United States Begins the Bracero Program

Initiated as a war measure to ensure adequate agricultural labor supplies during World War II, the bracero program continued until 1964, when it was terminated on the basis of alleged negative influences on the employment of domestic workers.

Summary of Event

The bracero program for importation of Mexican labor into the United States was begun in 1942, in response to the rising complaints of southwestern farmers and railroad shippers of a severe agricultural labor shortage. Agriculturalists argued that the military draft, along with high-paying defense-industry jobs, had drawn large numbers of agricultural workers away from farms at the very time that uninterrupted agricultural production was needed for military success. Without foreign contract labor, they concluded, food shortages were inevitable. Although many economists, most notably Conrad Taeuber Taeuber, Conrad , head agricultural economist of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, disagreed with this view of the agricultural labor market, President Franklin D. Roosevelt responded to pressure and opened negotiations with Mexico for temporary contract laborers. Bracero program
Immigration;United States
[kw]United States Begins the Bracero Program (Aug. 4, 1942)
[kw]Bracero Program, United States Begins the (Aug. 4, 1942)
Bracero program
Immigration;United States
[g]North America;Aug. 4, 1942: United States Begins the Bracero Program[00550]
[g]United States;Aug. 4, 1942: United States Begins the Bracero Program[00550]
[c]Agriculture;Aug. 4, 1942: United States Begins the Bracero Program[00550]
[c]Business and labor;Aug. 4, 1942: United States Begins the Bracero Program[00550]
[c]World War II;Aug. 4, 1942: United States Begins the Bracero Program[00550]
[c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Aug. 4, 1942: United States Begins the Bracero Program[00550]
Wickard, Claude R.
Roosevelt, Franklin D.
[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;World War II domestic policy
Roosevelt, Franklin D.
[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;immigration policy
Truman, Harry S.
[p]Truman, Harry S.;immigration policy
Wirtz, Willard

Mexico’s initial response was negative. Mexican officials sharply reminded the United States of the long and exploitive history of U.S. relations with Mexican workers. During the Great Depression, the United States had forcibly returned hundreds of thousands of laborers to Mexico in an effort to protect the jobs of American citizens. Unless the United States was willing to accede to a host of procedural safeguards for these temporary workers, Mexico was unwilling to allow its citizens to cross the border. These safeguards included having individual contracts written in Spanish, each with guarantees to pay living expenses and to provide adequate shelter and transportation costs while a worker was in transit.

Workers were further to be protected from all discriminatory acts and were not to be subject to the U.S. military draft. Wages were to be set at an annually determined “prevailing wage” based on the locality in which the laborer was to be employed. Most important, these contracts were between the Mexican and U.S. governments, not the worker and employer. The idea was that the U.S. government, as the primary contractor, would “sublease” the workers’ contracts to farmers. This meant that the U.S. government held the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that the contracts’ provisions were upheld. It also gave the Mexican government the power to limit the number of workers allowed into the United States if discriminatory practices occurred or if contracts were violated.

Under pressure to act, President Roosevelt agreed to these concessions and, on August 4, 1942, signed an executive agreement initiating the bracero program. Roosevelt drew his authority to initiate the program from the Immigration Act Immigration Act (1917) of 1917. Although it specifically prohibited contract agricultural workers, that act allowed the commissioner general of immigration and the secretary of labor to admit otherwise inadmissible persons. Roosevelt then assigned the Farm Security Administration Farm Security Administration (FSA) of the Department of Agriculture responsibility for administering the program. The program thus fell under the purview of the secretary of agriculture, Claude R. Wickard.

From the start, the bracero program was controversial. Farmers disliked the restrictions imposed on them by the program, particularly the wage provisions, which they saw as a first step toward universal wage regulations for agriculture. They also distrusted the FSA, which they believed was generally in opposition to farmers. At the same time, labor disliked the program as run by the FSA because of its lax rules as to the setting of the “prevailing wage.” Ideally, the “prevailing wage” in a region was to be set by the market. Where labor was scarce, wages were expected to rise. Only where labor shortages existed after wages rose were braceros to be allowed. In practice, however, the FSA allowed farmers to set the “prevailing wage” at the beginning of the growing season, and if this wage was inadequate to attract enough domestic workers, the farmers were allowed to bring in braceros.

In April, 1943, dissatisfaction with the FSA resulted in passage of Public Law 45, 78th Congress Public Law 45 (1943) , in which Congress gave its approval to the bracero program. In doing so, however, Congress significantly reshaped the operation of the program. Public Law 45 removed the FSA as administrator of the bracero program, giving this authority to the Cooperative Extension Service Cooperative Extension Service (CES). This presumably was done to satisfy the complaints of large growers about the FSA. The CES was also a part of the Department of Agriculture, but unlike the FSA it was historically allied with large growers and shippers. In addition, the wage and working-condition provisions of the original executive order were not included in Public Law 45. Although the government would still hold contracts with individual braceros, it would not have the power to demand the application of a “prevailing wage.” Instead, the power to set wages was, in effect, returned to farmers. In practice, farmers had always had the power to set wages; this law merely formalized the process.

Following the end of World War II, the original justification for the bracero program ended. On December 31, 1947, so too did the executive agreement between the United States and Mexico. Public Law 45, however, remained on the statute books, authorizing the use of braceros if the U.S. government wished it. Harry S. Truman’s administration did. On February 21, 1948, a new labor importation agreement was concluded with Mexico. In following years, similar annual agreements would be signed. The post-1948 agreements also drew their authority from the 1917 Immigration Act. There were, however, a few significant differences between the new agreements and those from wartime. The U.S. government would no longer be the employer of record for braceros. Instead, individual growers or growers’ associations contracted directly with Mexico for bracero workers. This meant that the government was no longer legally responsible for the fulfillment of bracero contracts.

