In August 1942, more than ten thousand men converged on Mexico City. They were answering the government’s call to combat fascism by signing up to do agricultural work in the United States. Although initiated as a temporary measure to alleviate a tightening U.S. labor market brought on by World War II, the Mexican-U.S. Program of the Loan of Laborers lasted for 22 years and awarded more than 4.5 million work contracts to nearly two million Mexican men. Competition for contracts also stimulated undocumented migration of at least that many. Many Mexican men (women could not participate) benefited economically from this regulated migration, but the biggest beneficiary of the Bracero Program, the unofficial name for the series of binational agreements, were large growers. The availability of thousands of desperate braceros, as the migrants were called, generated massive corruption in both countries, acted as a downward push on farm wages, undercut unionization efforts, and enabled growers to delay mechanization until it was cost-effective.
Soon after entering World War II, the U.S. government approached Mexico about the possibility of bringing laborers north. Most important to Mexico was that the U.S. government, not individual growers, be responsible for men migrating under the program, and that both governments monitor the proper functioning of the program and investigate abuses. For all but a brief interlude (1948–1951) did this condition stand. Complaints multiplied during this interlude, and the condition was reinstituted with the start of the Korean War, when Mexico’s bargaining hand was strengthened because of a contraction in the U.S. labor market due to the war. Bracero agreements also contained wage guarantees (braceros were to be paid the area’s prevailing wage for the crop picked) and requirements for sanitary housing, access to medical care, and a minimum of weeks for which they would be paid, regardless of weather conditions, making braceros’ protections far stronger than those extended to U.S. domestic farm workers. Although the agreement stipulated that growers prove they had attempted to recruit U.S. workers before their request for Mexican laborers be granted, in practice this requirement was waived or ignored. Generally growers, relying on long relationships with local government officials, had only to say they could find no U.S. laborers to work for the advertised wage and their request for braceros would be granted. Over time these practices depressed wages and undermined unionization.
The United States always controlled the maximum number of bracero spots offered, and Mexico could allocate these spots (or fewer ones) according to domestic needs. Thus, Mexico theoretically retained the right to decide where braceros worked. It acted on this right initially when it refused to send men to Texas, citing a history of discrimination against Mexican citizens and Mexican Americans. In response, in 1943 Coke R. Stevenson, the governor of Texas from 1941 to 1947, instituted the Good Neighbor Commission to investigate the problem. Convinced that Texas was taking steps to address the problem or merely recognizing that undocumented migrants were crossing into the United States anyway, Mexico consented and by 1947 state-sanctioned braceros were heading to that state. Also negotiated by the two countries was the location of reception centers where the final bracero selection would occur. Mexico repeatedly pushed to place centers a great distance from the United States’ preferred locations at the border. Mexico also sought to reduce costs—Mexico paid men’s transportation and board to reception centers, after which the United States took over—and to control the outflow of migrants to prevent its own farm-labor shortage in northern Mexico, where workers were poorly paid and scarce. As reception centers moved closer to the border, undocumented migration increased. This move also drew men away from less well-paid farm labor in northern Mexico and aroused the ire of these large landholders. Initially the binational agreement also contained a provision that 10 percent of workers’ wages be put in escrow until the men returned. Mexico fought hard for this provision, in force between 1942 and 1948, as it wanted to guarantee that, in contrast to earlier migrations, the men would return home with funds that could be used to purchase tractors and other equipment. While Mexico was heavily invested in this provision, few workers knew of it, and most have yet to recoup these funds.
With alarmist discussion of a labor shortage, growers pressured the U.S. government to replicate the informal contract system that had prevailed during World War I, when labor agents recruiting in Mexico promised workers wages and living conditions that were too often unmet. The United States recognized, however, that Mexico would not agree to any program of regulated migration without certain conditions. Furthermore, the United States was not in a position to ignore conditions sought by Mexico, for much had changed since the earlier informal program. Not only did the United States government initiate the formal exchange of workers, but President Franklin Roosevelt (in office 1933–1945) had entered office determined to establish better relations with Latin America. In contrast to earlier doctrines, his Good Neighbor Policy emphasized cooperation and guaranteed the sanctity of each sovereign American nation. As well, the Mexican president, Lázaro Cárdenas (in office 1934–1940), had, in a show of national sovereignty, nationalized oil fields in 1938, many of which had been owned by U.S. companies. Although Cárdenas had offered compensation according to the value companies listed on earlier tax rolls, the companies balked, saying that nationalized fields were worth more. Thus, in exchange for the Bracero Program and a recognition of Mexico’s sovereignty, the United States had not much earlier settled the compensation issue and conceded to some of Mexico’s demands. Over the course of the program, Mexico lost its leverage because its economy could not offer enough jobs, leading many men to migrate.
In the forty-plus years since the end of the Bracero Program, there have been numerous calls to bring it back in various forms. The most recent was President George W. Bush’s push to institute a guest-worker program similar to the Bracero program. An idea proposed during his 2000 campaign for president, it was put on hold immediately after September 11, 2001, then resurfaced in 2003. By then, his expanded proposal added a post-9/11 heavy dose of border security (including a physical and virtual fence), increased enforcement of laws already on the books, and the removal of all persons in the country without the proper documentation in exchange for his guest worker program; it was also part of a larger package of changes to immigration laws.
President Bush’s revised proposal garnered attacks from all sides. Citing downward pressure on workers’ wages and fearing the cultural impact of largely poor immigrants of color, the anti-immigration faction countered the Bush proposal by demanding that only the removal and enhanced-security conditions be instituted. This anti-immigration position is best exemplified by the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps and Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin. The Minutemen, an armed volunteer force and a visible symbol of a growing nativist sentiment operating largely in border states, have taken it upon themselves to secure U.S. borders that they see the federal government leaving unprotected. Sensenbrenner spotlighted a focus on security with a bill called the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005. This legislation, which passed the House by a vote of 239 to 182, would have made it a felony for anyone to “assist” an undocumented person to “remain in the United States.” Although the bill stalled in the Senate, it generated a strong reaction, not only from pro-immigration groups, but from the immigrants themselves. On May 1, 2006, hundreds of thousands of immigrant protesters took to the streets in Chicago, Los Angeles, and other parts of the country in reaction to Sensenbrenner’s restrictive legislation; they demanded a comprehensive reform package that included a path to legal residency and citizenship. This immigration debate also heightened simmering tensions between Latinos and African Americans. Often pitted against Latinos and recent immigrants for low-wage jobs and shrinking economic resources more generally, many African Americans see themselves ever more on the losing end of a direct competition with Latinos and immigrants.
Immigrants again turned out across the United States for peaceful May Day 2007 marches as federal officials increased their investigations of job sites known or thought to cater to immigrants. These raids have brought quick arrests of undocumented workers. In the aftermath, children—often United States citizens—have been separated from undocumented parents and wives from husbands, sending reverberations through immigrant communities. In 2007 another immigration bill, the Security through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act of 2007 (or STRIVE Act), was introduced in Congress. Although it was not guaranteed passage in the Democrat-controlled Congress, this compromise between pro- and anti-immigration factions has sought to combine heightened border security and a Bracero Program-like guest-worker program with a real path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million undocumented persons living in the United States.
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