By Helen Raleigh, G.L.O.B.A.L. Commentator & Board Director; CFA, DTM (Colorado), Immigration Policy Fellow; Centennial Institute, Colorado Christian University
Most discussion today on addressing the illegal immigration focuses on border security. But we learned from past experiences is that enhancing border security alone is inadequate and ineffective to reduce illegal immigration. Since most of illegal immigrants are economic migrants, maybe it’s time to revival something worked well in the past for both economic migrants and the U.S. economy, the Bracero program.
World War II created a labor shortage in the U.S. when many American men were drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces. On August 4, 1942, the U.S. and Mexican governments created a temporary program to bring Mexican agricultural labor into the U.S. The program was officially referred to as the Mexican Farm Labor Program, but most people know it as the Bracero Program (bracero in Spanish means “manual laborer”). The Bracero Program wasn’t an immigration program. It allowed Mexicans to legally take temporary agriculture work and, later, railroad work in the U.S. with nonimmigrant status. The Bracero Program was a well-run program in several ways:
First, there was no quota on how many Mexican laborers were allowed into the U.S. Instead, the number of workers who came was based on U.S. businesses’ needs. So it was flexible and didn’t run into either oversupply or shortage.
Second, there was a robust selection process, and there were selection/processing centers in Mexico as well as in the U.S. Potential Mexican participants had to go through interviews and physical examinations at the processing centers in Mexico first. Often, they had their hands checked for calluses, which indicated whether they were experienced farmhands.[i] When they came to the U.S., they had to go through interviews again by U.S. employers. The processing centers ensured the quality of the workers and a good match between employers and employees.
Third, each hired Mexican worker signed a labor contract with beginning and end dates. At the end date, the worker went back to Mexico. If workers chose, they could apply for the program again. Some Mexican workers came back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. several times a year.
There was some controversy associated with the Bracero Program. Like early Chinese laborers, Bracero workers were willing to take back-breaking jobs at far lower wages than any American workers would. Therefore, American farm workers accused them of driving down farm wages. Some farm owners were accused of taking advantage of Bracero workers by not providing the quality housing and decent meals demanded by their contracts. But overall, the Bracero Program proved to be so popular in both the U.S. and Mexico that the U.S. Congress formalized the program with Public Law 78 in 1951. The program lasted until 1964. Between 1942 and 1964, over 4.6 million Bracero labor contracts were signed.[ii]
The legacy of the Bracero Program was twofold: first, it was a win-win for the U.S. and Mexico from an economic standpoint; second (which isn’t talked about very often), it reduced the influx of illegal immigrants. It’s not difficult to see why. There were no legal hurdles for Mexican workers to get a work visa, which greatly reduced the incentive to cross the border illegally. There were few compliance requirements for U.S. farmers, and with a guaranteed supply of legal workers, there was limited demand for illegal workers.
In addition, the U.S. Border Patrol was effective at containing illegal immigrants. The Department of Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) launched Operation Wetback in July 1954. General Joseph May Swing led a quasi-military operation of search, seizure, and deportation of illegal immigrants in the South. It’s said: “The forces used by the government were actually relatively small, perhaps no more than 700 men, but were exaggerated by border patrol officials who hoped to scare unauthorized workers into flight back to Mexico.”[iii] The INS and local law enforcement authorities claimed to have removed 1.1 million Mexicans by the end of 1954. But that figure included many illegal immigrants who left voluntarily at the beginning and in the middle of Operation Wetback, for fear of federal apprehension. By 1955, the number of illegal immigrants was reduced by 90%.[iv] The operation was ended in 1955 due to its running out of funding.
The twin acts of the Bracero Program and enhanced border control and deportation put the illegal immigrant issue under control. But labor unions still opposed the Bracero Program on the basis that the availability of legal Bracero workers depressed wages for American farm workers. Their accusation wasn’t unfounded. The actual wage data showed that “the availability of Braceros held down wages—average farm worker earnings in California rose 41%, from $0.85 an hour in 1950 to $1.20 in 1960, while average factory worker earnings rose 63%, from $1.60 in 1950 to $2.60 in 1960.”[v] This data gave people opposing the Bracero Program ammunition. They called for ending it, hoping to save agriculture work for American-born workers.
But realistically, by the 1950s, fewer Americans aspired to become agriculture workers because the post-World War II economic boom provided them with much better-paying employment opportunities with better working conditions in many non-agriculture sectors. Farmers could neither raise wages high enough nor change the back-breaking nature of farm work to attract a sufficient number of American workers, so farmers had to import labor from across the border. Ignoring this basic supply-and-demand issue, the labor unions organized agricultural workers, including Bracero workers, to go on strike and demand higher wages and better working conditions. The frequent wage-related strikes and powerful lobbying from the labor unions gradually convinced the federal government that the low wages of the Bracero workers prevented upward economic mobility for American agriculture workers, including Mexican Americans. Something had to change.
In 1965, the U.S. Congress voted to end the Bracero Program and replace it with the H-2 (changed to H-2A in 1986) temporary agriculture work visa program. The H-2 is an inferior and less flexible program than the Bracero Program. Through the H-2 program, the federal government demands higher wages and a shorter visa duration (120 days), neither of which is desirable to farmers. In addition, farmers are required to go through a tedious and time-consuming labor certification process. Farmers’ reaction was predictable. They began to rely on machines more and more—“One study predicted that if a fruit or vegetable could not be harvested mechanically, it would not be grown in the United States after 1975”[vi]—and hiring illegal immigrants whenever they could. The number of illegal immigration population in America has kept rising since the end of the Bracero program.
The history of Bracero program demonstrates that if America revive a Bracero type of program today that makes it easy for economic migrants to access temporary legal work in the U.S. and at the same time we take measures to secure our borders, the inflow of illegal immigrants may be greatly reduced.
[i] Cohen, D. (2011). Braceros: Migrant Citizens and Transnational Subjects
in the Postwar United States and Mexico. Chapel Hill, NC: University of
North Carolina Press, pp. 93, 97.
[ii] This estimate double counts individuals who entered the U.S. as a
Bracero several times.
[iii] Koestler,F. (2015). “Operation Wetback.” Handbook of Texas Online.
Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on November 12, 2015. Published by the
Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved from
[iv] Nowrasteh, A. (2014). “Guest Worker Visas Can Halt Illegal
Immigration.” Cato Institute website. Retrieved from
[v] Philip, M. (2003). Promise Unfulfilled: Unions, Immigration, and Farm
Workers. Ithaca. Cornell University Press. Retrieved from
[vi] Philip, M. (2003). Promise Unfulfilled: Unions, Immigration, and Farm
Workers. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, NY. Retrieved from
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