The Bracero Program: Was It a Failure?





Mr. Martin is Professor of Agricultural Economics at the University of California, Davis and a member of the Commission on Agricultural Workers established by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. He is the author of numerous studies and reports on immigration, including Trade and Migration: NAFTA and Agriculture (1993). This article is drawn from his book, Promise Unfulfilled: Unions, Immigration, and Farm Workers. Ithaca (Cornell University Press, 2003).

The US and Mexico shared a 2,000 border throughout the 20th century, but most Mexico-US migration occurred since 1980. Almost 6 million Mexicans were issued immigrant visas in the 20th century, and almost 4 million of these green cards were issued between 1980 and 2000. Similarly, over 40 million Mexicans illegally in the US were apprehended, and 26 million or two-thirds of these apprehensions occurred between 1980 and 2000.

The Bracero (strong arm) program set the stage for large-scale legal and illegal Mexico-US migration. Agriculture in California and the southwest began with the large acreages needed for dryland agriculture, which involved planting seed and harvesting wheat if there was sufficient rain as well as cattle grazing. When the transcontinental railroad in 1869 allowed California to take advantage of its Mediterranean climate and produce fruits and vegetables for consumers 3,000 miles away, large farms were expected to be broken up into family-sized units in order to get a labor force. This did not happen. Farmers found seasonal farm workers among the Chinese imported to build the railroad and shut out of cities by discrimination.

Braceros were the last wave of immigrant farm workers who had no other US job option except working in the fields. In the spring of 1942, California farmers predicted that there would be labor shortages for the fall harvest because of conscription for World War II, and asked the US and Mexican governments to allow Mexicans to work seasonally on US farms. Despite protests from US farm labor reformers that there was no shortage of workers, only a shortage of decent wages and working conditions, the US and Mexican governments signed a bilateral agreement in 1942 that allowed the entry of “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 1 to 2 million gained legal U.S. work experience. The Bracero program was small during the war years. Admissions peaked at 62,000 in 1944, meaning that less than 2 percent of the 4 million U.S. hired workers were Braceros.

The wartime Bracero program ended in 1947, and many Mexican workers elected to migrate illegally because such migration was tolerated. If they were apprehended inside the US, illegal Mexicans were legalized in a process that official U.S. government publications called “drying out the wetbacks:” they were taken to the Mexico-US. border, issued documentation, and returned to the farm on which they were found. There were no penalties for farmers for knowingly hiring unauthorized workers, and the number of “wetbacks” soon exceeded the number of legally admitted Braceros.

A US government commission in 1951 recommended employer sanctions, imposing fines on US employers who knowingly hired illegal workers. President Truman and the Mexican government endorsed the commission’s recommendation, but Congress did not, and the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act that made harboring illegal aliens a felony included the so-called Texas proviso, which explained that employing an illegal alien was not harboring. There were thus no penalties on U.S. employers who knowingly hired illegal workers.

The Bracero program sowed the seeds for later Mexico-US. migration in several ways. 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. Many areas of rural Mexico became dependent on money earned from U.S. jobs, and networks were soon established to link rural Mexican villages with U.S. farm jobs. US workers who faced Bracero competition in the fields, but not in nonfarm labor markets, exited for nonfarm jobs, leading to “farm labor shortages” that brought more Braceros. The Bracero share of the work force in citrus, tomatoes, and other major California commodities soon exceeded 50 percent, and farm wages as a percentage of manufacturing wages fell during the 1950s.

One argument for Braceros was that allowing Mexicans to come legally would reduce illegal migration. This argument was proven wrong. Between 1942 and 1964, there were 4.6 million Braceros admitted and 4.9 million Mexicans apprehended in the United States; it should be emphasized that both numbers double count individuals who entered the United States as a Bracero several times or were apprehended multiple times. The number of Braceros and “wetbacks” increased together in the 1950s, prompting the Immigration and Naturalization Service to launch “Operation Wetback” in June 1954, which removed 1.1 million Mexicans, including US-born and thus US citizen children of Braceros.

As the U.S. Department of Labor relaxed regulations on Bracero housing, wages, and food charges in the mid-1950s, more farmers hired legal Braceros; admissions peaked at 445,200 in 1956. However, Braceros admissions began to fall in the early 1960s, when President Kennedy ordered the Department of Labor to enforce Bracero regulations. The November 1960 CBS documentary “Harvest of Shame” convinced Kennedy that Braceros were “adversely affecting the wages, working conditions, and employment opportunities of our own agricultural workers.” Farmers fought to preserve the program in Congress, but lost, and the Bracero program ended December 31, 1964.

There were three major responses to the end of the Bracero program in US agriculture. Many farmers joined or formed associations that acted as “super labor contractors” to recruit and supervise fewer U.S. workers, increasing worker earnings. The Coastal Growers Association in Ventura County, for example, reduced employment from 8,517 workers in 1965 to 1,292 in 1978 and increased average hourly earnings from $1.77 to $5.63, reflecting rising worker productivity, from an average 3.4 boxes picked an hour in 1965 to 8.4 boxes an hour in 1978.

A second response to the end of the Bracero program was labor-saving mechanization. Plant scientists developed a uniformly ripening tomato that was processed into ketchup and other tomato products, and engineers developed a machine to cut the plant and shake off the tomatoes, reducing the number of pickers needed by over 90 percent.

The third response was successful unionization. In the fall of 1965, the National Farm Workers Association headed by Cesar Chavez joined a strike called by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, which included mostly Filipino grape pickers. In the spring of 1966, the combined groups, renamed the United Farm Workers Union (UFW), won a 40 percent wage increase for grape pickers, largely because no Braceros were available. This UFW grape victory ushered in a 15-year golden era for US farm workers that ended with rising illegal migration in the 1980s and 1990s.

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