The Bracero Program: When the US Looked to Mexico for Labor

Men On Line To Get Food; Workers
Bracero Program Farm Worker. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

From 1942 to 1964, the Bracero Program allowed millions of Mexican citizens to enter the United States temporarily to work on farms, railroads, and in factories. Today, as immigration reform and foreign guest worker programs remain contentious topics of public debate, it is important to understand the details and impacts of this program on American history and society.

Key Takeaways: The Bracero Program

  • The Bracero Program was an agreement between the United States and Mexico that allowed nearly 4.6 million Mexican citizens to enter the U.S. temporarily to work on farms, railroads, and in factories between 1942 and 1964.
  • The Bracero Program was originally intended to help American farms and factories remain productive during World War II.
  • Bracero farm workers suffered racial and wage discrimination, along with substandard working and living conditions.
  • Despite the mistreatment of the workers, the Bracero Program led to positive changes in U.S. immigration and labor policy.

What Is the Bracero Program?

The Bracero Program—from a Spanish meaning “one who works using his arms”—was a series of laws and bi-lateral diplomatic agreements initiated on August 4, 1942, between the governments of the United States and Mexico, which both encouraged and allowed Mexican citizens to enter and remain in the U.S. temporarily while working under short-term labor contracts.

The first Mexican bracero workers were admitted on September 27, 1942, and by the time the program ended in 1964, nearly 4.6 million Mexican citizens had been legally hired to work in the United States, mainly on farms in Texas, California, and the Pacific Northwest. With many workers returning several times under different contracts, the Bracero Program remains the largest contract labor program in U.S. history.

Prophetically, an earlier bi-lateral Mexican guest farm worker program between 1917 and 1921 had left the Mexican government dissatisfied because of the numerous incidents of racial and wage discrimination experienced by many of the braceros.

Background: Driving Factors

The Bracero Program was intended as a solution to the tremendous labor shortage created in the United States by World War II. While women and men of all ages worked around the clock in factories, the healthiest and strongest young Americans were fighting the war. As droves of American farm workers either joined the military or took better-paying jobs in the defense industry, the U.S. looked to Mexico as a ready source of labor.

Days after Mexico declared war on the Axis nations on June 1, 1942, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt asked the Department of State to negotiate an agreement with Mexico on the importation of foreign labor. Providing the U.S. with laborers allowed Mexico to aid the Allied war effort while bolstering its own struggling economy.

Details of the Bracero Program

The Bracero Program was established by an executive order issued by President Roosevelt in July 1942 and formally initiated on August 4, 1942, when representatives of the United States and Mexico signed the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement. While intended to last only until the end of the war, the program was extended by the Migrant Labor Agreement in 1951 and was not terminated until the end of 1964. Over the program’s 22-year duration, U.S. employers provided jobs to nearly 5 million braceros in 24 states.

Under the basic terms of the agreement, temporary Mexican farm workers were to be paid a minimum wage of 30 cents an hour and guaranteed decent living conditions, including sanitation, housing, and food. The agreement also promised that bracero workers were to be protected from racial discrimination, such as being excluded from public facilities posted as “whites only.”

Problems With the Bracero Program

While the Bracero Program did assist the United States war effort and forever advanced the productivity of American agriculture, it suffered from significant political and social problems.

Illegal Immigration

From 1942 to 1947, only about 260,000 Mexican braceros were hired, amounting to less than 10 percent of the total number of workers hired in the U.S. over the period. However, American growers became increasingly dependent on Mexican workers and found it easier to go around the Bracero Program’s complicated contract process by hiring undocumented immigrants. In addition, the Mexican government’s inability to process the unexpectedly large number of program applicants prompted many Mexican citizens to enter the U.S. illegally. By the time the program ended in 1964, the number of Mexican workers who had entered the U.S. illegally surpassed the nearly 5 million legally-processed braceros.

In 1951, President Harry Truman extended the Bracero Program. However, by 1954, the rapidly growing number of undocumented migrants drove the United States to launch Operation Wetback—still the largest deportation sweep in American history. Over the two years of the operation, over 1.1 million illegal workers were returned to Mexico.

Northwestern Bracero Labor Strikes

Between 1943 and 1954, over a dozen strikes and work stoppages were staged, mainly in the Pacific Northwest, by braceros protesting racial discrimination, low wages, and poor working and living conditions. The most notable of these was the 1943 strike at the Blue Mountain Cannery in Dayton, Washington, during which Mexican braceros and Japanese-American workers joined forces. The U.S. government had allowed 10,000 of the some 120,000 Japanese Americans who had been forced into internment camps during World War II to leave the camps and work alongside Mexican braceros on farms in the Pacific Northwest.

In late July 1943, a white female Dayton resident claimed that she had been assaulted by a local farm worker she described as “looking Mexican.” Without investigating the alleged incident, the Dayton sheriff’s office immediately imposed a “restriction order” prohibiting all “males of Japanese and or Mexican extraction” from entering any residential district of the city. 

