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April 2006, Volume 12, Number 2

Braceros: History, Compensation

The US had two Bracero or guest worker programs under which Mexicans were recruited to work on US farms under the terms of bilateral agreements. The first, between 1917 and 1921, left the Mexican government dissatisfied because many Braceros experienced discrimination in the US, and some wound up with few savings because of charges they incurred at farmer-owned stores.

During the 1920s, when European immigration was being restricted, there were calls to restrict the Mexican immigration as well. California farmers made three major arguments in favor of continued Mexican immigration: "normal" workers shunned seasonal farm jobs; farmers could not raise wages because they were price takers in national and international markets; and Mexicans were "homing pigeons" who would not stay in the United States and create social problems.

A Chamber of Commerce spokesperson summed up these arguments in testimony to Congress in 1926: "We, gentlemen, are just as anxious as you are not to build the civilization of California or any other western district upon a Mexican foundation. We take him because there is nothing else available. We have gone east, west, north, and south and he is the only man-power available to us." The Farm Bureau asserted that "California's specialized agriculture [requires] a kind of labor able to meet the requirements of hard, stoop, hand labor, and to work under the sometimes less advantageous conditions of heat, sun, dust, winds, and isolation."

Some economists noted that farmers were wanted immigration to continue and farm wages to remain low to protect the value of land- land that had "had been capitalized on the basis of five decades of cheap labor." High land prices, they concluded, could be maintained only with the "continued availability of Mexican labor." When urged to pay higher wages to attract US workers, some farmers countered that California agriculture could afford to pay workers when they were needed, and that if "we should be forced to maintain our [farm] labor when it is idle we would be forced out of business."

In the spring of 1942, California farmers predicted that there would be labor shortages for the fall harvest, and they called for the importation of between 40,000 and 100,000 Mexican farm workers. Reformers who were hoping to use the Grapes of Wrath to bring about fundamental reforms in farm structure and the farm labor market complained that there was no shortage of workers, only a repeat of "the age-old obsession of all farmers for a surplus labor supply."

The Mexican government, remembering the discrimination and debts of the 1917-21 Bracero program, insisted that the US government guarantee the contracts that farmers provided to Mexican workers, that farmers pay round-trip transportation from the worker's place of recruitment to the place of work, and that Braceros receive the same wages as were paid to US farm workers. The US government agreed, and 500 Braceros arrived in Stockton on September 29, 1942 through an exception to immigration laws for "native-born residents of North America, South America, and Central America, and the islands adjacent thereto, desiring to perform agricultural labor in the United States."

Between 1942 and 1964, some 4.6 million Mexicans were admitted to do farm work. Many Mexicans returned year after year, but the one to two million who participated gained US work experience, and some decided to continue migrating illegally after the program ended. The Bracero program was small during the war years; admissions peaked at 62,000 in 1944, meaning that less than two percent of the four million US hired workers were Braceros.

The wartime Bracero program ended on December 31, 1947. Farmers were still allowed to recruit Braceros through official channels, but illegal Mexican workers were also available. Some workers and employers wanted to operate outside the program, the workers to avoid paying bribes to get on recruitment lists in Mexico, and US farmers to avoid having to pay transportation costs.

Illegal Mexican farm workers found on US farms were legalized in a process that official US government publications called "drying out the wetbacks," which involved taking them to the Mexico-US border, issuing them documents, and returning the now legal Braceros to the farm on which they were found. There were no penalties on farmers for knowingly hiring unauthorized workers, and the number of "wetbacks" soon exceeded the number of legally admitted Braceros. In 1949, for example, about 20,000 Mexicans received contracts from US employers to cross the border as guest workers, and over 87,000 arrived illegally in the United States and then had their status legalized.

To reduce the number of "wetbacks," a President's Commission on Migratory Labor in 1951 recommended employer sanctions, fines on employers who knowingly hired illegal workers, and a halt to the practice of legalizing illegal workers after they found US jobs. The Mexican government endorsed the Commission's recommendations, agreeing "that the wetback exodus could be stopped only when [US] employers were penalized for hiring them."

However, growers had the upper hand in Congress, which in 1951 approved PL-78, the Mexican Farm Labor Program. In 1952, the Immigration and Nationality Act was enacted and, while it made harboring illegal aliens a felony punishable by a $2,000 fine and a prison term of five years, it also included the so-called Texas proviso, which asserted that employing an illegal alien is not harboring. Thus, there were no penalties on US employers who knowingly hired illegal workers.

