Bracero program Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Instituted during World War II, the bracero program brought a much-needed influx of Mexican laborers to the fields of the American West, making California the breadbasket of the United States and of much of the world. The program brought such economic rewards that it was extended until 1964.

By 1942, the United States was fully involved in World War II and experienced a severe shortage of domestic Labor;Mexican immigrantsMexico;bracero programlabor, especially in the agricultural sector in the West. Previous experience offered a solution. Mexican workers (called braceros, “those who use their arms to work,” in Spanish) had been exempted from the immigration quotas that had been established by Congress in 1921, so they were able to work in the greatly expanded agricultural industry in the South and West. With the coming of the Great Depression in 1929, many Mexicans were deported back to their homeland, as there was no longer any need for their labor. By 1942, however, the United States was once again in need of foreign agricultural workers. The U.S. and Mexican governments therefore signed the International Agreement of Migratory Workers (1942)International Agreement of Migratory Workers, which legalized the introduction of Mexican agricultural workers into the farms of the southern and western United States.Bracero program

Mexican farmworkers top sugar beets in a field near Stockton, California, in 1943.

(Library of Congress)

The war curtailed production in warring nations and virtually eliminated agricultural competition in world markets, and the U.S. agricultural industry expanded dramatically. There was a shortage of men to work the fields, however, because most able-bodied rural men either were serving in the armed forces or had moved to the cities to secure better-paying factory jobs. Under the program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the braceros were guaranteed housing, meals, proper sanitary conditions, transportation, and a minimum wage of 30 cents an hour. However, Mexico refused to send workers to Texas, where threats had been made against the lives of Mexican workers.

By 1945, 68,000 Mexican workers labored to construct railroads. At the end of the first phase of the program, in 1947, some 250,000 braceros, all male, had moved to the United States to take up work. The initiative had been so successful that the legislature authorized a series of informal agreements with Mexico to extend the program, allowing Mexicans to continue to come to the United States even after soldiers returned from Europe. With the advent of the Korean War, even Texas allowed braceros to work in its agricultural sector.

Despite government oversight, enforcement of the bracero program’s regulations was difficult, and some abuse of workers did occur. Nonetheless, legislation extended the life of the program every two years until 1964, when it was mutually decided to bring the initiative to a close. In all, approximately five million Mexican workers came to work in the United States under the bracero program. The precedent for Immigration;Mexicanmigration from Mexico to the north had been set. While most Mexican agricultural workers came to the United States legally during the years of the program, it is believed that several million others came illegally. This practice, too, set a precedent for the future.

Further Reading
  • Boye, De Mente. NTC’s Dictionary of Mexican Cultural Code Words. Lincolnwood, Ill.: NTC, 1996.
  • Gonzales, Manuel G. Mexicanos: A History of Mexicans in the United States. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
  • Gutiérrez, David G., ed. The Columbia History of Latinos in the United States Since 1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.


U.S. Department of Agriculture

Farm labor


Labor history

Latin American trade with the United States

Mexican trade with the United States

North American Free Trade Agreement

United Farm Workers of America

World War II

Categories: History