The Bracero Program (named for the Spanish term bracero, meaning "manual laborer" [lit. "one who works using his arms"]) was a series of laws and diplomatic agreements, initiated by an August 1942 exchange of diplomatic notes between the United States and Mexico, for the importation of temporary contract laborers from Mexico to the United States.
American president Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Mexican president Manuel Ávila Camacho in Monterrey, Mexico to discuss Mexico as part of the Allies in World War II and the Bracero Program. After the expiration of the initial agreement in 1947, the program was continued in agriculture under a variety of laws and administrative agreements until its formal end in 1964.
In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, more than 500,000 Mexican Americans were deported or pressured to leave, during the Mexican Repatriation. There were fewer Mexican Americans available when labor demand returned with World War II.
The Bracero Program was initially prompted by a demand for manual labor during World War II and began with the U.S. government bringing in a few hundred experienced Mexican agricultural laborers to harvest sugar beets in the Stockton, California area. The program soon spread to cover most of the United States and provided workers for the agricultural labor market (with the notable exception being Texas, which initially opted out of the program in preference to an "open border" policy, and was denied braceros by the Mexican government until 1947 due to perceived mistreatment of Mexican laborers). As a corollary, the railroad bracero program was independently negotiated to supply U.S. railroads initially with unskilled workers for railroad track maintenance but eventually to cover other unskilled and skilled labor. By 1945, the quota for the agricultural program was more than 75,000 braceros working in the U.S. railroad system and 50,000 braceros working in U.S. agriculture at any one time.
The railroad program ended with the conclusion of World War II in 1945.
At the behest of U.S. growers, who claimed ongoing labor shortages, the program was extended under a number of acts of congress until 1948. Between 1948 and 1951, the importation of Mexican agricultural laborers continued under negotiated administrative agreements between growers and the Mexican Government. On July 13, 1951, President Truman signed Public Law 78, a two-year program that embodied formalized protections for Mexican laborers. The program was renewed every two years until 1963 when, under heavy criticism, it was extended for a single year with the understanding it would not be renewed. After the formal end of the agricultural program in 1964, there were agreements covering a much smaller number of contracts until 1967, after which no more braceros were granted.
|Year||Number of Braceros||Applicable U.S. Law|
|1946||(44,600)||Public Law 45|
|1947||(30,000)||PL 45, PL 40|
|1948||(30,000)||Public Law 893|
|1948-50||(79,000/yr)||Period of administrative agreements|
|1951||192,000||AA/Public Law 78|
|1952||197,100||Public Law 78|
|1953||201,380||Public Law 78|
|1954||309,033||Public Law 78|
|1955||398,650||Public Law 78|
|1956||445,197||Public Law 78|
|1957||436,049||Public Law 78|
|1958||432,491||Public Law 78|
|1959||444,408||Public Law 78|
|1960||319,412||Public Law 78|
|1961||296,464||Public Law 78|
|1962||198,322||Public Law 78|
|1963||189,528||Public Law 78|
|1964||179,298||Public Law 78|
|1965||20,286||(after the formal end of the program)|
The program in agriculture was justified in the U.S. largely as an alternative to illegal immigration and was seen as a complement to efforts to deport undocumented immigrants such as Operation Wetback, under which 1,075,168 Mexicans were deported in 1954. Scholars who have closely studied Mexican migration in this period have questioned this interpretation, emphasizing instead the complementary nature of legal and illegal migration. Scholars of this school suggest that the decision to hire Mexicans through the Bracero Program or via extralegal contractors depended mostly on which seemed more suitable to needs of agribusiness employers, attributing the expansion of the Bracero Program in the late 1950s to the relaxation of enforcement of regulations on Bracero wages, housing, and food charges.
The workers who participated in the Bracero Program have generated significant local and international struggles challenging the U.S. government and Mexican government to identify and return 10 percent mandatory deductions taken from their pay, from 1942 to 1948, for savings accounts that they were legally guaranteed to receive upon their return to Mexico at the conclusion of their contracts. Many field working braceros never received their savings, but most railroad working braceros did. Lawsuits presented in federal courts in California, in the late 1990s and early 2000s (decade), highlighted the substandard conditions and documented the ultimate destiny of the savings accounts deductions, but the suit was thrown out because the Mexican banks in question never operated in the United States. Today, it is stipulated that ex-braceros can receive up to $3,500.00 as compensation for the 10% only by supplying check stubs or contracts proving they were part of the program during 1942 to 1948. It is estimated that, with interest accumulated, $500 million is owed to ex-braceros, who continue to fight to receive the money owed to them.
