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April 2003, Volume 9, Number 2
The Bracero Program
Most calls for a new guest worker program with Mexico begin with the assertion that the proposal will NOT be like the discredited Bracero program, under which 4.8 million contracts were signed by US farmers and Mexican workers between 1942 and 1964. Many of the Mexicans returned year after year, but one to two million Mexicans gained work experience under a series of programs. The US proposed a bilateral recruitment program under which the US government co-signed employer-migrant contracts to guarantee wages, housing and other promises, and Mexican Braceros began arriving after the Migrant Labor Agreement was signed on August 4, 1942; there were no admissions to Texas. The Mexican workers were known as Braceros because they worked with their brazos, or arms.
During the war years of 1942-47, the number of Braceros admitted was relatively small, and they accounted for less than 10 percent of US hired workers. However, US employers as well as Mexican officials became dependent on Braceros for willing workers and bribes were paid to get contracts. Several years of short-term agreements led to widespread illegal immigration and a growing preference among migrants and US farmers for operating outside the program. President Truman's Commission on Migratory Labor in 1951 reported that the presence of Mexican workers depressed the wages of US farm workers, while the US Department of State urged a new Bracero program to help stabilize Mexico against Communism.
Growers wanted "an orderly system" for admitting Mexican workers that would guarantee "the American producer an opportunity to harvest his crops and place them on the market for the good of all American consumers" (U.S. Congress 1951, 6). During 1951 negotiations on a new Bracero agreement, Mexican negotiators sought to have the US impose sanctions on US employers of illegal Mexican workers. However, PL-78, approved in July 1951 and signed reluctantly into law by Truman, did not include employer sanctions. In 1952, Congress approved a bill making the "illegally harboring or concealing an illegal entrant" a felony, but the Texas Proviso, named for the delegation demanding its inclusion, specifically said that employing undocumented migrants would not constitute "harboring or concealing" them.
Congress held six hearings on Mexico-US migration in 1953-54, and heard employer complaints that PL-78 did not provide them with a reliable supply of workers while unions complained that Braceros were exploited and their presence hurt US workers. Contentious negotiations over how Braceros would be recruited led to what today seems unlikely events. Mexico in January 1954 placed troops on the border to prevent Mexicans from leaving, while the US welcomed Mexicans who got into the US: the New York Times on January 24, 1954 reported that some migrants were being pulled by US agents into the US, and by Mexican agents into Mexico in the Imperial Valley of California.
The US "won" 1954 tussles over how Mexican Braceros would enter the US. The US unilaterally set and enforced wages, housing, and other conditions for Braceros, established recruiting stations at the border, and launched Operation Wetback in June 1954 to return unauthorized Mexicans from inside the US to Mexico.
The US Department of Labor became increasingly receptive to union and church criticisms that the presence of Braceros was adversely affecting US farm workers in the late 1950s, and the Mexican Farm Labor Consultants' Report in 1960 explained these effects in detail. DOL toughened housing standards for Braceros in 1956, which led to the closure of hundreds of Bracero camps in 1957-58 developed new minimum wage standards in 1958, and in 1959 required that US workers recruited through the Employment Service receive the same wages and benefits as Braceros.
In House Agriculture hearings from March 6 -9, 1961, DOL tried to get these pro-worker regulations written into law, but only the requirement that US workers receive the same wages that were guaranteed to Braceros was approved in the 1961 extension of PL-78 signed reluctantly by President Kennedy: "I am aware ... of the serious impact in Mexico if many thousands of workers employed in this country were summarily deprived of this much-needed employment." As a result of tougher enforcement after 1959, Bracero employment fell 437,000 in 1959 to 186,00 in 1963.
During the 1963 debate over extension, the House rejected a simple extension of the program, the Senate approved an extension that required US workers to receive the same non-wage benefits as Braceros, a provision unacceptable to growers. The House responded with a final one-year extension of the program without the non-wage benefits, and the Bracero program ended in 1964.
Most analyses conclude that the Mexican government had the most influence over Bracero programs in their first years, before networks developed that enabled Mexicans to migrate to the US on their own. The US government feared that Mexico would block US recruitment and worker exits if some of the guarantees they wanted were not included in the program. Thus the anomaly: during most of the 1942-64 period, Braceros had more wage and benefit guarantees than US hired farm workers. However, growers gained the upper hand in 1954, after the tussle at the border, and Bracero program rules were relaxed so much that illegal immigration dropped sharply.