El Paso incident

The Event: Dispute over the wages of bracero workers that led to agents of the U.S. Border Patrol allowing four thousand Mexicans to enter the United States illegally to harvest the cotton crop

Date: October, 1948

Significance: The complicity of agents of the U.S. government to contravene an agreement with Mexico by allowing Mexican farmworkers to enter the United States was another black mark in the administration of the bracero programs that damaged U.S.- Mexican relations.

Two bracero agricultural labor programs brought Mexicans to work on American farms and railroads. The first, which operated from1917 to 1921, left some of the 80,000 Mexican participants in the program disillusioned and in debt to American employers from whom they had bought things at company stores. When the United States proposed to inaugurate a new bracero program during the 1940’s, the Mexican government insisted that the U.S. government guarantee minimum wages and working conditions in the new program, which would involve almost five million Mexican workers between 1942 and 1964. At first, many American farmers resisted hiring braceros, fearing that the thirty-cents-per-hour minimum wage they would have to pay them in 1942 would also have to be paid to American farmworkers, who were not covered by minimum-wage laws.

Between 1942 and 1946, the U.S. government was the “employer” of record of the braceros, and it was responsible for paying the workers’ wages if the farmers did not pay them. After 1946, however, the American farmers became the official employers. The Mexican government had established recruitment centers in the interior of Mexico to which these farmers had to go to select workers. The farmers also had to pay transportation costs of the Mexican workers to their farms. The farmers preferred to recruit workers along the border, so they could select them without Mexican government involvement and save money on transportation costs. Consequently, many Mexicans moved close to the U.S. border to increase their chances of getting American jobs.

The minimum wages and conditions of work for braceros were renegotiated annually. An agreement for the 1948 program was reached in February, 1948, but in October of that year, Texas cotton growers offered bracero workers a piece rate of $2.50 for each one hundred pounds of cotton they picked. The Mexican government, which insisted that the minimum payment be $3.00 discouraged its citizens from crossing the border to work until the American growers raised the piece rate.

Cotton farmers in Texas and New Mexico warned U.S. Border Patrol agents that they risked losing their crop without braceros, so local U.S. officials agreed to open the border. The farmers then sent supervisors to the plazas of Ciudad Juárez where the would-be braceros were waiting, directing them to a shallow crossing spot in the Rio Grande, where they promised trucks would be waiting to transport them to the cotton fields. Between October 13 and 18, 1948, some four thousand Mexican workers crossed the Rio Grande, were registered by the Border Patrol, and were immediately turned over to American farmers, who trucked them to cotton fields. The Mexican government formally protested. After the harvest was completed and the workers had been returned to Mexico, the U.S. government formally apologized. However, the U.S. government did not discipline any of the officials involved in the illegal border crossings.

Philip L. Martin

Further Reading

  • Cohen, Deborah. “Caught in the Middle: The Mexican State’s Relationship with the United States and Its Own Citizen-Workers, 1942-1954.” Journal of American Ethnic History (Spring, 2001): 110-132. 
  • Garcia y Griego, Manuel. “The Importation of Mexican Contract Laborers to the United States, 1942-64.” In Between Two Worlds: Mexican Immigrants in the United States, edited by David G. Gutierrez.Wilmington, Del.: Jaguar Books, 1996. 
  • Martin, Philip. Importing Poverty? Immigration and the Changing Face of Rural America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009. 

See also: Border Patrol, U.S.; Bracero program; Farm and migrant workers; Mexican deportations of 1931; Mexican immigrants; Operation Wetback; Texas.

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