||The neutrality of this article is disputed. (November 2011)|
||This section needs additional citations for verification. (November 2011)|
||This section may contain original research. (November 2011)|
Even though the United States had made use of migrant Mexican labor in its agricultural sector since the early 20th century, such labor tended to be both migratory and seasonal, with many workers returning to Mexico in the winter. The situation changed with the involvement of the United States in World War II, creating a massive labor shortage in all sectors of the economy with the withdrawal of much of the nation's active labor force into the various armed services. The extreme labor shortage forced a change in immigration policy for the United States that resulted in development of the Bracero Program in conjunction with Mexico.
The Bracero Program was a guest worker program that ran between the years of 1942 and 1964. Over those 22 years, the Mexican Farm Labor Program, informally known as the Bracero Program, sponsored some 4.5 million border crossings of guest workers from Mexico (some among these representing repeat visits by returned braceros). Many braceros were able to secure green cards and legal residency, while others (known as 'quits') simply left the fields and headed for work in the cities. Today, millions of Mexican Americans trace their families' roots in the US to their fathers' or grandfathers' arrival as braceros.
Recent scholarship highlights that the program generated controversy in Mexico from the outset. Employers and local officials feared labor shortages, especially in the states of west-central Mexico that traditionally sent the majority of migrants north (Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Zacatecas). The Catholic Church warned that emigration would break families apart and expose braceros to Protestant missionaries and labor camps where drinking, gambling, and prostitution flourished. Others deplored the negative image that the braceros' departure produced for the Mexican nation. The political opposition even used the exodus of braceros as evidence of the failure of government policies, especially the agrarian reform program implemented by the post-revolutionary government in the 1930s. On the other hand, historians like Michael Snodgrass and Deborah Cohen demonstrate why the program proved popular among so many migrants, for whom seasonal work in the US offered great opportunities, despite the poor conditions they often faced in the fields and housing camps. They saved money, purchased new tools or used trucks, and returned home with new outlooks and a greater sense of dignity. Social scientists doing field work in rural Mexico at the time observed these positive economic and cultural effects of bracero migration. So the Bracero Program looked different from the perspective of the participants rather than its many critics in the US and Mexico.
The growing realization among businesses was that provisions within the program ensured an increase of costs for the imported labor. The program mandated a certain level of wages, housing, food and medical care for the workers (to be paid for by the employers) that kept the standard of living above what many had in Mexico. This not only enabled many to send funds home to their families but also had the unintended effect of encouraging illegal immigration when U.S. workers' quotas were met.
These new illegal workers could not be employed "above the table" as part of the program, leaving them open for exploitation. This resulted in the lowering of wages and not receiving the benefits that the Mexican government had negotiated to insure their legal workers well being under the Bracero program. This, in turn, had the effect of eroding support for the program in the agricultural sector for the legal importation of workers from Mexico in favor of hiring illegal immigrants to reduce overhead costs. The advantages of hiring illegal workers were that they were willing to work for lower wages, without support, health coverage or in many cases legal means to address abuses by the employers for fear of deportation.
Nevertheless, conditions for the poor and unemployed in Mexico were such that illegal employment was attractive enough to motivate many to leave in search of work within the United States illegally, even if that directly competed with the legal workers within the Bracero program leading to its discontinuation.
In 1956, labor organizer Ernesto Galarza’s book Stranger in Our Fields was published, drawing attention to the conditions experienced by braceros. The book begins with this statement from a worker: “In this camp, we have no names. we are called only by numbers.” The book concluded that workers were lied to, cheated and “shamefully neglected.” The U.S. Department of Labor officer in charge of the program, Lee G. Williams, described the program as a system of “legalized slavery.”
Labor unions that tried to organize agricultural workers after World War II targeted the Bracero program as a key impediment to improving the wages of domestic farm workers. These unions included the National Farm Laborers Union (NFLU), later called the National Agricultural Workers Union (NAWU), headed by Ernesto Galarza, and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), AFL-CIO. During his tenure with the Community Service Organization, César Chávez was given a grant by the AWOC to organize in Oxnard, California which culminated in a protest of domestic U.S. agricultural workers of the U.S. Department of Labor's administration of the program. In January 1961, in an effort to publicize the effects of bracero labor on labor standards, the AWOC led a strike of lettuce workers at 18 farms in the Imperial Valley, an agricultural region on the California-Mexico border and a major destination for braceros.
