The Braceros Program was implemented during World War One and Two to recruit farmworkers from Mexico to work in the United States.
An exhibit of Braceros artifacts in the El Paso Museum of History
When the United States entered the First World War in April 1917, it began drafting large numbers of young men into the armed forces and sending them to Europe. This in turn led to a severe labor shortage, which could potentially cripple American war industries.
In particular, the agricultural sector was hit hard by labor shortages. Although America’s industrial strength lay in its cities, the US in 1917 was still very much a rural agrarian society, with over one-third of its population employed in agriculture. This food was an important military resource—the US not only had to feed its own large and growing army, but allies in France and England were also dependent upon food exports from America. The US also needed unskilled laborers to help maintain and run its extensive railroad networks in the west to help transport its food supplies.
To deal with the labor shortage, the US reached an agreement with Mexico to import large numbers of farm workers to work on American agriculture, mostly in the south and southwest. These “Braceros” (from the Spanish word for “manual workers”) were brought into the US for a term of six months, were to be paid the prevailing wage for farm work, and then would be returned to Mexico at the farm owner’s expense.
As it turned out, however, many American farm-owners were happy to renege on the deal and pay lower wages to the Mexicans than to local American workers. Many farm owners also refused to pay for the return trip, stranding many Mexican workers in the US when their six-month contract ran out. And since Mexico was at the time mired in revolution and civil war, many Mexicans did not want to return anyway. So by the time the First World War ended, there were several hundred thousand “temporary” Mexican workers still remaining in the US. Most of these were involuntarily “repatriated” to Mexico by state governments during the Great Depression, in order to free up agricultural jobs for American workers.
When the United States entered the Second World War in December 1941, it once again found itself in a similar situation. Although the US was now the leading industrial power in the world, more than one-fifth of its population was still employed in agriculture, and as these men were drafted into the armed forces it produced another labor shortage. This had to be made up, as the US needed huge amounts of food not only for its own overseas troops but to support allies in England, Russia and China.
When Mexico declared war against the Axis in 1942, the solution presented itself. In a series of diplomatic agreements, the old WW1 Braceros program was revived, codified in an Executive Order issued in August by President Franklin Roosevelt. Once again, farm workers would be imported from Mexico under labor contracts to replace those Americans who were being sent off to war. The first Mexican workers arrived in Stockton CA in September.
The Braceros were recruited in special administrative centers established in Mexico (the largest was in Ciudad Juarez). Here, prospective workers were screened (sick people and anybody with a criminal record was excluded) and were given a work assignment. These were six-month contracts which could be renewed once for another six months. The worker would then be provided with transportation to his work site in the US. The primary point of entry to the United States was through El Paso TX.
Theoretically, the terms of the contract provided legal protections for the Mexican workers from discrimination, and required the provision of decent housing, meals, and fair work conditions. In reality, the American farmers often did all they could to exploit their Mexican laborers as thoroughly as they were able. Further, under the terms of the contract, the American farmers were only required to pay the Mexican workers the legal minimum wage, not the higher prevailing market wage in the area—and often the farm owners did not even pay the minimum. Housing and food were often crude, and work conditions were long and brutal. In Texas there was so much discrimination and exploitation aimed at the Braceros that Mexico stopped sending its workers to the state for several years.
Nevertheless, even this substandard treatment was better than most Mexicans could get within their own country, which was suffering from corruption and rebellion, and had been hit even harder by the Great Depression than the USA had. The result was that, in addition to the Braceros who were legally admitted into the US under the agreements, many more Mexicans were brought into the US illegally by farmers who were anxious to evade all of the legal requirements and to wring as much profit as they could out of these temporary workers. And despite the exploitation, the Braceros, both legal and illegal, did manage to keep the US and other Allies provided with enough food to win the war.
After the Nazi and Japanese surrenders in 1945, the returning American troops were granted benefits under the GI Bill which included financing for a college education. As a result, very few American agricultural workers wanted to go back to that low-wage back-breaking job, and, once again faced with a potential labor shortage, the US decided to continue depending upon the Braceros. In 1951, the Migratory Labor Agreement between the United States and Mexico formalized the previous wartime agreement, and Public Law 78 set the legal framework for a continued program of importing agricultural workers from Mexico into America.
Within a few years, Mexicans made up well over two-thirds of the agrarian labor force in places like California and Texas, where they did everything from picking cotton to harvesting grapes. But once again, economics and the lack of legal protections meant that it was in the interests of the large land-owners, many of which were now corporate farming enterprises, to import their workers illegally and to provide them with substandard wages and conditions. Indeed, US laws tacitly encouraged this: although it was illegal to “harbor or conceal” undocumented immigrants, employing them was explicitly not considered to be “harboring or concealing”.
In total, over the 22 years of the Bracero program, some 4.6 million farm workers had been brought in from Mexico, with uncountable millions more being smuggled in illegally. Virtually everyone in the USA was being fed by Mexican migrant workers.
By 1962, however, the situation had begun to change. Increasing mechanization of farm work meant that fewer and fewer workers were now needed. Racial attitudes in the US led to increased discrimination against Mexicans, and it became a popular political stance in some states to “send them back where they came from”. In 1964, over the objections of the large agribusiness firms who wanted to keep their access to cheap labor, the US allowed the Braceros agreements to expire. Meanwhile, the United Farm Workers union appeared, which fought for better wages and conditions for migrant farm workers.
Today, there are no bilateral American-Mexican agreements to allow for temporary or guest workers to enter the US, work for a set period of time, and then return. But the economic incentive for US businesses to employ this cheap and readily-available labor pool remains overwhelming, and the predictable result has been a flood of undocumented Mexican workers being illegally employed within the US in a wide variety of low-wage jobs with poor working conditions. These Mexican migrant workers are, in essence, an extra-legal continuation of the Braceros farm-worker program.
The legacy of the Braceros programs is now controversial. On the one hand, it successfully fed the Allies and helped to win two World Wars. On the other hand, its economics led directly to some of the race-based political divisions that wrack the country today. There has also been some talk, especially in the Mexican Government, about reviving some version of the Braceros agreements.
Today, the Museum of History in El Paso has exhibits which interpret the city’s role in the Braceros programs.