Braceros, Repatriation, and Seasonal Workers
Braceros, Repatriation, and Seasonal Workers
Braceros (in Spanish, “laborer,” derived from brazo, “arm”), or field workers from Mexico, have long been an important feature of U.S. agriculture, especially in the southwestern United States. Since the early twentieth century, many millions of such workers have left Mexico on a seasonal or permanent basis in search of jobs on U.S. family farms and in corporate “factories in the fields.” Some workers have come legally and others illegally, sometimes under contract with employers and sometimes as undocumented “freelancers.”
Although economically beneficial to both countries, for generations this cross-border migratory flow has generated significant international conflict, as well as controversy within the United States. The positive aspects of Mexican immigration to the United States have gone largely unrecognized and unappreciated among most Americans, who have stigmatized this group of immigrants and repeatedly turned against them during hard times. Many critics have charged these newcomers with harming the country, both economically and socially. Additional reasons for rejection include racial intolerance, cultural bias, linguistic prejudice, a predominantly negative view of Mexico, and the fact that many immigrants have entered the United States illegally.
From the 1920s to the present, intense anti-Mexican sentiments have flared up repeatedly during downturns in the U.S. economy, with attendant demands by the public for wholesale deportation of Mexicans, imposition of legal restrictions on immigration, and stronger enforcement measures at the border. The prime example of this response is the decade of the Great Depression, which began in 1929. The U.S. economic collapse during that time deepened the opposition to immigration and spawned a movement to rid the nation of foreigners. Mexicans became the principal target of the attacks, leading to massive deportations and repatriations. Thus, in the 1930s, from half a million to one million Mexicans departed the United States. Reflecting the overall composition of the Mexican-origin population, most of those who exited hailed from the working classes. But many families of higher social status also left, depleting an already small Mexican/Mexican-American middle class and elite sector.
The trauma unleashed by deportations and repatriations touched Chicano communities everywhere. Sweeps and raids by immigration agents and local policemen heightened U.S. nativism and encouraged private citizens to attack Mexicans directly. Extreme hostility flared up in the workplace in states and cities that passed laws prohibiting the hiring of non-U.S. citizens in publicly financed projects. Although such statutes applied to all aliens, in the Southwest they were clearly directed against Mexican immigrants. Violations of civil and human rights became commonplace, including harassment, intimidation, illegal arrest and imprisonment, separation of families, and expulsion.
U.S. officials escorted deportees and repatriates across the border and turned them over to Mexican officials, who had the responsibility of meeting their immediate needs, arranging for transportation to their places of destination, and beginning the process of reintegration into Mexican society. The Mexican government waived customs regulations and allowed migrants to import personal belongings and occupational tools. Mexico also provided employment assistance and offered land to those who wished to go into farming. From the Mexican government’s perspective, many of the returning immigrants could be helpful to the Mexican economy because of skills and experience acquired in the United States. Despite the good intentions, however, the Mexican government could not deliver on many of its promises, and the migrants suffered many hardships in Mexico.
By the mid-1930s the harsh reality of life in an impoverished Mexico began driving desperate repatriates back to the United States. But many, even those born north of the border, encountered difficulties recrossing the border at a time when the U.S. Immigration Service exercised strict control over immigration. The U.S. Catholic Welfare Conference stepped in to help the migrants, with mixed results. Large numbers who could not reenter legally because they lacked birth certificates and other papers simply waded across the Rio Grande or walked through the desert into the United States.
Immigration restrictions eased substantially when World War II created serious labor shortages in the United States. Americans now welcomed the returning repatriates as well as first-time entrants. The demand for Mexican workers continued beyond 1945 as the cold war, the Korean conflict, and intervention in Vietnam spawned a steady expansion of the U.S. economy. Consequently, from 1940 to the mid-1960s Mexican immigration in the United States rose substantially; close to 400,000 Mexicans immigrated legally as permanent U.S. residents while an undetermined number crossed the border without documentation.
Mexican men entered the United States in large numbers as part of a landmark guest-worker program that began in 1942, shortly after Americans became involved in World War II. At the time, serious shortages of workers, especially in agriculture, had created a crisis for the national economy. Accordingly, the two countries signed a bilateral agreement known officially as the Mexican Farm Labor Supply Program and informally as the Bracero Program. The U.S. Congress approved the program under Public Law 45.