The end of the Bracero program in 1964 was followed by the rise to prominence of the United Farm Workers and the subsequent transformation of American migrant labor under the leadership of César Chávez. Dolores Huerta was also a leader and early organizer of the United Farm Workers. According to Manuel Garcia y Griego, a political scientist and author of The Importation of Mexican Contract Laborers to the United States 1942-1964, the Contract-Labor Program “left an important legacy for the economies, migration patterns, and politics of the United States and Mexico.” Griego's article discusses the bargaining position of both countries, arguing that the Mexican government lost all real bargaining power after 1950.
The guest worker program continued until 1964.
In popular culture 
- Woody Guthrie's poem Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos), set to music by Martin Hoffman, commemorates the deaths of 28 braceros being repatriated to Mexico in January 1948. The song has been recorded by dozens of folk artists.
- Protest singer Phil Ochs's song "Bracero" focuses on the exploitation of the Mexican workers in the program.
- A minor character in the 1948 Mexican film Nosotros los pobres wants to become a bracero.
- The 1949 film Border Incident looks at the issue.[clarification needed]
- Famed satirist Tom Lehrer wrote a song about Senator George Murphy in response to an infamous racist gaffe referring to Mexican labor which included the line "After all, even in Egypt, the Pharaohs/Had to import, Hebrew Braceros."
Exhibitions and Collections 
On September 9, 2010 the Smithsonian National Museum of American History opened a bilingual exhibition titled, "Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942-1964." Through photographs and audio excerpts from oral histories, this exhibition examined the experiences of bracero workers and their families while providing insight into the history of Mexican Americans and historical context to today's debates on guest worker programs. The exhibition included a collection of photographs taken by photojournalist Leonard Nadel in 1956, as well as documents, objects, and an audio station featuring oral histories collected by the Bracero Oral History Project. The exhibition closed on January 3, 2010. The exhibition was converted to a traveling exhibition in February 2010 and traveled to Arizona, California, Idaho, Michigan, Nevada, and Texas under the auspices of Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.
See also 
- average for '43,'45,'46 calculated from total of 220,000 braceros contracted '42-'47, cited in Navarro, Armando, Mexicano political experience in occupied Aztlán (2005)
- average for '47,'48 calculated from total of 74,600 braceros contracted '47-49, cited in Navarro, Armando, Mexicano political experience in occupied Aztlán (2005)
- average calculated from total of 401,845 braceros under the period of negotiated administrative agreements, cited in Navarro, Armando, Mexicano political experience in occupied Aztlán (2005)
- Data 1951-1967 cited in Gutiérrez, David Gregory, Between two worlds (1996)
- Galarza, Ernesto Farmworkers and Agri-business in California, 1947-1960 (1976)
- Martin, Philip (2006-07-03). "The Bracero Program: Was It a Failure?" History News Network, 3 July 2006. Retrieved from http://hnn.us/articles/27336.html.
- Ferris, Susan, and Sandoval, Ricardo, The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement (1997)
- Los Angeles Times, 1/23/1961 "Lettuce Farm Strike Part of Deliberate Union Plan"
- Manuel García y Griego, “The Importation of Mexican Contract Laborers to the United States, 1942-1964,” in David G. Gutiérrez, ed. Between Two Worlds: Mexican Immigrants in the United States (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources,1996), 45-85
- "Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942-1964". National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 26 April 2012.
- Koestler, Fred L. (2010-02-22). Bracero Program. Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association, 22 February 2010. Retrieved from http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/BB/omb1_print.html.
- Deborah Cohen, Braceros: Migrant Citizens and Transnational Subjects in the Postwar United States and Mexico (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011)
- Michael Snodgrass, “The Bracero Program, 1942-1964,” in Beyond the Border: The History of Mexican-U.S. Migration, Mark Overmyer-Velásquez, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 79–102.
- Michael Snodgrass, “Patronage and Progress: The Bracero Program from the Perspective of Mexico,” in Workers Across the Americas: The Transnational Turn in Labor History, Leon Fink, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 245–66.
- Otey M. Scruggs, "Texas and the Bracero Program, 1942-1947," Pacific Historical Review (1963) 32#3 pp. 251–264 in JSTOR
- The Bracero Project
- Los Braceros: Strong Arms to Aid the USA - Public Television Program
- Bracero History Archive
- Braceros in Oregon Photograph Collection
- Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program 1942-1964 An online exhibition from the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution