Initiated because of farm labor shortages caused by American entry into World War II, the bracero program brought Mexican workers to replace American workers dislocated by the war. The program was intended to be temporary, but a growing dependence of American farms on Mexican labor kept it going for nearly two decades after the war ended.
Mexican immigration has historically fluctuated with changing social and economic conditions in both the United States and Mexico. During periods of social unrest, violent uprisings, or bad economic times in Mexico–such as the Mexican Revolution–immigration increased. When the U.S. economy has been in decline, Mexican immigration has decreased. Whatever the circumstances, however, Mexico has long been a source of cheap temporary labor for the United States. Indeed, until the establishment of the U.S.
Relations between the Mexico and the United States have never been intimate. Since the time of the 1846-1848
In addition to these international events involving governments, there was the personal ongoing problem of racist antipathy against Mexicans that was prevalent throughout the American Southwest. A common saying that expressed Mexican feelings toward the United States at that time was “Poor Mexico, so far from God but so close to the United States.” Mexicans were generally considered “nonwhites,” forced to live in segregated barrios, and limited to employment in low-level jobs. Nevertheless, the prospect of finding better wages in the United States than those in Mexico has always drawn Mexicans north of the border. Consequently, even the state of
Before the United States entered
Bracero workers registering at the Hidalgo, Texas, labor center in 1959.
Mexico still had certain reservations about entering a cooperative program with the United States. American racism against its people was a concern, as was the size of its own labor force at a time Mexico itself was attempting to modernize and industrialize. Another consideration was how the stability of families would be affected if only male workers were allowed to migrate to the United States under the new program. Apart from those concerns, the Mexican government wanted to address four major issues before making an agreement:
•Mexican workers were not to serve in the U.S. military
•Mexican workers were not to be subjected to discrimination on or off the job
•Mexican workers were to be guaranteed transportation to and from their destinations, decent living conditions in the United States, and repatriation at the end of their contract periods, in accordance with Mexican labor laws
•Mexican workers were not to be used to replace American
After its concerns were addressed in the negotiations with the U.S. government, the Mexican government considered the benefits that would accrue from a labor agreement. These included providing jobs for poor unemployed men, who might otherwise cause social unrest in Mexico; the acquisition of new skills and knowledge by workers that might later benefit Mexico when the workers returned home; and the infusion of U.S. dollars into the Mexican economy from the
The final agreement that established the bracero program was reached on August 4, 1942, the date on which the program officially went into effect. The agreement acknowledged the sovereignty of Mexico and stated that either government could terminate the program unilaterally by notifying the other party ninety days in advance. The program was to provide the United States with both agricultural and nonagricultural workers.
Although both Mexico and the United States would benefit from the program, the program had many opponents in both countries. American
Another reason that many Americans were upset by the bracero agreement was that it gave guarantees to Mexican workers that domestic workers did not enjoy. In practice, however, many provisions of the program were not honored. Among the many violations and abuses reported were charges that American growers made Mexican workers pay for food, lodging, tools, and blankets they were supposed to receive without charge. Growers were also accused of requiring workers to perform tasks beyond those specified in their contracts. Under the terms of the original agreement, the
Violations of the agreement also occurred through the actions of the U.S. government itself. On April 20, 1943, the U.S. Congress passed Public Law 45. Its section 5 could be interpreted as allowing the commissioner of immigration and naturalization, with the approval of the U.S. attorney general, to import Mexican workers without the permission of the Mexican government. For example, in 1948 and 1954, the U.S. government would open the Mexican border to admit thousands of undocumented workers to satisfy the urgent demands of American growers who wanted more and cheaper labor. Meanwhile, the FSA was replaced by the more grower-friendly War Food Administration’s Office of Labor to oversee the bracero program. Another serious violation occurred when the wartime bracero workers returned home to find that the 10 percent of their wages that had been withheld had disappeared. It is unknown who was responsible for this violation.
Because of the history of Texas racism against Mexicans and the frequent abuses of workers practiced by
Both the U.S. and Mexican governments were aware of these violations. In an attempt to correct the problem, an agreement was reached whereby undocumented immigrant workers would be returned to Mexico, where they were to be given physical examinations, fingerprinted and photographed, and provided with identification cards. Each worker would then be given a written work agreement indicating where they would work and the conditions of their employment. They then were returned to the United States, where again they were to be given physical exams, fingerprinted, photographed, and given identification cards that would make them legal immigrants. Meanwhile, the governors of Texas attempted to improve working conditions in their state, and Mexico finally agreed to let workers go there in 1947.
The original U.S.-Mexican agreement was to end the bracero program in 1947; however, there were numerous extensions. Although most of the braceros worked in agriculture, some did not. For example, from 1942 to 1946,
While most of the program’s conditions and guarantees were the same for both agricultural and nonagricultural workers, some differences applied. For example, wages were higher for railroad workers, who were allowed to engage in collective bargaining and join
Bustamante, Jorge, Clark Reynolds, and Raul Hinojosa Ojeda. U.S.-Mexico Relations: Labor Market Interdependence. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992. Broad survey of the dependence of American agriculture on immigrant Mexican workers. Copp, Nelson Gage. “Wetbacks” and Braceros: Mexican Migrant Laborers and American Immigration Policy, 1930-1960. San Francisco: R and E Research Associates, 1971. Provides detailed accounts of emigration and immigration policies affecting migrant agricultural workers from Mexico. Craig, Richard B. The Bracero Program: Interest Groups and Foreign Policy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971. Discusses the political agreement between the United States and Mexico regarding migrant laborers. Galarza, Ernesto. Merchants of Labor: The Mexican Bracero Story. Santa Barbara, Calif.: McNally & Loftin, West, 1978. Discusses the treatment of braceros and the effects of the bracero program in California. Gamboa, Erasmo. Mexican Labor and World War II: Braceros in the Pacific Northwest, 1942-1947. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990. Detailed history of the life, conditions, and social policy affecting migrant workers from Mexico in Oregon and Washington State. Gonzalez, Gilbert G. Guest Workers or Colonized Labor? Mexican Labor Migration to the United States. Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm, 2005. Study of the state of Mexican labor immigration to the United States into the early twenty-first century. Ngai, Mae M. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. General history of the problem of illegal immigration in the United States that includes a chapter covering Operation Wetback and the bracero program. Valdes, Dennis Nodin. Al Norte: Agricultural Workers in the Great Lakes Region, 1917-1970. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991. Penetrating discussion of the Mexican migration to and settlement in the upper Midwest regions.
El Paso incident
Farm and migrant workers
Immigration Act of 1943
Latinos and immigrants
Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund
Mexican deportations of 1931
United Farm Workers
World War II