This provision of the post-1948 agreements was to bring a further change in the bracero program in 1951. Angered over repeated violations of contract provisions by U.S. farmers, and empowered by the growing demand for immigrant labor resulting from the Korean War, the Mexican government demanded that the U.S. government reacquire control over bracero contracts. Congress responded on July 12 with An Act to Amend the Agricultural Act of 1949 Act to Amend the Agricultural Act of 1949, An (1951) (Public Law 78, 82nd Congress), which returned the bracero program to operating on a government-to-government basis and thus placed the responsibility for guaranteeing that the provisions of bracero contracts were met directly with the U.S. government. With this change in place, the postwar bracero program was complete. It continued unchanged until 1964.

The reformism of the New Frontier and the Great Society finally killed the bracero program. Both the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations thought that braceros cost American workers jobs and permitted farmers to keep agricultural wages low. Without braceros, the reasoning went, farmers would have to raise wages if they wanted to hire enough workers to pick their crops. In 1961, President Kennedy ordered Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg to look into ways to protect domestic workers. Goldberg’s successor, Willard Wirtz, recommended that the program, which came up for renewal in 1964, not be renewed. On December 31, 1964, the bracero labor importation program was allowed to expire.


There is little doubt that the bracero program had effects on the agricultural sector of the United States both during and after World War II. By the end of 1947, when the first bracero program ended, some 220,000 workers had been recruited under the program. In the years following, the annual number of braceros working on U.S. farms ranged between 50,000 and 350,000. This many contract laborers could not help having an impact both on the agricultural output of the nation and on working conditions in the agricultural sector. It is difficult to say, however, how significant their impact was.

During World War II, for example, braceros made up only a part of the total number of Mexican laborers working on U.S. farms. In reaction to Texas’s historic discrimination against Hispanic people, Mexico refused to contract any braceros to Texas for the first five years of the program. This meant that Texas farmers had to use either domestic laborers or illegal immigrant workers. Many Texas farmers chose illegal workers, even after Mexico allowed braceros to contract in Texas.

Following the war, the use of illegal workers by many U.S. farmers, in preference to both braceros and domestic laborers, continued. During the mid-1950’s, the immigration enforcement mechanism became overloaded. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants were deported every year. They made up only a fraction of the “wetbacks” (a term then used in legal documents) actually working on U.S. farms. Only with Operation Wetback, a multidepartment, multiyear effort by the U.S. and Mexican governments to halt the flow of illegal immigrants northward, did the number of such laborers working on U.S. farms decrease, and then only temporarily.

Given the large number of illegal workers on U.S. farms during the period in which the bracero program operated, it is difficult to argue that the bracero program had any significant effect in raising agricultural wages. In fact, the opposite seems more plausible. Wartime problems with the “prevailing wage” system worsened following the war, when contracting powers were placed directly in the hands of farmers. The return of the U.S. government as official contractor of braceros after 1951 did not bring much effective change in the wage-reducing effects of the bracero program. Throughout the period, agricultural wages remained low in comparison to those in other sectors of the economy.

As late as 1964, the Mexican government continued its support of the bracero concept. It believed that the program provided significant protections to Mexican workers in the United States that would be absent without a formal agreement. It also worked to improve relations between the United States and Mexico and helped improve working conditions on U.S. farms for both Mexican and domestic workers. The program also helped keep the already troublesome problem of illegal immigration from getting worse. Bracero program
Immigration;United States

Further Reading

  • Craig, Richard. The Bracero Program: Interest Groups and Foreign Policy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971. Examines the various interests pushing for the bracero program and the reasons why it changed over time.
  • Driscoll, Barbara A. The Tracks North: The Railroad Bracero Program of World War II. Austin, Tex.: CMAS Books, 1999. Details the contribution of Mexican immigrant laborers to the construction of railroads during World War II. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Galarza, Ernesto. Merchants of Labor: The Mexican Bracero Story. Charlotte, N.C.: McNally and Loftin, 1964. An account of the operation of the bracero program in California from 1942 to 1960. Offers an early evaluation of the program’s operations and effectiveness. One of few book-length examinations of the bracero program. A good place to start a study of the bracero program.
  • Gamboa, Erasmo. Mexican Labor and World War II: Braceros in the Pacific Northwest, 1942-1947. Reprint. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000. Focused study on the effects of the bracero program in the Pacific Northwest. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Garcia, Juan Ramon. Operation Wetback: The Mass Deportation of Mexican Undocumented Workers in 1954. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Examines the issue of undocumented Mexican workers in the 1950’s. Useful as a background to the later parts of the bracero program.
  • Gonzalez, Gilbert G. Guest Workers or Colonized Labor? Mexican Labor Migration to the United States. Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm, 2006. Comprehensive discussion of Mexican labor in the United States. Includes a section on the bracero program.
  • Kirstein, Peter. Anglo over Bracero: A History of the Mexican Worker in the United States from Roosevelt to Nixon. San Francisco: R and E Research Associates, 1977. An essential survey of U.S. policy toward Mexican laborers, both legal and illegal. Provides useful background and details about the bracero program.
  • Kiser, George C., and Marth Woody Kiser, eds. Mexican Workers in the United States: Historical and Political Perspectives. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979. Includes several essays on the bracero program both during and after the war, its social and economic effects, and its aftermath. Includes coverage of both Mexican and American points of view.

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