The Bracero Movement: Mexican and Mexican-American Labor Post-1942

Mexican immigration to the Untied States has been an ongoing process for over one hundred years. While in recent years, various authors have examined the process of Mexican migration to the United States, the tone has become more shrill as writers such as Samuel Huntington argue that the infusion of vast numbers of immigrants from the United State’s southern neighbor will eventually permanently alter American culture. However, such views suffer from a level of myopia. Mexican labor provides crucial support to the agricultural industries of the Southwest, especially two of the country’s largest states: Texas and California. Various efforts by both the Mexican and United States’ governments have attempted to control the level of migration, but success has been difficult. The recent NAFTA trade agreement magnifies labor issues as economic relations between the two nations face increasingly more scrutiny. In 2001 (prior to the events of 9/11) , President Bush floated the idea, along with the support of then Senator of Texas Phil Gramm, of instituting a guest worker program with the possibility of granting amnesty to those workers already present in the U.S. economy. Such a program represents a return to the early days of 1942, when the United States suffering from a labor shortage as a result of World War II, established an agreement with the Mexican government importing temporary agricultural and railway workers. Known as the Bracero Program, it was extended following the war’s conclusion and continued to operate for twenty two years. To this day, it remains the only bilateral labor agreement between the two American neighbors.

With approximately three million migrants currently laboring in the United States economy lacking permits or visas, the Bracero Program appears ripe for revisiting. Its success was to deliver needed labor to an agricultural economy which claimed to be suffering from a shortage, while at the same time granting those brave enough to traverse the border the chance to earn wages above those offered in their native country. Moreover, both during and following the program, remittances became a significant, some argue critical, contribution to the Mexican national economy. However, despite several positive aspects of the program, several facets of its implementation were problematic for both the imported labor and that of native born Americans. Though it ended in 1964, the bilateral agreement illustrates the long term of affects of large scale labor migration.

Historians have interpreted the implementation and consequences of the accord from several different perspectives. Despite agreement in several areas, examples of nuance and disagreement abound. What does this historiography reveal about attitudes toward the programs? How have historians evaluated its successes and failures? What are the various perspectives taken and what questions still remain regarding it?

The Bracero Program

In May of 1942 negotiations between Mexico and the United States looked to establish a labor agreement which would allow Mexican migrant labor to enjoy increased wages, while delivering much needed labor to the agricultural sector of the American Southwest (though workers would extend to 25 states across the country). The original agreement created a recruiting process in which both governments participated. Recruitment centers were located in Mexico. Officials from both governments selected braceros after undergoing physical examinations and background checks, those selected were then sent to recruitment centers across the border at which point they would then be assigned to various Southwestern farmers.

In regard to financial compensation, braceros would be paid a “prevailing wage” and could only be contracted if a domestic labor shortage actually existed. In addition, were the presence of braceros to cause an “adverse effect” on wages, then employers were not to be granted contracted migrant labor. At the same time, the United States government legally required contracting farmers to supply adequate housing, medical care and occupational insurance. The agreement promised that braceros would not suffer from “discriminatory attacks”, as well guaranteeing transportation, living expenses, and repatriation of migrant employees in accordance with Article 29 of the Mexican Constitution. One of the great fears among the general Mexican public was that the United States might draft some men into the military, which the agreement nullified, promising no such action would be taken by the United States government. Finally, ten percent of bracero wages were to be placed into a savings fund which would be held in Mexico’s Agricultural Credit Bank, a carrot to encourage the laborers to return home once their services were complete. While the program would undergo various alterations, it would be roughly maintained in the same way for 22 years with few interruptions except for the period from 1948 – 1951 when section 3 of the 1917 Immigration and Naturalization Act governed all labor transactions between the two nations. The end of World War II meant the U.S. government no longer saw a pressing need to regulate the labor agreement. During this period, the United States government placed the responsibility of funding the transportation and repatriation of migrants on growers in the Southwest and other regions utilizing contracted labor. Additionally, the Department of Labor took over for the Department of Agriculture. With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, United States growers declared a labor shortage once again, thus demanding a new agreement. So in 1951 the program was institutionalized under Public Law 78 (actually this was established under the Agricultural Act of 1949) and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (also known as rhe McCarran-Walter Act or Public Law 414.), which replaced the previous 1917 law of the same name.

In 1954, responding to both an American public convinced that non-sanctioned labor migration brought a variety of negative results from disease and crime to increased dependence on the welfare state, Congressional leaders pressured the I.N.S. to crack down on this shadow work force. Repatriating mass numbers of “wetbacks” or undocumented workers, the United States, with the conclusion of the Korean War, bullied the Mexican government into reducing bracero labor and health protections, that it had previously adamantly defended. This legal framework lasted until the program’s demise in 1964.

