885. The Bracero Program, which began in 1942, marked a return to contract labor, because it arranged for Mexican workers to temporarily enter the U.S. for work.
This recommendation is founded upon the investigations of the committee, and the conclusion to which the committee have come, based upon such investigation, that the evils complained of and sought to be remedied by the bill actually and to an alarming extent exist. The bill in no measure seeks to restrict free immigration. Such a proposition would be, and justly so, odious to the American people. The foreigner who voluntarily and from choice leaves his native land and settles in this country with the intention of becoming an American citizen, a part of the American body politic, has always been welcome to our shores....
Such an immigrant comes here because the instiutions of the country are in consonnance with his social and political ideas, and because of the advantages and opportunities afforded by the extent of our domain and its material resources. He comes to better his social and financial condition, to take advantage of the facilities which he finds here; and as he comes of his own volition, by his own meand, and from choice, he always exacts for his labor the highest rates which the market affords. No one is injured by his coming, and as he generally makes a good citizen, the State is benefited by the acquisition. These immigrants are generally of a higher class, socially, morally, and intellectually, and have aided largely the development of our industries and the material progress of our people. With this class of immigrants this bill has no concern. Its object is to restrict and prohibit the immigration or rather the importation of an entirely different class of persons, the immigrant who does not come by "his own initiative, but by that of the capitalist." It seeks to restrain and prohibit the immigration or importation of laborers who would have never seen our shores but for the inducements and allurements of men whose only object is to obtain labor at the lowest possible rate, regardless of the social and material well-being to our own citizens and regardless of the evil consequences which result to American laborers from such immigration. This class of immigrants care nothing about our institutions, and in many instances never even heard of them; they are men whose passage is paid by the importers; they come here under contract to labor for a certain number of years; they are ignorant of our social conditions, and that they may remain so they are isolated and prevented from coming into contact with Americans. They are generally from the lowest social stratum, and live upon the coarsest food and in hovels of a character before unknown to American workmen. Being bound by contract they are unable, even were they so disposed, to take advantage of the facilities afforded by the country to which they have been imported. They, as a rule, do not become citizens and are certainly not a desirable acquisition to the body politic. When their term of contract servitude expires, their place is supplied by fresh importations. The inevitable tendency of their presence amongst us is to degrade American labor and reduce it to to the level of the imported pauper labor.
The demand for the enactment of some restrictive measure of this character comes not alone from American workingmen, but also from employers of labor in America. The employers of labor, who from inability or from patriotic motives, employ only American workingmen, are unable to compete in the markets with the corporations who employ the cheap imported labor.
Report No. 444 to accompany bill H.R. 2550, (To Prohibit the Importation of Foreign Contract Labor into the United States, etc.), 48th Congress, 1st Session, Committee on Labor (February 23, 1884): 1-2.