The PL-78 Bracero program sowed the seeds for later Mexico-US migration. The availability of Braceros permitted labor-intensive agriculture to expand to meet a growing demand for fruits and vegetables, creating a demand-pull for Mexican workers in California. Many areas of rural Mexico became dependent on money earned from US jobs, and networks were soon established to link rural Mexican villages with US farm jobs. US workers who faced Bracero competition in the fields, but not in nonfarm labor markets, exited for nonfarm jobs, leading to "labor shortages" that brought more Braceros. The Bracero share of the work force in citrus, tomatoes, and other major commodities soon exceeded 50 percent, and farm wages as a percent of manufacturing wages fell during the 1950s.

One argument for Braceros was that allowing Mexicans to come legally as guest workers would reduce the number of illegal "wetbacks." Between 1942 and 1964, there were 4.6 million Braceros admitted legally and 4.9 million Mexicans apprehended in the United States (both numbers double count individuals who entered the US as a Bracero several times or were apprehended multiple times).

The number of Braceros and "wetbacks" increased together in the early 1950s. US Attorney General Herbert Brownwell toured the border and, saying he was "shocked" by the lawlessness he saw, appointed a ex-general to be INS Commissioner. The INS launched "Operation Wetback" in June 1954, under which INS and local law enforcement authorities removed 1.1 million Mexicans in FY54. The US Department of Labor cooperated to achieve the goal of having legal Mexican farm workers by relaxing regulations on Bracero housing, wages, and food charges. Farmers were encouraged to join associations that pledged to hire only "legal Braceros," and their number peaked at 445,200 in 1956, as Braceros spread to new states and crops when DOL began to accept farmer assertions that there were labor shortages.

During the 1950s, California replaced New Jersey as the garden state of the United States, as fruit and nut production rose 15 percent and vegetable production rose 50 percent. New dams and canals increased the amount of irrigated land, the interstate highway system reduced transportation time to the eastern seaboard, and improved plant varieties and packing technologies made California produce available more months of the year. The availability of Braceros held down wages-average farm worker earnings in California rose 41 percent, from $0.85 an hour in 1950 to $1.20 in 1960, while average factory worker earnings rose 63 percent, from $1.60 in 1950 to $2.60 in 1960.

The Bracero program came under attack in the early 1960s, accused of being a government policy that slowed the upward mobility of Mexican Americans, just as government-sanctioned discrimination held back Blacks. Criticism of the Bracero program by unions, churches, and study groups persuaded the US Department of Labor to tighten wage and housing standards, thus increasing the cost of hiring Bracero workers and reducing the number employed. Growers argued that they needed Braceros because American workers would not do seasonal farm work, and that the availability of Braceros kept agriculture competitive and food prices low.

The CBS documentary "Harvest of Shame" aired in November 1960, and the discussion of farm labor that followed convinced newly elected President Kennedy that Braceros were "adversely affecting the wages, working conditions, and employment opportunities of our own agricultural workers." Kennedy encouraged DOL to further tighten Bracero program regulations in a manner that raised the wages farmers had to pay to US and Bracero workers, which prompted some farmers to consider mechanization.

During the summer of 1963, there was a showdown in Congress over the Bracero program. Farmers argued that without Braceros, fruit and vegetable production would shrink and food prices would rise. On September 17, 1963, 32 Braceros were killed and 27 injured when a bus taking them from the fields to their labor camp collided with a train in Chualar in the Salinas Valley. Their bodies were not claimed immediately, highlighting the lack of accountability that critics said was common in the Bracero program, and setting the stage for a decisive vote in Congress to end the Bracero program.

Many California farmers expected to employ Mexican workers under the H-2 (changed to H-2A in 1986) temporary worker program used to import Caribbean workers to hand cut sugar cane in Florida and to harvest apples in the northeast. However, DOL required farmers to pay the higher of three wages to be certified to employ Mexicans as H-2 workers: the minimum, prevailing, or the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR), and limited the employment of H-2 workers to a maximum 120 days. This was not a problem for the shorter seasons in the east, but California farmers who wanted to employ Mexican workers 11 months a year tried to transfer the authority to certify the need for H-2 workers from the US Department of Labor to the US Department of Agriculture. The farmers' failed in the Senate in 1965 only because Vice-President Hubert Humphrey cast the deciding vote against the growers.

