The Bracero Program: A Legacy of Exploitation

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Traditionally, the United States’s immigration policy has been fraught with contradictory demands. Capitalists sought to increase foreign labour, while the domestic workforce campaigned for restrictions on immigration to reduce pressures on wages and jobs. However, the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 tipped this delicate balance in favour of the former. The domestic workforce was decimated by record numbers of working men and women entering military service, leaving millions of job vacancies across the United States. This led the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to draft the Bracero Program, offering Mexican citizens contracts to work in the United States. Though it was initially successful during the war, the Bracero Program ultimately exacerbated the problem it set out to resolve, resulting in an influx of undocumented migrants and creating a legacy of exploitation and mistreatment of Mexican workers that remains prevalent today.

Operated jointly by the INS in the Department of Justice, the Department of Labour, and the State Department, in cooperation with the Mexican government, the Bracero Program was drafted in 1942 to solve a labour crisis the magnitude of which had not been seen during US involvement in the First World War. The United States devoted almost four times as many troops to their efforts in WWII as they had done in WWI, with a record number of soldiers applying for service. Moreover, those who stayed home shifted to higher-paying jobs in the manufacturing industry, leaving the American economy with a severe lack of workers in agriculture and other unskilled sectors. To fill this void, the Bracero Program permitted millions of Mexican men to work legally in the United States on short-term labour contracts.

Under the program, Mexican labourers would work in the United States for periods between six weeks and six months and would return to Mexico after fulfilling their contracts. Both governments had agreed to stipulations that included free transportation from recruitment centres in the interior of Mexico to the workplaces in the US, as well as free housing, water, and blankets; meals were to be provided at the cost of the employer. Additionally, workers were to be paid the local “prevailing wage” for the type of manual labour performed, determined at the beginning of every season, while a minimum salary was also guaranteed. Most braceros began work in the south, being put to farm the vast expanses of arable land acquired decades earlier.

At the turn of the 20th century, following the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, American agriculture experienced  immense expansion. This was particularly the case in the Southwest. By 1920, California and Texas alone possessed almost 31 million acres of crops valued at over $1.7 billion – it had become the nation’s most fruitful agricultural region. This rapid growth depended on an ever-increasing number of migrant workers to seasonally plant and harvest the crops, hence Mexican workers became the backbone of the southwestern agricultural labour force.

However, with the outbreak of the Great Depression, Mexican labour migration to the United States slowed drastically, while campaigns to send immigrants back to Mexico erupted. US officials hoped that removing Mexicanos from the country would ease the economic crisis, since this would limit competition for work while reducing demand on social services. Thus, municipal governments in the United States began to promote repatriation programs, which facilitated the return of Mexicanos to Mexico by easing the expenses of travel and goods. Of the 1.6 million Mexicanos that returned to Mexico in the 1930s, an estimated 400,000 of them participated in official repatriation programs.

The Mexican government also encouraged their compatriots to return home. Mexican authorities believed that the immigrants could contribute to domestic social and economic development through their experiences with US technology, agriculture, business and culture, aiding the development of modern agricultural communities within Mexico. However, despite the establishment of numerous agricultural colonies for returning workers, most failed to flourish, and by the turn of the decade, many of the repatriates had abandoned the colonies and were returning to the United States.

When Bracero Program began in Stockton, California, in August 1942, American employers quickly became dependent on the braceros, despite their relatively small number (accounting for less than 10 percent of the US’s hired workers). Willing workers in the primary sector were a valuable asset, and bribery was rife among the contractors at the time. The Mexican government also had reasons to support the program. Much like in 1929, the government hoped the braceros would bring back to Mexico agricultural skills acquired through exposure to American technology in order to enhance crop production. Additionally, it expected the braceros to bring the money they had earned back to Mexico, thus helping to stimulate the Mexican economy.

