What was the Bracero program?

June 28, 2016 Sheila Blackford

Listen in this clip to former Miller Center fellow Adam Goodman talk about the interrelated factors that caused increased unauthorized immigration to the United States between 1965 and 1985. He refers to various changes in policy and the political economy that led to more migrants coming to the United States illegally to work. One of the factors he mentions is the end of the Bracero program but what was the Bracero program?

The Bracero Program was a bilateral, contract labor program between the United States and Mexico. The program brought between 4 to 5 million Mexican laborers to the United States between 1942 and 1964. Most of the migrants worked in agriculture but a few worked in industry or railroads. The United States brought the Mexican workers into the country on temporary, short-term contracts. This program was the start of increased migration, both legal and illegal, to the United States from Mexico, and this period of history established norms that affect much of our current immigration policy and debate.

The program was developed in response to labor shortages due to World War II. With so many Americans in the military, farmers worried that they would not have enough agricultural labor meet their needs. The U.S. and Mexican governments negotiated a series of agreements that allowed Mexican laborers to come to the United States on short-term contracts as agricultural workers.

The Bracero program resulted in an increase in both legal and illegal workers coming to the United States from Mexico. Braceros would sometimes return to the United States illegally once their contracts ended, and employers were not held accountable for employing migrants who were in the country illegally. Another result of the program was the increase in labor-intense agricultural practices that depended on many people to handle the planting and harvesting of fruits and vegetables. With such a large, inexpensive labor pool at hand, many farmers continued to use these labor-intensive practices.

The program came to an end in 1964 in part because of concerns about abuses of the program and the treatment of the Bracero workers. Although the program was supposed to guarantee a minimum wage, housing, and health care, many workers faced low wages, horrible living and working conditions, and discrimination. There was little enforcement to ensure that workers were treated humanely. The program also created a large pool of cheap labor that held down farm wages for American workers.

The Bracero program established many of the norms of our current immigration system in the United States. That legacy includes Mexican workers turning to the United States for the possibility of better employment opportunities than at home. Since the Bracero program ended, Mexican workers have continued to come to the United States illegally for jobs. In his presentation, Goodman notes that the Immigration and Naturalization Service expected a rise in unauthorized migrations starting in 1965 but hugely underestimated how many people would be involved.

According to Farmworker Justice, the United States currently has two guest worker programs, H-2A for agricultural workers and H-2B for nonagricultural work. Similar to the Bracero program, however, guest worker programs often result in workplace abuses because the workers are overly dependent on their employers and lack the protect to complain about unfair or illegal practices.

Learn more about the Bracero program from resources such as the Bracero History Archive, Farmerworker Justice, and the Migration Policy Institute.