The The Bracero Program(named for the Spanish term bracero, meaning “manual laborer” [“one who works using his arms”])began on August 4, 1942 after the United States entered World War II. With American men going off to fight the war, the U.S. needed farm laborers to tend to the growing demands of the agribusinesses supporting the war effort. The Bracero Program was a bilateral collaboration between the Mexican and United States governments designed to allow controlled migration of Mexican Nationals into the U.S. to work as farm labor. Millions of Mexican Nationals legally crossed the border into the United States. However, some Mexicans crossed illegally. Although the two governments worked together to control illegal entry into the U.S., the sheer number of people coming across the border illegally oftentimes overwhelmed border patrols on both sides of the border. Here is a look at illegal immigration during the Bracero Program and how the U.S. and Mexican governments worked together to control it.
In 1942 the U.S. Government approached the Mexican Government about their need for migrant labor after being pressured by farm owners. World War II was getting underway which meant that poor white, black and domestic Latino laborers would either serve in the military or take jobs in better-paying industrialized factories. The Mexican Government, who worried that they would not have enough laborers to tend to their new projects to modernize their farming, agreed to allow Mexican Nationalists to emigrate. While the U.S. Government desperately needed migrant laborers to tend to their farms, the Mexican Government saw an opportunity for their country by “linking its participation to membership in a world democratic community by claiming (to its citizens) that the Program would modernize the country and transform it from a ‘backward’ country into a modern nation-state.” The hope for both countries was that the Bracero Program contract would keep track of and control the number of workers crossing the border. The Mexican Government agreed to recruit the laborers while the U.S. Government facilitated employment, wages, working conditions and transportation. The provisions to the contract for the Mexican workers were that they were given transportation to and from the farms they were working (paid for by the U.S. Government), a minimum wage equal to U.S. domestic farm laborers, and decent housing to live in while they were working. The Mexicans laborers had to provide their own food and health insurance, which were usually deducted from their pay. At the end of their contract they were to return back to Mexico at the end of the harvest. Any Mexican who did not abide by their contract was deported back to Mexico.
Problems arose when tens of thousands of unemployed Mexican laborers showed up at recruitment centers in Mexico City only to find out that they were ineligible to participate in the program. Only male laborers with farming experience were allowed to sign up. This drove the people who could not participate in the program to cross the border illegally. The issue of illegal immigration was a cause for concern for both the Mexican Government and the braceros working in the U.S. The Mexican Government received pressure from the agribusiness men in Mexico who were losing their cheap labor to higher paying work in the U.S. The braceros were concerned that undocumented workers drove down their wages down and “worsened working conditions.” This prompted U.S. Government officials and the Mexican Government to beef-up their border patrols and to extend a ten foot high barbed-wire fence at the All American canal in Calexico, California, a main crossing point for illegal entry.
These measures did little to stem the flow of undocumented workers. By 1948, there were an estimated 70,000 undocumented workers in the U.S. and by 1952, 1.5 million.
In 1954, the U.S. launched Operation Wetback, a “massive deportation program that deported more than a million illegal immigrants.” Undocumented workers were aggressively pursued, arrested and handed over to Mexican officials who “forcibly relocated them to ‘areas in the country (Mexico) where work was plentiful’.”
The Bracero Program eventually ended December 31, 1964 after President Kennedy decided that the Bracero Program was negatively affecting wages, employment opportunities, and the working conditions of domestic workers.However, many U.S. farmers fought to continue the program.
Although the Bracero Program was an attempt by both the U.S. and Mexican Governments to provide legal short-term migrant labor, it failed miserably. The allure of American prosperity combined with the desperation of the unemployed Mexicans worked together to create a problem too big for both governments to control.
Illegal immigration has continued to be a problem in the U.S. due to its need for laborers who are willing to do extremely hard work for a meager salary and no benefits and the lack of Mexican Government interference in this process.
The song “Plane Wreck At Los Gatos (Deportee)” was written in 1948 by Woodie Guthrie after he heard that a plane carrying Mexican Deportees back to Mexico had crashed in the Diablo Mountains (Devil Mountain) in California. The song was written in protest of the way the news agencies listed the victims of the crash as “deportees” rather than by their names.