The recruitment process for a bracero was a gruelling one. An aspiring bracero would be required to provide a birth certificate, proof of completion of military service, a letter certifying that he was not a member of an ejido (communally-owned land), and a character reference from his own municipal authorities. Despite the Mexican government declaring that all forms were free, almost 80 percent of the participants paid for them, leading to widespread corruption and forgery. The bracero would then have to travel to a recruitment centre, where he could wait up to 10 hours before being examined by doctors. Provided he was deemed healthy, the bracero would be interviewed by both American and Mexican officials, photographed, and finally transported to America to begin his labour.

Despite promises of equality from the US government, the predispositions of southern society made it challenging to uphold the rights of the Mexican workers. The Texan farmers had hoped for a program modelled after the one developed during World War I, in which the United States, after relaxing its restrictions on the admission of contract labourers, had left operations largely in the hands of the farmers, while Mexico played an even more passive role. Moreover, the growers voraciously opposed the guarantees in the Bracero agreement, especially the provision of an hourly minimum wage of 30 cents, correctly fearing that the safeguards were part of a broader initiative to subject all agricultural labour, domestic as well as foreign, to the orbit of existing federal labour laws. This outward hostility led the Mexican government to object to Texas being included in the Bracero Program, leaving Texan farmers dependent on wetbacks, who were essentially illegal immigrants, until they were eventually admitted to the program after 1947.

In the spring of 1943, a number of developments led Texan growers to attempt to bypass the agreement. Firstly, on 26 April, the US and Mexican governments negotiated amendments on a new agreement that replaced the old one. However, instead of liberalising the terms of employment as the farmers would have liked, the new accord marginally tightened them, meeting the demands of the Mexican government. Then, three days later, Congress passed Public Law 45, under which the limitations on the entry of farm labourers from the western hemisphere were lifted, permitting thousands of additional immigrants to enter the country, as this was deemed essential to maintain the war effort. The farmers’ desire for an “open border” had been realised. In the ensuing weeks, farmers rushed across the border to recruit the necessary workers. Thus, Texan farmers were able to acquire labour of their own while also undermining the program itself, thus significantly contributing to the rise in undocumented immigration in the following years.

Although it had informed Mexico of its wish to terminate the Bracero Program in 1946, the US government extended the agreement until 1949, but with key changes to its administration. The government decided to pass the responsibility of the braceros onto the growers, leading to an increase in exploitation and abuse of the workers. Moreover, growers throughout the Southwest took advantage of the availability of un-attached workers, creating “mixed crews” composed of locals, braceros, and wetbacks, resulting in illegal immigration skyrocketing.

In an attempt to stem the influx of illegal workers, the INS enforced Operation Wetback in 1954 – a mass deportation of Mexican nationals. The initiative focussed on two primary objectives: stemming the flow of illegal and undocumented Mexican workers into the United States and discouraging employers from harbouring such workers. Operation Wetback was met with resistance by numerous agricultural groups, as the plan had stated that employers of illegal workers should be punished (a law which was later vetoed by Congress), leaving many farmers with increased hostility towards the braceros who remained.

The INS reported that some 1.1 million undocumented workers had left the country either voluntarily or through prosecution as a result of Operation Wetback; the number of illegal immigrants that left remained ambiguous. Although Operation Wetback deterred illegal immigration for a time, it did not relieve the demand for labour, and thus many employers still needed the work of immigrants to compete in the market. Therefore, its success was limited, as despite providing a temporary solution, Operation Wetback failed in solving the long-term immigration issue.

During the war, the rights of the braceros had been upheld to a certain extent, but following the change in administration in 1949, their abuse became far more frequent. Though braceros were meant to be paid a “prevailing wage”, farmers often neglected the rule, and instead cheated their workers out of a fair salary. Furthermore, braceros were subjected to work in extreme conditions, in which the farmers took very little care of their workers’ health. In the words of Henry Anderson, a member of the Advisory Board of Citizens for Farm Labour: “They are viewed as commodities, as objects, as chattels . . . the average bracero-holder probably has less respect for his chattels than the average slave-holder had for his a hundred years ago. . . . You rent a bracero for six weeks or six months, and if he gets damaged, you don’t care. You’ll never see him again. You get next year’s model—a newer, younger, healthier one.”