The U.S. government assumed primary responsibility for recruiting and transporting male workers from Mexico to the United States and back home again when contracts ended. Employers took on the obligation to pay fair wages and provide adequate working and living conditions. The pact excluded women because Mexico feared they would be subjected to unacceptable treatment and abuse at the hands of greedy employers and sundry predators. In some ways the provisions of the Bracero Program resembled those of the first guest-worker program implemented by the United States, the Temporary Admissions Program of 1917, which had also addressed emergency labor shortages during a time of war.
The 1942 agreement continued in force until the end of 1947, when the U.S. Congress allowed the legislation to expire because wartime labor shortages no longer existed. About 220,000 braceros participated in the program during that five-year period. Over the next four years, even though employers who desired braceros had to recruit them with only limited assistance from the two governments, over 200,000 contracted workers entered the United States. More than twice that number, however, crossed the border without documentation. Significantly, the U.S. Immigration Service intermittently facilitated labor recruitment by allowing employers to contract undocumented workers directly from detention centers in the Southwest. The procedure of turning apprehended “wetbacks” into legal braceros became known as the “drying out” process.
When the Korean conflict broke out in 1950 and the United States showed renewed interest in large-scale labor importation, Mexico, wishing its workers to have greater protection abroad, suggested a return to a formal arrangement. In 1951 the two countries enacted the Migratory Labor Agreement. This new Bracero Program functioned until 1964, facilitating the signing of almost 3.5 million bracero contracts.
The Bracero Program in its various incarnations stirred controversy in both countries for more than two decades. Labor unions in the United States charged bitterly that braceros displaced U.S. workers and depressed wages and working conditions. South of the border, many activists complained about the discrimination and exploitation suffered by braceros in the United States, while agricultural interests blasted the government in Mexico City for helping foreign employers take away their laborers. The strongest promoters of the Bracero Program were U.S. growers, its primary beneficiaries. They contended that the United States needed braceros because Americans would not perform hard agricultural work for modest wages. Support for the program in Mexico rested primarily with ordinary people in need of employment and the government, which saw the remittances sent back home by braceros as an important source of foreign-exchange earnings for the nation.
Although most braceros worked in the Southwest, significant numbers went to the Northwest, the Great Plains, and the Midwest. Between 1943 and 1947, most of the nearly 47,000 braceros in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington performed farm work, but some were recruited for other tasks, including assisting the National Forest Service to put out forest fires. During the same period, over 28,000 braceros worked in agriculture, railroad maintenance, and industry in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas. Chicago became a major recruitment and distribution point for braceros during two crucial war years, from 1943 to 1945.
In his classic book Merchants of Labor (1964), Ernesto Galarza details many abuses suffered by braceros during their work stints in the United States. Complaints registered by workers included unsatisfactory wages, poor working conditions, job hazards, crowded living quarters, inadequate food, inflated prices for necessities, and even
physical abuse. Employers and compliance officers routinely ignored the complaints or failed to follow up with concrete solutions, prompting individuals and groups of braceros to engage in work stoppages and even to desert their contracts. In addition to mistreatment in the work-place, braceros had to contend with discrimination in the communities where they worked. Many establishments posted “No Mexicans, White Trade Only” signs in an effort to keep braceros away. Many Mexicans reported verbal abuses, false arrests, and physical attacks.
In the case of Texas, deeply rooted anti-Mexican racism and grower disdain for official wage and working guidelines prompted the Mexican government to exclude that state from participation in the Bracero Program from 1942 to 1947. The ban forced employers to find alternative sources of cheap labor, and they resorted to recruiting undocumented workers without much difficulty.
The Temporary Admissions Program of 1917 and the various Bracero Programs that functioned between 1942 and 1964 illustrate the long tradition in the United States of working with Mexico to implement guest-worker programs when the need for labor arises north of the border. Such arrangements, of course, have consequences beyond the economic benefits to both countries. Inevitably, such programs stimulate greater cross-border migration and permanent settlement of many braceros and their families in the United States. These migratory flows have played an important role in expanding the Mexican-origin population, which as of 2007 numbered about 27 million.
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Conover, Ted. 1987. Coyotes: A Journey through the Secret World of America’s Illegal Aliens. New York: Vintage.
Galarza, Ernesto. 1964. Merchants of Labor: The Mexican Bracero Story. San Jose, CA: Rosicrucian Press.
García, Juan Ramon. 1980. Operation Wetback: The Mass Deportation of Mexican Undocumented Workers in 1954. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
González, Gilbert G. 2006. Guest Workers or Colonized Labor?: Mexican Labor Migration to the United States. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.
Guerin-Gonzáles, Camille. 1994. Mexican Workers and American Dreams: Immigration, Repatriation, and California Farm Labor, 1900–1939. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Oscar J. Martínez