Calling the order a case of racial discrimination, some 170 Mexican braceros and 230 Japanese-American farm workers went on strike just as the pea harvest was about to begin. Concerned for the success of the critical harvest, local officials called for the U.S. government to send in Army troops to force the striking workers back into the fields. However, after several meetings between government and local officials and representatives of the workers, the restriction order was rescinded and the sheriff’s office agreed to drop any further investigation of the alleged assault. Two days later, the strike ended as the workers returned to the fields to complete a record pea harvest. 

Most of the bracero strikes took place in the Pacific Northwest because of the region’s distance from the Mexican border. Employers in the states adjoining the border from California to Texas found it easier to threaten braceros with deportation. Knowing they could be easily and quickly replaced, braceros in the Southwest were more likely to grudgingly accept lower wages and worse living and working conditions than those in the Northwest.

Mistreatment of the Braceros

Throughout its 40-year existence, the Bracero Program was besieged by accusations from civil rights and farm labor activists like Cesar Chavez that many braceros suffered gross mistreatment—sometimes bordering on slavery—at the hands of their U.S. employers.

Braceros complained of unsafe housing, overt racial discrimination, repeated disputes over unpaid wages, the absence of health care, and lack of representation. In some cases, workers were housed in converted barns or tents without running water or sanitary facilities. They were often herded on poorly maintained and unsafely driven buses and trucks to be taken to and from the fields. Despite the back-breaking “stoop labor” and mistreatment, most braceros endured the conditions with expectations of making more money than they could in Mexico.

In her 1948 book “Latin Americans in Texas,” author Pauline R. Kibbe, executive secretary of the Good Neighbor Commission of Texas, wrote that a bracero in West Texas was:

“...regarded as a necessary evil, nothing more nor less than an unavoidable adjunct to the harvest season. Judging by the treatment that has been accorded him in that section of the state, one might assume that he is not a human being at all, but a species of farm implement that comes mysteriously and spontaneously into being coincident with the maturing of cotton, that requires no upkeep or special consideration during the period of its usefulness, needs no protection from the elements, and when the crop has been harvested, vanishes into the limbo of forgotten things until the next harvest season rolls around. He has no past, no future, only a brief and anonymous present.”
Photo of young Mexican migrant family of braceros on train headed for the US.
Mexican Migrant Family Leaving to Help Harvest Across the Border. Corbis Historical/Getty Images

After the Braceros Came the A-TEAM

When the Bracero Program ended in 1964, American farmers complained to the government that the Mexican workers had done jobs that Americans refused to do and that their crops would rot in the fields without them. In response, U.S. Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz, on May 5, 1965— ironically Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican holiday—announced a plan intended to replace at least some of the hundreds of thousands of Mexican farm workers with healthy young Americans.

Called the A-TEAM, an acronym for Athletes in Temporary Employment as Agricultural Manpower, the plan called for the recruitment of up to 20,000 male American high school athletes to work on farms in California and Texas during summer harvest seasons. Citing the farm labor shortage and the lack of part-time jobs for high school students, Sec. Wirtz stated of the young athletes, “They can do the work. They are entitled to a chance at it.”

However, as the farmers had predicted, fewer than 3,500 A-TEAM recruits ever signed up to work their fields, and many of them soon quit or went on strike complaining of the back-breaking nature of harvesting ground-growing crops, the oppressive heat, low pay, and poor living conditions. The Department of Labor permanently benched the A-TEAM after the first summer.

The Legacy of the Bracero Program

The story of the Bracero Program is one of struggle and success. While many bracero workers suffered severe exploitation and discrimination, their experiences would contribute to lasting positive impacts on U.S. immigration and labor policy.

American farmers quickly adjusted to the end of the Bracero Program, as by the end of 1965, some 465,000 migrants made up a record 15 percent of the 3.1 million employed U.S. farm workers. Many U.S. farm owners created labor associations that increased labor market efficiency, reduced labor costs, and increased the average wages of all farm workers—immigrant and American alike. For example, the average pay for lemon harvesters in Ventura County, California, increased from $1.77 per hour in 1965 to $5.63 by 1978. 

Another outgrowth of the Bracero Program was the rapid increase in development of labor-saving farm mechanization. The increasing ability of machines—rather than hands—to harvest staple crops like tomatoes helped establish American farms as the most productive on the planet today.

Finally, the Bracero Program led to the successful unionization of farm workers. Formed in 1962, the United Farm Workers, headed by Cesar Chavez, organized American farm workers into a cohesive and powerful collective bargaining unit for the first time. According to political scientist Manuel Garcia y Griego, the Bracero Program “left an important legacy for the economies, migration patterns, and politics of the United States and Mexico.” 

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