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The Bracero Program

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Immigration is a sensitive topic amongst the Americans. The inherent fear among the Americans of increasing crime rates and lack of job opportunities because of the large influx of immigrants is a potential flash point. The irony of the fact is the America, as we know, constitutes of European immigrants, pushing aside the locals and capturing their lands.

The US – Mexican border is one of the most controversial regions in terms of immigration. Historically, Mexicans have been migrating to USA owing to the rich agriculture prospects available there. Initially these migrations were temporary and were limited to the harvest season. Subsequently, Mexicans started to migrate permanently, leaving a lasting impression on the US agriculture. (Fredrik pp. 126-130)

History of Mexican Immigration

The migration of Mexican laborers to the U.S. dates back to the establishment of the current border between the two nations, following the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This treaty split a region that had already established economic links and a commercial network among itself, thus forcing the region to redefine its commercial interactions. Their mutual economic dependence was manifested in the form of a free trade agreement between the Mexican state of Tamaulipas and state of Texas. (Fredrik pp. 83-89)

The Mexican revolution was the corner stone in the immigration scenario. It changed the perspective of the Mexican workers, because of the economic uncertainties, which developed. The average Mexican was forced to look outside their local economic sphere, and the obvious solution was the lucrative US market.

At the turn of the twentieth century, U.S. capitalistic expansionism, rooted in increased foreign investment, development of infrastructure in the form of trains, and industrialization, came to dominate the economic policy in Mexico. The American government wanted to expand its markets while the Mexican government wanted to find employment for the large numbers of landless and jobless individuals at home. As a result, both governments facilitated links between the Mexican laborer and the U.S. employer.

Bracers (Spanish word meaning arm) were the Latin American migratory workers, which were going to West Texas to work in the fields. As they were cheap labor, with no human right immunity, they became an unavoidable attraction for the local land owners. Land owners kept them at minimum wages with scores of human right violations. Another factor that enhanced their utility was that their arrival was makeshift and with the ending of the harvest season they would disappear.

Owing to this abusive relationship and no backing from the Mexican and US governments, the plight of the workers was boundless. The shrewd employers knowing the weakness of the workers exploited the 1917 Immigration Act. They threatened workers with deportation in return for their non-negotiable compliance.

Bracero Program

The Bracero Program must be analyzed in the context of the historical pattern of Mexican immigration to the United States. During the nineteenth century most alien farm workers were recruited from China, Japan, and the Philippines. The Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885 represented the first attempt to restrict the recruitment of alien labor and protect domestic labor markets. Meager immigration records were kept during this period, but there appears to be little doubt that Mexican immigration to the United States was minimal compared with European, Canadian, and Chinese immigration. (Richard pp.122-235)

Immigration records before, although of questionable accuracy, indicate that about 24,000 Mexicans immigrated to the United States during the period 1900-1909. From 1910 through 1919, the Mexican revolution, the influenza pandemic, and the greater demand for labor caused this immigration to increase to about 174,000. During the 1920s, with the rapid growth of prosperity in the United States and the dramatic increase in the demand for farm labor in the Southwest, particularly in California, legal Mexican immigration rose sharply to about 488,000. (Ernesto pp. 76-79)

With the advent of the Great Depression of the 1930s, there was intense political pressure to reduce immigration to the United States. With stricter enforcement of quotas, Mexican immigration dropped to about 28,000 during the decade. Annual reports of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) indicate that about 123,000 Mexican immigrants were either deported or required to leave the United States during the period 1930-1939. (Ernesto pp. 111-116) The official INS data on Mexican deportation or repatriation probably underestimate the true number of aliens expelled. Deportation methods used by INS during this period caused such bitter resentment in Mexico that much of Mexico’s present distrust of the United States stems from this period.

Immediately following U.S. mobilization for World War II, as U.S. farm workers began entering military service and stronger national security laws restricted the supply of illegal alien labor, growers in the Southwest began to request temporary admission of unskilled Mexican workers under provisions of the Immigration Act of 1917. Initially, Mexico resisted U.S. attempts to import Mexican labor because of resentment over the massive reverse migration of Mexican workers during the 1930s. In addition, Mexican workers were less willing to enter the United States because they would be vulnerable to induction into U.S. military service.

