The Bracero Program, begun in August 1942 at the height of World War II in response to war-induced labor shortages in the United States, was a joint U.S.-Mexican agreement to bring temporary Mexican male laborers to work in the U.S. agricultural, railroad, and related industries. While the program was conceived as a temporary wartime expedient, commercial fruit, vegetable, and cotton growers in the U.S. Southwest found the program so profitable that they persuaded the U.S. Congress and Mexican governments to extend it for nearly two decades after the end of the war. In the 22 years during which the program was operational, an estimated 5 million Mexican men worked as braceros (a term roughly synonymous with “jornaleros,” or “day laborers”). Repeatedly condemned by human rights activists as abusive and exploitive, the Bracero Program had a major impact on the economic, social, and cultural history of both Mexico and the United States.
The program provided millions of poor Mexicans with legal entrée into the United States, familiarizing them with the land, its people, its wage structure, and its employment opportunities. For some it provided
Mexican workers at the border await legal employment in the United States, February 3, 1954. an opportunity to reconnect with kin on the U.S. side of the border. After completing the terms of their contracts, many braceros opted to stay in the United States illegally or to return to Mexico and cross the border clandestinely at a later time. The program also made major contributions to the development of commercial agriculture in the U.S. Southwest.
While the terms of the original agreement mandated a minimum wage of 30 cents per hour, humane working conditions, and free round-trip transportation between Mexico and sites of employment, in practice the U.S. companies hiring bracero laborers frequently failed to adhere to these requirements. Unauthorized and sometimes exorbitant deductions for food, housing, medical attention, and other necessities were common, as were abusive practices such as substandard food and housing, poor sanitary conditions, physical intimidation, and violence. The program was briefly halted in 1948 in response to a decision by Texas cotton growers to pay braceros $2.50 per hundred weight, while non-braceros earned $3.00.
The Mexican government responded by suspending the program, an impasse resolved with a U.S. government apology and a new agreement in 1951 under U.S. Public Law 78 (sometimes called the “second” Bracero Program), which continued until 1964 (with successive “temporary” extensions in 1954, 1956, 1958, and 1961). Through the 1950s, an estimated 300,000 Mexicans worked as braceros annually. In order to combat illegal immigration and the tendency of many braceros to remain in the United States without authorization, in 1954 the U.S. government launched “Operation Wetback,” a program intended to repatriate unauthorized Mexicans, which also resulted in the deportation of some U.S. citizens. By the mid-1950s such repatriations reached a high of 3.8 million.
The Bracero Program is the subject of an expansive literature. The most rigorous early scholarly investigation was by the Mexican-American scholar and activist Dr. Ernesto Galarza, whose book Merchants of Labor (1964) is considered a classic in the field. Testifying repeatedly before the U.S. Congress and other government bodies, Galarza and others finally persuaded lawmakers to end the program. The program’s termination coincided with the rise of the National Farmworkers Association (later United Farmworkers of America, UFW), led by labor organizer Cesar Chavez. In many ways, the ending of the Bracero Program—and the glut of cheap migrant labor it provided—made possible the rise of the UFW.
Further reading. Galarza, Ernesto. Merchants of Labor: The Mexican Bracero Story. Charlotte, CA: McNally and Loftin, 1964; Gonzalez, Gilberto G. Guest Workers or Colonized
Labor?: Mexican Labor Migration to the United States. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2006.
Michael J. Schroeder