Let’s talk about the border- Part IV

This is Part IV of a series about some of the challenges for Latino immigrants in the United States, and this post talks about some of the historical roots of the system through the Bracero Program.

The Bracero Program

So what role does the United States play in motivating people to come? I’ve touched on some of the factors, such as the economic role of NAFTA. But there are deep historical roots for the today’s migration patterns. One of the strongest historical precedents is the Bracero Program. Although by no means the only avenue for migrants when they come to the United States, because of this historical precendent, farm work is a very common one.

As World War II began, the United States lost the labor force of the able bodied young men who went to war. Many of them would otherwise have served as farm labor, and in 1942, to ensure that there would be more enough workers, the United States and Mexican governments created the Bracero program. Years of war coupled with poor harvests made the program more attractive to the campesinos. The United States found the prospect of a labor force that they would not be required to pay high wages to appealing.

However, because of an earlier failed attempt at a Bracero Program from 1917 to 1921, in which the migrants encountered excessive discrimination and low wages, the Mexican government pushed for certain provisions in the program, including that the United States would pay for the journey to and from Mexico, and that the workers would be required to have the same pay as United States workers.

Around 1947, farmers began to see ways to acquire labor cheaply. They began to recruit workers without documentation, and this way were able to avoid the costs of both transportation and standardized wages. Initially, the United States government was friendlier to workers in this situation- if they were discovered, they would be taken to the border and issued documents to legally initiate them into the Bracero program. However, the Bracero program was far from equitable- for example, many workers had portions of their wages held and never returned to them.

However, around 1951, the government began to see more and more farmers working around the law to cut costs. Initially, the plan was to place the burden of guilt on employers, so as to stem the exploitation. However, because of the strong lobbying power of the farmers, a different future took shape. The resulting bill that Congress passed was called PL-78, or the Mexican Farm Labor Program. This bill called for a strong penalty for “harboring” individuals without documentation, including deeming it a felony, and punishment with $2,000 fines and 5 year prison sentences. However, it was still completely permissible to employ an individual without documentation.

The influx of workers without documentation continued into the early 1950s. Some of the military- like nature of Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) practices that can be seen today may be partially due to the early appointment of a former general as its director. He implemented “Operation Wetback” in 1954, in which over a million Mexicans were deported. To try to save the flailing Bracero program, the US Department of labor decreased the requirements for fair treatment for workers. However, this did not work, and only served to worsen conditions for workers.

So these events put the pieces in place for the system we have today. Although the Bracero Program officially ended in 1964, employers had long before become dependent on the steady and cheaper labor force that it ultimately enabled. In reality, the PL-78 bill, by effectively legalizing the lack of regulation in employment practices for farmers, decreased any pressure to pay workers fair wages and contributed strongly to the demise of any semblance of fair treatment for workers.


This was Part IV of the article, and next time I’ll talk about the H-2A law and the exploitation of workers.