Before 1942

As previously mentioned, the study of the migration pattern of Mexican migrants has been a reliable source of history before the bracero program was even conceptualized let alone negotiated and implemented. Various historians identified a variety of factors leading to this northward population movement. While some focus on the needs of the American economy others pointed to the deficiencies of both Porfirian and Post-Revolutionary Mexico.

Lawrence Cardoso’s 1980 work Mexican Emigration to the United States: 1897 – 1931 provides an example of such a study. The late Professor Cardoso (former Head of the University of Wyoming’s History Department) illustrated the processes which brought willing Mexican agricultural laborers north. Under President Diaz, inflation plagued the rural classes as the first decade of the new century unfolded. In addition, “high population densities, land shortages, hacienda brutality and depressed wages were prime factors in encouraging the emergence of a migrant labor class.” When Francisco Madero’s call to revolution ushered in ten years of political and economic instability, more and more Mexicans looked North for economic stability, “the Revolution provided a powerful stimulus to mass, permanent immigration from Mexico to the borderlands and from their to the interior of the United States.” The additional outbreak of WWI only facilitated increased movement as American growers searched for labor, though initially thousands of braceros already in the United States voluntarily returned to Mexico fearing rumors that the American government might draft them for the war effort. Such movement shocked U.S. officials into a propaganda campaign “along the border [advising] Mexicans of the minimal requirement of the law … Spanish language posters informed braceros … not one of them would be drafted.”

The obvious dependence of the American Southwestern economy on such labor, prodded United States officials into action. Even at the war’s conclusion, Mexican labor remained present, dominating agricultural field work. Additionally, more and more braceros would find work in non-agricultural labor. However, this financial windfall did not always lead to positive Mexican views of the bracero experience. Complaining of poor treatment by United States border patrols and the overwhelming racism of the period, many viewed their northern neighbor with mixed feelings. Saddling it with an impossible task, the American government left regulation of the immigration north completely up to the Mexican government. Since it believed emigration relieved population pressures and provided an influx of wealth through the earnings of braceros, the Mexican government felt it in their best interest to not regulate harshly. By the 1920’s, violence “motivated by religion, politics, and land redistribution schemes provided cause for flight for hundreds of thousands of workers.” Combined with the booming profits of it neighbor’s economy, these factors rapidly increased the movement of Mexican workers north. While the revolution may have ended in urban areas by 1920, its violent reverberations continued to haunt the countryside for several years. However, the Great Depression of the 1930’s repatriated many of these individuals, resulting in one of the largest mass repatriations ever. Such events left many Mexicans resentful toward U.S. policy.

Despite not discussing the bracero program itself, Cardoso’s insights are useful for a several reasons. He illustrates several trends and factors that would continue to resonate concerning the Mexican labor migration of the Bracero Program. First, the United States government never formalized any process by which labor migration might be normalized. Second, this migration, at the time, benefited both countries to varying degrees. The reasons for migration in both periods (1910-1930 and 1942-1964) parallel one another as wages and economic opportunity in the United States surpassed those available to rural workers in Mexico. Additionally, international conditions heavily influenced events. Finally, despite increased earnings, many braceros noted discriminatory treatment by U.S. officials and employers. Over the course of the last several decades, most historians view this early period of migration as a pre-cursor to the more heavily regulated program of 1942. Negotiations of the future labor agreement would be affected by the experiences of Mexicans and Americans prior to 1942.

Early Views of the Bracero Program

One of the first studies of the Bracero Program emanated from a former recruitment center employee, Richard Hancock. Examining the bilateral agreement from the Mexican side, Hancock produced his work in 1959, five years prior to its conclusion. While Hancock does offer an general overview, The Role of the Bracero in the Economic and Cultural Dynamics of Mexico focuses primarily on the state of Chihuahua. In choosing Chihuahua for the study Hancock puts forth several arguments for its selection. The state provides a “neat geographic and economic unit for study because it is physically isolated from the rest of Mexico” by topographical factors. Additionally, as the largest state in the country, Chihuahua processed the largest numbers of braceros to the United States through its recruiting center, one of the oldest in the program. Finally, featuring a diversified economy, “no other state is more representative of Mexican life than is Chihuahua.” While compiling data from various governmental reports, the author also conducted “interviews” of braceros on “an informal plane” since any “official survey is greeted with suspicion by the average rural Mexican.”

Like Cardoso twenty years after him, Hancock identifies the violence of the Revolution and the employment opportunities (including higher wages of the American economy and the inflation endured by Mexico) available in the United States as the primary impetus for pre-Bracero Program labor migration. Moreover, while the Mexican economy had enjoyed great growth in the middle of the twentieth century, this growth was not widely distributed, concentrating itself in small sections of the population.