The year 1965 was a "year of transition," as farmers adjusted to the end of the Bracero program. The number of US migrants, 465,000, reached a record 15 percent of the 3.1 million hired US farm workers. Some farmers joined or formed labor associations that generally increased labor market efficiency, as they reduced or stabilized labor costs and simultaneously increased average worker earnings. The Coastal Growers Association in Ventura county, for example, reduced its employment of lemon harvesters from 8,517 in 1965 to 1,292 in 1978 while increasing average hourly earnings from $1.77 to $5.63. With fewer workers employed for more hours, average annual earnings rose from $267 (for 151 hours) to $3,430 (609 hours).

A second response to the end of the Bracero program was labor-saving mechanization. The 1960s was a time of rapid technological change, a celebration of the accomplishments of engineers who were able, in the case of the cannery tomatoes used to make catsup, to work with plant scientists to develop a uniformly ripening tomato and with canneries to handle large volumes of machine-picked tomatoes. The widespread replacement of workers with machines in the fields was expected to continue until there would be only machine operators, not hand harvesters. One study predicted that if a fruit or vegetable could not be harvested mechanically, it would not be grown in the United States after 1975.

The third response to the end of the Bracero program was successful unionization. There had been organizing efforts and farm labor strikes during the 1950s and early 1960s, but farmers were usually able to get their crops picked by borrowing Braceros from their neighbors. In fall 1965, the National Farm Workers Association headed by Cesar Chavez joined a strike called by the Filipino-dominated Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AFL-CIO) to protest a decision of California table grape growers to pay lower wages to Filipino grape pickers than had been paid to Mexican Braceros. The strike failed, as table grape growers used labor contractors to get their grapes picked. However, Chavez mounted a boycott of the wine and liquor sold by conglomerates that also grew table grapes during the Christmas buying season in 1965, and some consumers responded by shunning Schenley Industries products.

The UFW led a 300-mile march from Delano to Sacramento in the spring of 1966 to highlight the grape dispute and, during the march, Schenley became the first table grape grower to sign an agreement with what became the United Farm Workers. The agreement raised wages 40 percent and launched a 15-year golden era for California farm workers.

Between 1965 and 1980, farm workers and their struggles were front page news, as churches, unions, students and politicians boycotted table grapes, lettuce and wine in support of the UFW and farm workers. Most growers were not affected directly by union activities, but many were willing to match or exceed "union wages" so their workers would not join the UFW. Competition between the UFW and the Teamsters, the extension of minimum wage and unemployment insurance protections to farm workers, and the hiring of nonfarm personnel managers on many large farms led to predictions that the farm labor market would soon resemble nonfarm labor markets such as construction, which offered higher than average wages to compensate for seasonality. The farm-nonfarm wage gap narrowed: in 1977, farm worker earnings averaged $3.53 an hour, 59 percent of the $6 average in California factories.

The UFW testified in Congress in support of employer sanctions, fines on employers who knowingly hired illegal workers. Chavez complained bitterly about the use of unauthorized Mexican migrants. UFW-called strikes for higher wages and benefits were often broken by contractors with crews of unauthorized workers, and many of the contractors stayed in business.

By the early 1980s, the UFW was losing members and contracts, contractors were expanding rapidly, and labor costs fell with stable farm wages and disappearing fringe benefits. This "downward spiral" in the farm labor market was expected to be reversed by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which aimed to legalize farm workers and stop illegal immigration. In order to retain these newly legalized farm workers, the theory went, farmers would have to offer higher wages and benefits. However, with illegal immigration continuing, farmers did not have to offer higher wages and benefits.

Compensation. About 10 percent of the wages earned by Braceros between 1942 and 1949 were withheld by US farmers and sent by US banks to Mexican banks. These forced savings often disappeared, and the Mexican government said it had no record of what happened to these forced savings.

Several lawsuits were filed against the banks and the Mexican and US governments to recoup the forced savings. Some remain pending, but the Mexican government created a fund to compensate Braceros and their survivors with up to $3,500 if they could prove, with pay stubs, work visas, labor contracts or other documents, that they worked in the US between 1942 and 1964.

The registration period ended March 10, 2006, and 250,000 former braceros and relatives of late braceros registered for compensation, suggesting up to $875 million in payouts for a compensation fund with $27 million.

Martin, Philip. 2003. Promise Unfulfilled: Unions, Immigration, and Farm Workers. Ithaca. Cornell University Press.

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