Date: 1942 to 1964
Location: Southwestern states
The Event: Cooperative international program through which the United States imported large numbers of Mexican workers—mainly farmworkers—on a temporary basis
Significance: 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.
Bracero workers registering at the Hidalgo, Texas, labor center in 1959. (AP/Wide World Photos)
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. Border Patrol in 1924, the border between the United States and Mexico was virtually unsupervised. Citizens of both countries crossed it as they pleased, and farmers in the American Southwest recruited seasonal workers from Mexico without government interference or supervision. After the United States entered World War I in 1917, Mexican workers played an important role in keeping American agriculture productive. The bracero program of the 1940’s was essentially a more formal and more tightly supervised international agreement to provide an adequate labor force during and after World War II. However, despite the contributions the program made to American agriculture and to the Mexican economy, it had many vocal critics in both countries.
Relations between the Mexico and the United States have never been intimate. Since the time of the 1846-1848 Mexican War, which ended with Mexico losing half its territory to the United States, relations have been strained. Added to this initial source of conflict was the large-scale "repatriation” of Mexicans and Mexican Americans during the Great Depression during the early 1930’s, when Mexican workers were indiscriminately rounded up from their workplaces and off the streets on which they lived and summarily sent back to Mexico. Meanwhile, the nationalization by Mexico of its petroleum industry, which resulted in the seizure of property that had been owned by American companies during the 1930’s, caused a festering legal dispute between the United States and Mexico.
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 Texas, which Mexicans have generally considered the most discriminatory of U.S. states, has been one of the most popular destinations for Mexican immigrants.
Before the United States entered World War II at the end of 1941, some Americans were concerned that if their country entered the war, there would again be a need, as there had been during World War I, for foreign workers. Farmers were especially concerned, and they pressured the federal government to make preparations to ensure an adequate farm labor supply in case of entry into the war. When the U.S. government approached the Mexican government about providing workers, its leaders were initially uninterested. This was partly due to the strained relations between the countries that had existed for some time. However, the situation changed after Japan’s surprise attack on the U.S. Navy base Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The United States quickly declared war on Japan and Germany, and Mexico, which until then had been neutral, followed suit by declaring war against the Axis. The Mexican government then saw providing workers for the United States as a tangible means of actively contributing to the Allied war effort.
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:
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 remittances workers sent to their families from the United States. For its part, the United States stood to gain workers who would replace American farmworkers who entered military service or left rural areas for better-paying jobs in cities as the war economy expanded.
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 labor unions were among the most vocal opponents. Their leaders argued that there was no significant labor shortage in the United States and thus no justification for a large and continuing influx of immigrant workers. Unions and their members were also convinced that a large influx of migrant workers would depress American wages. Texas growers were also opposed to the final agreement because it promised to make a drastic change in the way they had been accustomed to hiring Mexican workers. Texas growers were among the most prominent supporters of importing Mexican farmworkers, but they did not like the government oversight and guarantees of the bracero program.
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 Farm Security Administration (FSA) was the principal federal government agency responsible for the importation of foreign labor. Aware of the criticisms of the agreement, the FSA attempted to secure better living conditions and pass legislation favorable to American workers, such as those guaranteed to foreign workers.
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 Texas growers, the Mexican government refused to allow its citizens to work in Texas under the bracero program. This turn of events contributed to an increase in the number of undocumented workers who were allowed to cross the border into Texas, where they worked without government oversight or written contracts. In further violation of the agreement that stipulated that only single or unaccompanied men be employed, Texas growers employed men, women, and children. The wages they paid to these undocumented workers were also well below the levels specified by the bracero agreement. In 1947-1948, for example, average incomes for undocumented Mexican workers were less than ten dollars per week.
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, more than 100,000 Mexicans worked for American railroads.
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 unions, although unions were generally reluctant to accept them. The use of these nonagricultural braceros to work in the United States stopped after the war ended. However, the agricultural agreement was renewed on February 21, 1948. A significant change was made in this new agreement, whereby growers, rather than the U.S. government, would be the employers of record. This agreement was renewed again in 1951, during the Korean War.
President Harry S. Truman was sufficiently concerned with the bracero program to establish a commission to study problems connected with it in 1950. However, his commission’s recommendations for reforms in the program were ignored by Congress because the program as it was already constituted was popular with growers, and keeping Mexican farmlabor cheap helped keep food prices down for consumers. A decade later, President John F. Kennedy moved to terminate the program. Congress nevertheless extended the program an additional year, but it finally ended in 1964. Overall, the program lasted for twenty-two years and was extended or renewed eight times. Braceros were employed in approximately thirty states with most working in California, Texas and Arizona.
Philip E. Lampe
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