As a former employee, Hancock’s prose, with a few exceptions, promotes the benefits of the Bracero Program for Mexican labor. Often dismissing the violations of growers as rare or non-existent, Mr. Hancock repeatedly points to corruption within the Mexican government for many of the Mesoamerican country’s problems. For example when discussing the accuracy of statistics, Mr. Hancock concludes that those provided by the Mexican government are not all together trustworthy, “the government is noted for its tendency to paint a rosy picture of its achievements while glossing over failures and inadequacies.” Certainly, nearly all governments of the world could be pegged with this accusation. Decrying the practice of mordidas or bribes, Hancock argues that the migrant worker in the United States “is apt to find that justice is more impartially administered, and that government officials treat ordinary citizens with more respect than usually is the case in Mexico.” In regard to worker-grower relations he is relentlessly upbeat implying an intimate relationship between the two.
Perhaps more problematic is Hancock’s acceptance of prevailing Mexican stereotypes, “American doctors are amazed at the animal vitality with which the Mexican worker overcomes crushing physical injuries and illnesses,” or when he decries there “childlike tendency” to want to emigrate with fellow Mexicans rather than go it alone. His unabashed belief in the program is illustrated even in the introduction:

The well-fed, well-dressed, happy men who, wearing their inevitable new Stetson hats, depart for Mexico carrying shiny new trunks and great, clanking, canvas-wrapped bundles containing everything from plows to sewing machines, can hardly be recognized as the lean, ragged, worn looking men who arrived in the United States in the spring with their possessions in small burlap bags.

When analyzing the effects of the program on the skills of former braceros in four specific municipios (Aldama, Meoqui, Guerrero, Janos), he dismisses complaints that most returning workers felt they had developed few new useful skills, claiming they “underrated the new skills” brought back . Again, Hancock blames low migration rates to the United States in some muncipios on government malfeasance and quotas.

Cardoso’s work presented the pre-1942 migration in less glowing terms offering, evidence of pervasive negative feelings toward the United States through rural folk songs and poems. Hancock offers little in the way of such evidence relying on his “informal” interviews when gauging broad attitudes. In addition, the reader is never aware of how many individuals the author contacted or the background of said interviewees. In fact, Hancock argues that the Bracero Program blunted the threat of communism (an argument which probably found acceptance in circles considering the height of the Cold War at the time) in Mexico, offered better medical care than Mexicans could procure in their own country, and fostered improved relations between Mexico and America. He makes no mention of Mexico’s ban on contracting labor to Texas because of discrimination and poor treatment. Finally, he argues the program offers a form of social advancement for Mexico’s lower classes who become more worldly and aware through their experience, “A paradox of the bracero program is that most members of the so-called middle class in Mexico … have not visited the Untied States … are less well informed about that country than are the illiterate and semi-literate peasants.” Still, Hancock’s work created a departure point for other authors to dispute. Few historians following Hancock are as blindly optimistic about the bilateral labor agreement. With all the negatives, Hancock did well to illustrate the economic disparity, government inefficiency, low wages, and need for agrarian reform that led to emigration. Ejido land holdings, failed to achieve sustainable levels of production, while at the same time less scrupulous individuals undermined the ejido by interfering in the water retention of said holdings by digging wells deep into the earth; thus diminishing the flow of water to the land. Additionally, even with its racist aspects, the program did increase the wealth and relative prosperity of thousands of workers and by extension rural Mexican businesses at which they and their families spent such profits, while stemming the tide of “wetbacks” or illegal workers, though this problem continued even as the program accelerated.

In many ways a response to Hancock’s interpretation, “activist scholar” Ernesto Galarza produced Merchants of the Labor: The Story of the Mexican Worker in 1964, followed by works echoing similar themes with Spiders in the House and Workers in the Field in 1967 and Agribusiness in California in 1977. With pro-union leaning tendencies, Galarza’s works emphasize the economic exploitation of the Mexican laborer by U.S. business interests. Merchants of Labor, traces the history not only of the Mexican migrant, but the antecedents to its importation. Beginning with the Chinese, followed by Filipinoes, then “Okies”, when finally settling on Mexican labor once the assimilated “Okies” moved into other industries, the growers of the Southwest and California looked to exploit the cheapest labor available. Giving his argument an expanded historical context in comparison to Hancock, Galarza points out that large scale agriculture was a tradition in California dating back to Spanish colonialism. Rebuking Hancock’s analysis that growers rarely violated agreements and that the relationship between grower and worker was one of intimate friendship, Galarza invokes illustrations of exploitation and discrimination. While a benefit to growers, braceros undermined attempts at agricultural unionization and contributed to lower wages. Like Hancock’s work, the book was completed before the termination of the program itself.