Throughout the 1950s, bracero admissions rose rapidly, peaking at 445,000 in 1956, leading employers to take further action to avoid having to pay the full costs of maintaining the workers. Few farmers adhered to the state regulations concerning the transportation of braceros, which stipulated that vehicles should be equipped with seats, signals, safety equipment, protection against the weather, rest stops and licensed drivers. Instead, braceros were crammed into poorly constructed vehicles manned by untrained drivers to transport them from field to field. Accidents were common, and often deadly.

In 1953, 14 men from Salinas and Brawley died in two separate bus-train crashes. Then, in 1958, 14 Salinas men burned to death when cans of gasoline in their labour bus caught fire and chains tied on the outside of the bus prevented the workers from escaping. According to a California Department of Industrial Relations report, 125 farm workers died and 2,754 were injured in transportation accidents from 1952 to 1962. The most infamous of these incidents was the Chualar bus crash incident in September 1963.

On 17 September, 58 migrant farmworkers (53 of whom were braceros) were returning after a ten-hour shift in the Salinas Valley. They travelled on a makeshift “bus” — a flatbed truck with two long benches and a canopy — in which the passengers were unable to communicate with the driver. Between 4:20-4:25 pm, the vehicle approached a single railroad track, which was privately maintained and was not marked by lights, signs or signals. A freight train from the Southern Pacific Railroad approached from the south at a high speed (around 61mph) and collided with the bus, killing 32 of the passengers and injuring 25. In response to the incident, a widespread protest broke out, with thousands of Americans calling for President John F. Kennedy and Congress to end the program once and for all. A funeral for the victims was held on 25 September in Palma High School, where six thousand braceros from around the region joined three thousand others in paying their respects. The opposition to the program seemed more vocal than ever, yet the farmers in the south continued to exploit braceros for their personal gain. Nevertheless, despite efforts to persuade Congress to extend the Bracero Program into 1965, the full Congressional vote on 4 December 1963 maintained the program’s scheduled end on 31 December 1964.

At a time when the United States was preoccupied with its global image and was addressing concerns about migrant labour, unemployment, and race relations in the form of legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the continuation of the Bracero Program became harder to justify. The Salinas Valley bracero deaths, along with the labour, human, and civil rights–centred rhetoric and protest it evoked, no doubt affirmed the necessity of Congress’s decision. As Henry Anderson had predicted in a radio broadcast the day after the accident: “The death of the thirty-one martyrs of the Salinas Valley may also prove to have been the death of the bracero system.”

When they lived, braceros stood as some of the least powerful workers in the country, subject to abuse and exploitation from their superiors. Yet their deaths held some catalytic power that accelerated the end of the program and prevented its return indefinitely.

On reflection, the Bracero Program ultimately facilitated the abuse of Mexican workers, while failing to provide a permanent solution for the United States’s immigration issues. Admittedly, the program successfully supported the war effort and grew US agribusiness to unprecedented levels, but the economic benefits were far outweighed by the humanitarian costs. Thus, the Bracero Program leaves behind a legacy of exploitation and prejudice, one which increased the flow of illegal immigration and left behind lasting hostilities between the workers of both America and Mexico that still remain to this day.

Mandeel, Elizabeth W., 2001. The Bracero Program 1942-1964. Louisville: Bellarmine University.

Scruggs, Otey M. “Texas and the Bracero Program, 1942-1947.” Pacific Historical Review 32, no. 3 (1963): 251–64.

Lori A. Flores. “A Town Full of Dead Mexicans: The Salinas Valley Bracero Tragedy of 1963, the End of the Bracero Program, and the Evolution of California’s Chicano Movement.” Western Historical Quarterly 44, no. 2 (2013): 124–43.

Zatz, Marjorie S. Review of Using and Abusing Mexican Farmworkers: The Bracero Program and the INS, by Kitty Calavita and Erasmo Gamboa. Law & Society Review 27, no. 4 (1993): 851–63.

Hernandez, Kelly Lytle. “Mexican Immigration to the United States.” OAH Magazine of History 23, no. 4 (2009): 25–29.