United States diplomats quickly placated Mexican complaints of discrimination against Mexican workers and laid the foundations for the so-called Bracero Program, which was formed by international agreements signed in August 1942 and April 1943 and by Public Law 45 (the Farm Labor Bill of 1943) which was enacted in April 1943. The program called for minimum housing, sanitary, and medical services; in addition, braceros were guaranteed the same benefits as U.S. workers, as well as exemption from U.S. military service. In deference to Mexico’s insistence that the program contribute to its economic development, braceros were guaranteed the prevailing wage in the local U.S. labor market or a minimum hourly wage of thirty cents, whichever was higher. (The daily cash wage for farm workers without board was about $3.27 in 1943.) A savings fund, consisting of 10 percent of each bracero’s wage, was withheld and transferred to individual, apparently noninterest-bearing, accounts in Mexico’s Agricultural Credit Bank. Braceros were guaranteed employment for at least 75 percent of the contract period and a subsistence payment of three dollars per unemployed day.

The Bracero Program was initially administered by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The U.S. Employment Service was charged with certifying growers’ requests for braceros. The FSA was designated as the employer and was responsible for enforcing all program guarantees within the United States. Transportation and living expenses from Mexican recruitment centers to work destinations in the United States were paid by FSA. Because growers were critical of the widely held image of FSA as a social reform agency, USDA transferred the Bracero Program to the newly created Agricultural Labor Administration in March 1943. (Ernesto P. 311)

Benefits of Bracero program

Although publicly ridiculed, bracero treaty did give few benefits to the Latin American community. Entire communities used the bracero program as a means for survival. Braceros received an Alien Laborer’s Permit and signed a contract, usually for 9-12 months, at the end of which they had to turn in their permits and return to Mexico, even if they planned to sign on again. (Carey p. 182) For twenty-two years, the United States government agreed to grant Mexican agricultural workers permits to cross the border in order to work the land. Many Mexicans saw this as a great opportunity to work, save money, and return to their families in Mexico

Flaws of Bracero program

The program, however, did not really give them what they expected. In fact, once in the United States, American farm owners were their only protection against the U.S. Border Patrol and against the aggression of racist citizens. Mexicans were left to the mercy of their owners; they determined all the working conditions, hours, wages, and living accommodations. Most of the time braceros received insufficient food and substandard housing, and suffered inadequate wages, unsafe working conditions, and unemployment during the contract periods.

Poor recruitment system

The abuses began before they even left Mexico. At recruitment centers in major central and northern Mexican cities, they could wait for days or months for a contract, paying bribes, running out of money, and sleeping in parks with no facilities. Those selected were sent by train to the border, where they were herded naked into a room, examined ignominiously, and then sprayed without explanation or permission with a white powder for lice.

Contractual weaknesses

Ranchers would pick up the braceros at the borders and transport them to the camps. Many workers didn’t know where they were going or what to expect. Although the bracero treaty called for contracts to be written in Spanish, often they were in English, and the braceros did not understand what they were agreeing to. Contracts specified a five-day work week, but many growers forced braceros to work seven days, doing extra jobs like washing cars, cleaning, and gardening for no extra pay. Braceros were dismayed to discover a major flaw in their contracts: When the weather was bad, there was no pay at all, and some braceros were out of work for months, struggling to eat. Access to water was difficult, and some died of dehydration.

Unhygienic Conditions

The toilet facilities, which the migrants could use more conveniently, were locked up at noon on Saturdays, and filling station facilities were used except where the owners prohibited it because of the objections of customers. As a result, an epidemic of dysentery among the immigrants spread.

As a natural consequence, the laborers came into the nearest town on Saturday, but were denied access to public toilets, barbershops and other facilities, which was a clear indication of the local racist attitude.

Substandard wages

Undocumented laborers were a blessing in disguise for the owners, who took full advantage and kept the workers at below par wages. Under the agreement, 10 percent of braceros’ pay was withheld, to be transferred to individual savings funds in Mexico. However, most workers never received the money. When their contracts expired, many braceros signed another, often going back to the same ranch. Some stayed behind illegally and found other jobs. The bracero program spawned most illegal immigration from Mexico.

Mexican government betrayal

On investigation it was found that it US government and corporations were not the only one’s to be blamed. Mexican government also ditched braceros. Savings, which were sent to Bank of Mexico by the corporations, was found misappropriated once they arrived back. This backstabbing rendered a major economic blow to the Braceros.