In 1969, Galarza along with Herman Gallegos and Julian Samora, examined the effects of the program on Mexican Americans in Mexican Americans in the Southwest. Noting that the bilateral agreement failed to stop “wetback” migration, it also led to “a corresponding displacement of settled Mexican landworkers throughout the Southwest.” Thus, the program successfully provided labor during the twenty two year period, but also left hundreds of thousands of migrant workers clustered in urban poverty throughout the Southwest United States. Additionally, it redistributed the Mexican population along border towns such as Ciudad Juarez, “these are cities of poor people, in the overwhelming mass. They are the terminal points of migratory routes to which congested cities and the impoverished villages of central Mexico are tributary.” Similar to Hancock and Cardoso, the authors impugn the decline of the ejido, “once hailed as ‘Mexico’s way out” arguing that its infrequent distribution, poor credit support, and general lack of technical or educational assistance have left them for naught. Instead, as Hancock illustrated, the advantage now lay with the “individual entrepreneurs exempt from acreage limitation and other strictures … or encouraged by their lax administration.” With the rise of the export market, such processes were exacerbated. Again in accordance with Hancock’s interpretation, the authors note that the economic expansion enjoyed by Mexico failed to be distributed equitably, “in spite of a steady upward trend in the gross national product, its distribution in 1966 has not improved in favor of wage earners over the past decade.” Thus, some of Hancock’s observations, in regard to the state of Mexico were borne out by the above authors. However, Mexican Americans in the Southwest’s analysis extends past Hancock’s narrow focus. Rather, it continues past the bracero program noting that those braceros who remained found themselves buffeted by economic realities. The rise of mechanization in both agriculture and canneries left them vulnerable, since the job skills they had developed revolved around the rural economy. Trapped in urban American environments, these workers found themselves marginalized economically and physically as they clustered into barrios in metropolises across the Southwest and California. The study then traces the political growth of advocacy groups and Chicano organizations while examining the inability of Latinos and African American populations, both largely urban, to find common ground.
Braceros and Mexican Americans

Mexican Americans in the Southwest is indicative of many recent workers focusing on the social and political affects of the program on both Mexican migrants and the growing Mexican-American population. In the field of American history, the 1960s and 1970s marked a rise in the study of social history as more minorities, women, and people from varying classes attended graduate school. The focus on marginalized groups and average citizens within American history, areas previously ignored, became more and more prevalent. As a rising demographic within the larger United States population, Mexican Americans and citizens of Mexico residing and working within America became a prominent topic. David Gutierrez’s (Associate Professor of History at the University of California-San Diego) Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants and the Politics of Ethnicity examines the effects of immigration and immigration policies on Americans of Mexican descent and their subsequent responses. Beginning with the late nineteenth century, Guiterrez traces immigration patterns themselves while exploring the reactions of Mexican Americans to the constant influx of newcomers. A former legislative assistant for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus whose responsibilities included “monitoring immigration and policy issues,” Mr. Gutierrez noted a distinct disconnection between the political positions held by caucus members (opposing restrictionist immigration policies) and those of their constituents who echoed the restrictionist leanings of the general U.S. population. Ironically, restrictioniss and anti-restricitionists based their respective opposition and support on stereotypes of Mexican Americans. If restrictionists wanted to exclude Mexican migrant labor from the U.S. because it threatened American racial purity, brought disease and immorality and degraded its culture, anti-restrictionists advocated the opposite because the inherent laboring nature of Mexican workers who would return home once finished with their seasonal employment. Hoping to “provide important insights into the intellectual and political development of several generations of politically active ethnic Mexicans in the American Southwest” , Gutierrez analyzes the role of advocacy groups and the like in affecting public perceptions within the Mexican American community corelating these positions with those of the broader Mexican-American public.

According to Gutierrez, the Bracero Program affected both activists and Mexican Americans, forcing them to reevaluate their identities, their relationship to migrant Mexican workers, and the positions they held on such. During the 1940s and 1950s, many advocacy organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC, formed in Texas in 1929) and the Mexican American Movement (MAM) did not favor the introduction of the Bracero Program, moreover, they, like several other organizations promoted assimilation over retention of Mexican American culture while at the same time carefully attempting not to denigrate their collective Mexican heritage. Serving as an example, MAM felt it “needed to adopt a strict position both against renewed immigration from Mexico and just, as important against the maintenance of Mexican culture among Mexican-Americans.” LULAC and MAM grounded citizenship claims in masculine terms, promoting military service and American nationalism. Gutierrez’s work has been used by others to illustrate the move toward “whiteness”, a maneuver intended to differentiate Mexican-Americans from other minorities, while benefitting from the nation’s inherent privileging of race. Despite such leanings among activists, Mexican-Americans themselves illustrated a more nuanced understanding of the issues refusing to abandon completely many of the “folkways, customs, and religious and linguistic practices that made their neighborhoods and communities distinct from the typically American communities which surrounded them.”

The Bracero Program’s effect in bringing large numbers of both legal contracted workers and illegal “wetback” or non-sanctioned workers forced both activist groups and Mexican-Americans to formulate a less ambivalent position. As Gutierrez notes, the daily influx of immigrants challenged their beliefs, interactions, and relations to migrant Mexican nationals. While many organizations of the 1940s and early 1950s decried or criticized the program, while promoting assimilation, Operation Wetback instituted in Spring 1954 changed many of their views. Begun in order to repatriate non-sanctioned workers, display the strength of the INS, deter future levels of immigration, and pressure the Mexican government to renew the program itself, Operation Wetback returned over one million illegal immigrants. The problem lay in the treatment and assumptions made concerning Mexican Americans, who repeatedly found their civil rights violated while enduring negative pervasive stereotypes. Moreover, many activists had hoped to continue a process of further integration of the Mexican American community into United States culture, but found their efforts thwarted by the effects of government policy. However, even worse, the deportation split many Mexican American families apart. LULAC and others shifted their policy, gradually increasing their support for new immigrants. While these organizations had wanted to limit or eliminate the Bracero Program, Operation Wetback was not the ideal remedy. In conclusion, Operation Wetback represented the problem with restrictionist policy and rhetoric as Gutierrez quotes Ernesto Galarza who commented in Congressional hearings “while one agency of the United States government rounded up the illegal aliens and deported them to Mexico … [another] government agency was busily engaged in recruiting workers in Mexico to return them to U.S. farms.” Thus, activists altered their positions on an issue in which they held steadfast for decades, all in response to the Bracero Program and its contingencies Such shifts, contribute to the rise of Chicano activism in the 1960s and 1970s. Ultimately, the bracero movement forced Mexican-Americans to think about ethnicity, U.S. policy, and their relations with other Mexicans.

Reactions to the government program, represent the foundation upon which the later Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s adopted relational third world transnational identities, embracing Mexican migrant workers and other oppressed people of color while rejecting dominant American culture or whiteness. Raza Si! Guerra No!: Chicano Protest and Patriotism During the Vietnam War Era (2006) by Lorena Oropeza poses such an argument noting that though Chicano leaders of the promoted similar ideas of masculinity as their LULAC predecessors, they did so in ways that attempted to undermine support for the Vietnam War asserting Mexican American military service exceeded that of other groups but remained an exploitative exercise by the U.S. government. Additionally, women in the Chicano movement found themselves marginalized to supporting tasks while enduring patronizing treatment by male leaders. Still, experience within the movement gave many Chicana women the motivation to engage in broader civil rights and feminist activism.

Governments and Interest Groups

One of the most obvious areas of focus concerning the Bracero Program concerns government policies and the relations between both the Mexican and American governments but also the interest groups exerting influence on each. Richard Craig’s The Bracero Program (1971) examines the program using “an amalgam of two approaches to the study of the political process: interest group theory and systems analysis.” Focusing on the machinations of the various U.S. departments administering the program along with Congressional debate and the subsequent influence of various interest groups most notably the growers of the Southwest and much later the unionization movement, Craig dissects the changes in policy behind said alterations.

Beginning with the reasons for its implementation, Craig repeats the reasons behind labor migration that led to the establishment of the program. Emphasizing the strength of the agricultural lobby, Craig also notes that international political conditions twice arose granting the Mexican government increased power in negotiations: World War II and the Korean War. During both periods, the Mexican government was able to make demands and negotiate from a position of power, creating labor protections and similar benefits for its migratory labor (though the enforcement of said provisions was inconsistent at best). Outlining the positive and negative aspects of the program that influenced the agreement for both governments, he recasts the Bracero Program as a battle between three forces: the United States Government, the Mexican government, and the various interests groups in the two countries (though greater emphasis is placed on the United States examples). Thus, in respect to aspects of Hancock’s study, Craig notes that many within in the U.S. union movement community viewed the Bracero Program as labor blasphemy in that “the United States government was willing to grant foreign nationals something it refused its own farm workers: a comprehensive, government sponsored work program.” Much of Craig’s work articulates the opinions of growers and the union movement toward the program, emphasizing the obvious power of the agricultural lobby over that of domestic labor. The work recounts Congressional debates by both pro and anti-bracero forces, illustrating the arguments of each.

Ultimately, Craig argues that though it was an international agreement, it was really a product of interest group politics. During the twenty two years of the program’s existence, growers demands were met, if not in original agreements, then gradually as the Mexican government (with the exception of the two wars previously mentioned) repeatedly faced defeat. The need to provide a safety valve for its labor population and its desire to establish some level of control over undocumented migration convinced Mexico that in most cases, any agreement was better than no agreement. When Mexico did balk at provisions being demanded, the U.S. government was able to subvert its attempts through such actions as unilateral recruitment of braceros until Mexico gave on various demands. Without the impetus of difficult international conditions, the Mexican government held little leverage with U.S. policymakers. However, he also remarks that in moments both governments were hamstrung by special interests as during the 1948-51 period in which no agreement really existed, Both [governments] would have preferred a government to government system. Both realized, however, that the United States Congress would not enact at the time the necessary enabling legislation …” Thus, according to Craig in both post-war scenerios, interest groups dictated the parameters of the program and its implementation. Even when Presidents Truman and Eisenhower attempted to insert penalties for growers violating provisions of the agreement, few real punitive measures could be established.

Ironically, in Craig’s view, the strength of agricultural unionization would be enhanced by the Bracero Program. Accordingly, a group of fractured smaller labor groups would, over time, become unified in opposition to the bilateral agreement. As U.S. growers received increased benefits inversely related to the strength of the Mexican government, domestic debate intensified until, eventually the publicized plight of domestic workers along with efforts by the agricultural labor movement would result in the program’s elimination in 1964. Interestingly, in some ways Craig’s book echoes the attitude that violations of the agreement were not as pervasive as some would argue. According to his argument, growers failed to violate the agreement so much as interpret it to their liking. If David Gutierrez and Ernesto Galarza view Operation Wetback as a tragedy for Mexican migrant workers and Mexican Americans alike, Craig illustrates no such reservations “Based on coordinated action of many elements at various levels, Operation Wetback was an overwhelming success.” Additionally, he attributed its triumph to the cooperation of growers. While Gutierrez and Galarza regard the 1954 repatriation of undocumented braceros as both politically dishonest and ineffective, Craig credits it with ending undocumented labor migration since fewer and fewer migrants were apprehended each year following 1954. When the United States and Mexico came to an agreement illegals in April of 1955, he comments “the wetback had, for all practical purposes ceased to exist.” In this regard, Hancock and Craig share a positive interpretation of Operation Wetback seeing it as an effective tool in combating the migration of undocumented workers. Regarding the opinions of bracero workers or Mexican Americans, the focus of The Bracero Program is on institutions and organizations rather than individuals or communities. While Hancock shares Craig’s enthusiasm for the bilateral agreement, his work devotes more attention to the opinions of the workers themselves and less attention to the structure of the program. Also like Hancock, Craig is guilty of buying into stereotypes, “The Mexican peasant, by virtue of his rather unique sociopsychological background, was ideally suited for the task.”

Craig’s work is commonly noted as an important contribution to the field, so much so that in 1992 Kitty Calavita’s Inside the State: The Bracero Program, Immigration, and the I.N.S. documents the intra-governmental tug and pull that occurred between various governmental agencies focusing her primary attention on the I.N.S. Disagreeing with Craig’s emphasis on the strength of growers, Calavita comments, “INS policies were not simply a response to the demands [growers] but were … the product of the bureaucracy’s own institutional needs.” Additionally, she opposes the structuralist approach of The Bracero Program arguing that such narrow interpretations rob individuals, acting within said configurations, of agency. Calavita places a heavy focus on the actions of individuals within governmental bureaus, attempting to link “history, biography, and structure.” If at times it seemed the I.N.S. operated at the mercy of growers, those instances also represented the goals of the I.N.S. itself. Illustrating the various debates that unfolded within the government, Calavita attempts to expose the ‘bitter administrative crossfire” that could from time to time erupt between departments at cross purposes from one another. While The Bracero Program focused heavily on Congressional debate, using documentation from hearings and the discussions of Congress, Calavita performed the difficult task of unearthing I.N.S. files, a process she notes for its lack of transparency and accessibility, labeling the agency as “cautious, self-defensive, and understaffed.” Interviews with former officials in the I.N.S. and those working in the Bracero Program provide another source of information for her study.

As a response to the work of Craig and other structuralists, Calavita ignores the experience of the braceros themselves, choosing to examine the governmental aspects. In contrast to the 1971 study, Inside the State acknowledges the failures of the program and the difficult situation the I.N.S. found itself; trying to deliver migrant labor to growers while stemming the tide of undocumented workers. Economic necessities collided with political and social realities. For Calavita, the agency was neither a “lackey of growers” or a “bearer of the structure of capitalism” , but rather a government agency intent on maintaining its strength while attempting to meet the demands of its constituents, all while negotiating its own demands among various Federal bureaus and special interest forces.

When discussing the role of Operation Wetback, her focus on personal agency within government structures surfaces. Focusing on the efforts of Einsenhower appointee General Joseph Swing, Calavita adopts much the same view of Galarza and Gutierrez in noting the contradictions of America’s politicians, “one symptom of this dilemma was the indecision and inconsistency of policymakers on the issue of border control, despite their restrictionist rhetoric.” The I.N.S. was under siege, lawmakers openly advocated to cut its funding unless it illustrate an ability to limit illegal labor migration, while at the same time it needed to deliver contracted braceros to growers. Swing’s effective diplomacy and deft use of the media allowed the I.N.S. to appear stronger; an omnipresent force along the border. The I.N.S. leader’s careful stewardship enabled the agency to increase its Congressional funding despite previous calls to decrease its budget. As for Craig’s assertion concerning the cooperation of growers, Calavita notes high levels of cooperation, but only because Operation Wetback would reduce competition between agricultural employers who utilized cheaper illegal labor and those using the government’s contracting system. From the perspective of her study, Operation Wetback encouraged an expansion of the overall program which in turn increased the size of organization representing the interests of employers. However, as the work emphasizes, the repatriation of 1954 greatly benefited the denigrated I.N.S., giving it credibility in the media and among Congressional representatives. While the importance of the program for Craig was its illustration of the effect of interest groups on negotiations, in contrast Calavita sees it as another example of the government attempting to reconcile conflicting needs, even as immigration concerns increased during the 1970s and 1980s, laws like the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 repeated many of the contradictory logic of its predecessors as it tried to balance the “contradiction between the political and fiscal costs of an illegal labor supply versus the economic benefits of that very illegality.” Moreover, the IRCA, like its 1942 antecedent, failed to implement real punishment’s for employers utilizing undocumented workers, as the interests of commercial farmers influenced Congressional representatives, “an affirmative defense clause protests employers form prosecution as long as they request documentation form workers.”

University of Texas-Arlington Professor Manuel Garcia y Griego’s “The Importation of Mexican Contract Laborers to the United States 1942-64” argues that the Bracero Program both encouraged legal and non-sanctioned migration while also reinforcing “transnational migration circuits” that currently persist. Focusing primarily on political considerations, Garcia y Griego recounts the governmental actions that dictated the bilateral agreement’s implementation. Located within Between Two Worlds: Mexican Immigrants in the United States edited by the aforementioned David Gutierrez, this anthology straddles the division between the political/economic histories of Craig, Calavita and Hancock and the social history of Professor Gutierrez. Divided into three sections, the book aims to “provide an overview of some of the most important current trends in the interpretation of historical contemporary dimensions of the Mexican diaspora.”

Published in 1996, Garcia y Griego, like his predecessors notes the growing power of interest politics on the program. Without World War II as an overriding factor, the period from 1947-1954 enacted “almost all the significant changes that occurred in the contract program between the early war years and the late contracting system of the 1960s.” Focusing on the role of governments and their relations, similar to Inside the State and The Bracero Program, Garcia y Griego does not delve into the specific effects on Mexican migrant labor. Unlike Hancock’s 1959 study, Galarza’s work in the 1960’s, or even Gutierrez’s social and political focus of the mid-1990s, Garcia y Griego strictly examines policy. Complementing omissions of the two more structuralist approaches, the UTA Professor agrees with Calavita that Operation Wetback was not a monolithic police style tactic but instead a “unique strategy of combined rewards and punishments mostly directed at employers.” By dividing U.S. actions into two categories “mass legalization (1947-1951) and mass expulsion accompanied by legalization (1954-55),” the essay attempts to explain U.S. policy.

According to Professor Garcia y Griego, “mass legalization” surmounted to little more than the legalization of previously undocumented labor as “deportable Mexicans who had been in the United States for a certain number of weeks were given bracero contracts, usually for the same employer.” Thus, growers were rewarded for circumventing laws concerning labor migration. This policy or lack of government intervention led to a situation following World War II in which, “more legalized ‘wetbacks’ were contracted by employers than braceros were imported” from within America’s southern neighbor.

Again, agreeing with Calavita, the essay notes the “fanfare” with which Operation Wetback unfolded in 1954. The American public had been convinced that undocumented labor brought disease, state dependency, communism, declining wages, and crime. While growers cooperated, Garcia y Griego notes motivations different from those extrapolated by both The Bracero Program and Inside the State. Southwestern planters embraced the repatriation because through negotiations they eliminated many of the labor protections of the original contract agreement, “after 1954 the bracero program became little more than a formally sanctioned recruitment system for the employment of ‘wetbacks’ in U.S. agriculture.” If the era stretching from 1947-1954 was marked by disagreement and negotiation between the two governments, then from 1955 the author agrees with Craig’s assertion that the later period represented a “stabilization” of the agreement. Few disputes arose nor were many changes applied to the implementation of the program. However, as Craig, Calavita, and to a lesser extent Gutierrez point out, domestic labor gradually built political momentum in revealing the “adverse effects” braceros had on domestic workers. If Craig did not necessarily agree such effects existed, he at the very least acknowledged the growing strength of organized labor and the anti-bracero lobby. In slight contrast, Gutierrez assigns more significance to advocacy groups like LULAC or CSO in protesting the agreement, but nonetheless notes the rise of agricultural unions (National Agricultural Workers Union). Interestingly, Galarza surfaces in all works discussed (with the exception of Hancock’s) as a prominent critic of the system. Garcia y Griego credits his work Strangers in the Field as one of the clarion voices drawing attention to the programs’ deleterious effects on domestic agricultural workers and braceros themselves.

