How America Solicited Migrant Workers: The Bracero Program

June 26, 2011

One of the greatest influences on U.S.-Mexican migrant labor relations was the implementation of the Bracero Program from 1942-1964. Etymologically rooted to the Spanish term “brazo”, or “arm”, a bracero was  a Mexican laborer.  The Bracero Program, much like the H-2A visa program, was intended to help American farmers with a declining labor force to obtain temporary Mexican farmhands.  Research conducted by a University of Northern Colorado student highlights several key facts about the historical, provisional, and abusive effects of this program on the Mexican migrant.

Fast Facts:

  • The Bracero Program was created by executive order in 1942 because many growers argued that World War II would bring labor shortages to low-paying agricultural jobs.
  • On August 4, 1942 the United States concluded a temporary intergovernmental agreement for the use of Mexican agricultural labor on United States farms (officially referred to as the Mexican Farm Labor Program), and the influx of legal temporary Mexican workers began.
  • In 1951, concerns about production and the U.S. entry into the Korean conflict led Congress to formalize the Bracero Program with Public Law 78.
  • Over the program’s 22-year lifespan, more than 4.5 million Mexican citizens were legally hired for work in the United States, primarily in Texas and California.

Although the Bracero Program appeared to be a positive way to stimulate the American economy with an added labor population, Mexico had doubts that all of the U.S. employers hiring Mexican workers were truly suffering from labor shortages.  In fact, Mexico implied that the U.S. manipulated thousands of Mexicans into temporary contracts in order to obtain cheap labor.  Of course, Mexico also saw the economic danger in losing much of their worker population to the U.S.

Here are some of the general provisions of the program:

  • Mexican workers shall not suffer discriminatory acts of any kind.
  • Mexican workers will be furnished with hygienic lodgings at no cost to them, and the medical and sanitary services enjoyed without cost to them will be identical with those furnished to the other agricultural workers in regions where they may lend their services.
  • Mexicans entering the U.S. shall not be employed to displace other workers, or for the purpose of reducing rates of pay previously established.
  • Contracts must be written in Spanish.
  • Wages paid to the worker shall be the same as those paid for similar work to other agricultural laborers under the same conditions within the same area.

Although these provisions seemed fair at the onset, it is evident that the program caused a great deal of racial backlash among the U.S. workers toward their new neighbors.  Furthermore, many abuses of the program occurred that were shielded from the public.  Here are a few examples of this backlash and abuse:

  • In the state of Texas alone, Mexicans were discriminated against to such an extent that the Mexican government forbade the use of its nationals in the fields in Texas.
  • Some restaurants had signs to prohibit the entrance of Mexicans, and theaters were segregated so that Mexicans were only allowed in the upper sections.
  • When American farm workers walked off a job to protest poor wages or working conditions, farm owners would import braceros to harvest crops, destroying the bargaining power of the American farm workers (although this use of braceros was expressly prohibited in the Bracero Program).
  • Thousands of braceros were brought in to perform stoop labor, a task that causes back injuries resulting from the constant strain of bending over all day. Medical clinics reported backache as the most common ailment among the braceros. Since no machine has been able to replace stoop labor, it continues today.
  • As part of their contract, braceros agreed to have ten percent of their wages withheld and placed in a fund controlled by the Mexican government.
  • An overwhelming majority of the workers never received compensation and the whereabouts of the funds remain unknown.

The Bracero Program caused Mexican immigration to the U.S. to become so popular, that a large number of individuals not yet enrolled in the program began to cross the border without proper documentation. Hence, the term “wetback” soon became a part of the American vocabulary of racial slurs. The term originated because many Mexican immigrants had to swim or wade across the Rio Grande in order to reach the American side of the border.  Here are some other interesting facts about the birth of the ever-popularized “illegal alien”:

  • Many growers hired “wetbacks” rather than braceros because wetbacks were more manageable and because as illegal aliens they had absolutely no rights.
  • By the 1960’s, an excess of “illegal” agricultural workers, along with the introduction of the mechanical cotton harvester, destroyed the practicality and attractiveness of the bracero program.
  • Once the program was terminated in 1964, the braceros returned home. Unable to survive in their communities in Mexico, many continued to cross the border to work farms and ranches in the U.S.  Many of these braceros now live in dire poverty, rejected from both Mexico and the U.S.

The Bracero program effectively solidified the creation of the now common Latino migration pattern. Latinos travel to the U.S. to earn a living with the intent of occasionally returning to their homelands.  Thus, Latino immigrants have the somewhat unnatural lifestyle of being dual citizens of distinct nations and cultures with very little benefits from either government.

For more information about the Bracero Program, visit these quick links:

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