Amnesty, a legal effort

Consequence of bracero treaty, a huge number of immigrants had settled in USA. They were force multiplying the labor there, but were still void of amnesty. Running out of options, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan and the Democratic Congress decided to legalize the situation. They granted amnesty to three million undocumented Mexican-American workers, bringing them under the umbrella of U.S. human rights protections. But corporations still wanted undocumented laborers, the U.S. government was still willing to look the other way, and low-income Mexicans still immigrate to the United States under this arrangement. The unspoken agreement continued for two more decades. Now the number of undocumented Mexican-American immigrant’s stands at about 12 million.

Current scenario

Currently an offshoot of the in humane bracero treaty is in place. Undocumented workers are given a work permit of three years and are forced to deport after the time expires. Nothing short of legalized slavery is how U.S. Department of Labor official Lee G. Williams described it.

There is an existing program for temporary visas for agricultural workers — the H-2A visa program that allows agricultural employers in the United States to hire foreign workers for up to 11 months, when there are not enough domestic workers available. H2-A workers must work for one specific employer and are not eligible to remain in the United States beyond their specified period of employment

Law suits

Many bracero worker unions were set up and law suits were held in federal courts of California in the late 1990 and early 2000. The major issues were the substandard conditions and along with that the deductions in the saving accounts were questioned. That was the major flaw in the suits because the onus of the blame was given to the Mexican banks, whereas, they never operated in USA. These suits were thrown out because of this weakness.

Possible solution

One possible solution is that sought by Rep. Howard Berman, who sat down with growers and the United Farm Workers union in 2000 to hammer out a bill that would appeal to both sides. The bill contained protections for workers, along with a clause permitting a worker to move on to a different employer should the current employer prove abusive. Berman’s bill would also include housing provisions to accommodate migrant families. While that bill died in the last Congress, its key provisions may surface again.

Present state of Latin communities

During peak of bracero program in 1956, the program recruited 445,197 workers. In 1964 when the Congress refused to expand the program many Mexicans stayed, along with their family members. Since that time, both legal and undocumented migration from Mexico has grown steadily. Nevertheless the community has grown exponentially, becoming the largest immigrant group in the United States over 10 million Mexican citizens have immigrated to the United States since the 1970s. Under the 1986 Immigration Law, 75 percent of the immigrants naturalized were Mexican immigrants. Mexicans in the United States shifted from agricultural and seasonal jobs to urban jobs with less demand variation. In addition, the community of Mexican-Americans, or Chicanos, and Mexican immigrants, has acquired significant political presence- particularly in the Southwest and California.

Hindering educational policy

Currently, Latinos are primarily employed in service or manual labor positions, holding only 12.3% of managerial and professional jobs. The 5.9% rate of Latino unemployment is second highest among racial groups. Presently, to ensure the sustenance of this low Latino participation, the US government has devised a graduate pre requisite. This would have serious ramifications on the already declining educational structure among Latin Americans. They would be forced to stay away from professional capacities and stay in the work force.


US-Mexican relationship was always set on mutual needs. Even before the border was created, there were close economic ties between the two countries. USA was an emerging economic power and Mexico, after the revolution, was in doldrums. This contrast created the need for the Mexican labor to look at their neighbors for economic uplifts. Landowners and corporations knowingly exploited this situation, and the result was an abusive relationship.

Bracero treaty was a ray of hope to the Latin Americans. The treaty promised better economic benefits along with few clauses which protected the human rights of the laborers. In actuality, the treaty was a façade in which the braceros became the victims and both the governments along with the corporations were the beneficiaries.

In the aftermath of the poorly planned treaty, there was a massive community of immigrants which settled in south and south west of USA. This created a headache for the subsequent US governments who were pressurized by their own corporation to retain undocumented laborers whereas the government itself wanted to send them back. In the current scenario, Latin American community is trying to establish itself after the fall of the bracero treaty and the US government is creating hindrances in the form of visas and manipulating policies.


Barth Fredrik. 1969. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.

Caffrey Margaret M. 1989. Stranger in This Land. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Craig Richard. 1971. The Bracero Program: Interest Groups and Foreign Policy. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Feagin Joe. 1989. Racial and Ethnic Relations. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Galarza Ernesto. 1964. Merchants of Labor: The Mexican Bracero Story. Santa Barbara, Calif.: McNally and Loften Publishers.

Larson Robert W. 1968. New Mexico’s Quest for Statehood, 1846-1912. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Madsen William. 1964. Mexican Americans of South Texas. New York: Holt Reinhart and Winston.

McWilliams Carey. 1968. North from Mexico. New York: Greenwood Press.

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