In evaluating the program’s effects, Garcia y Griego notes the Mexican government’s obsession with the bilateral agreement. According to the author, Mexico pursued similar agreements with the U.S. following the program’s demise in 1964. Viewing both the problem of undocumented immigration as inevitable and fearing the loss of this “safety valve”, successive Mexican presidencies looked to establish a new agreement based on the Bracero model. Sharing Galarza’s viewpoint that the program redistributed the Mexican migrant labor population along the border, the Mexican and U.S. government developed the “Border Industrialization, Maquiladora, Program – a system of unique binational concessions principally to U.S. corporations that located manufacturing assembly plants in Northern Mexico border towns.” All products manufactured are then exported to the United States. The Mexican government hoped to stem immigration while providing labor to its newly relocated migrant labor force. Unfortunately for the government, the Maquiladora’s have turned to female labor rather than former braceros. According to Garcia y Griego, not until Ernesto Galarza’s impassioned plea to President Echeverria in 1976 did the political leadership in Mexico abandon such efforts. In his final analysis, Professor Garcia y Griego advocates for the program’s importance as tool to create a framework for understanding future agreements. If studying the bilateral agreement fails to provide answers, it does direct policy makers and advocacy groups to ask the appropriate questions concerning future trade and labor accords.

Regarding the demise of the Bracero Program most historians agree that three primary factors led to its collapse. First, the mechanization of agriculture made hiring workers less feasible economically, moreover, many braceros lacked the necessary skills to operate the new machinery. Second, the chorus of voices emerging from organized labor such as the National Agricultural Workers Union drew attention to the plight of domestic workers in the agricultural industry. While the various authors discussed thus far disagree on the extent of the “adverse effects” of the bracero on wages, even Richard Craig acknowledges that the presence of this labor force may have compromised wage levels. Along with unions, the advocacy groups Professor Gutierrez discussed also applied pressure and publicized both the problems facing native field workers and those of migrant Mexicans. Finally, 1960s America witnessed the Civil Rights Movement and the height of protest. Civil Rights and similar themes pervaded society, the political climate shifted in favor of anti-bracero lobbyists and politicians, such that the program was no longer politically feasible.

New Studies on an Old Tradition

New additions to the historiography of the Bracero Program have shifted the focus away from traditional study of the American Southwest and agriculture . The Tracks North (1999) by Barbara Driscoll examines the U.S. Railroad Bracero Program analyzing its importance as the only bilateral labor agreement between the United States and Mexico in which for the most part, both sides met their contractual obligations. Mexican Labor and World War II (1990) by Erasmo Gamboa studies the dominant agricultural agreement but describes the program’s administration in the Pacific Northwest. In each, the authors strive to illustrate the differences between these examples from the bilateral agreement and those monographs that illuminated the issues and effects on the Southwest.

Mexican Labor and World War II uncovers the history of braceros in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. Both braceros and the administration of the program form the central focus of the book. Unlike the Southwest, contracted Mexican labor only lasted from 1942 to 1947, as result of the three year lapse in the program in which, the cost of transporting and repatriating Mexican workers shifted to the employers. While the proximity of the Southwest allowed growers to endure such costs, the distance of the Pacific Northwest prevented such movement. Moreover, the limited harvesting season of the Northwest due to the cold weather meant the investment suffered from stricter time constraints.

Like other authors, Gamboa notes the usual chorus of complaints by agricultural interests about labor shortages and the weakness of native field laborers especially when compared to the stereotypical bracero. Accordingly, the region was granted its provision of government contracted labor. As in the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest also had a long history of dependency on migrant labor. Despite cold weather and the lack of a Spanish speaking community, Mexican braceros did work in the region. Unlike their Southwestern counterparts, the Mexican nationals were willing to strike for wages (though interestingly one of the major reasons for work stoppages and even strikes was food) and did so on several occasions. While they rarely emerged victorious, they were able to influence wages, since work stoppages could cost growers real profits. Another point of divergence regards Gamboa’s argument concerning Mexican consuls. Criticized by many for not fighting for the interests in Mexican nationals adequately, those working in the Northwest refute this belief, proving to be active advocates.

Planters, like those in the Southwest, dominated the implementation of the system. However, they failed to hold the same authority over there workers as did their southern peers. The presence of canneries and other industries, who needed labor as well, undermined employers’ abilities to undercut wages. While wages remained below those of native field laborers, they rose higher than those of the Southwest. Richard Hancock had also noted that wages were higher in the region, but qualified the statement by arguing many braceros would not travel such a distance for a limited growing period and harsh weather. In some cases, the National Forest Service commandeered braceros in order to battle the region’s forest fires. Still, similar to agricultural employers elsewhere, those in the Pacific Northwest failed to provide adequate housing or health care. Gamboa recounts the poor treatment and racial discrimination by growers and the surrounding communities the braceros suffered.

When the government ended its funding of the bracero system in 1948, farmers abandon the contracted workforce. Instead, they turned to Chicanos of the region and luring more migrants from the Southwest, often former braceros. Thus, transportation costs were so prohibitive that growers stopped employing braceros despite, expanded production, limited mechanization, and an uncooperative local workforce.”

Barbara Driscoll’s The Tracks North looks at the Railroad Bracero Program, which from 1943-1945 contracted over 100,000 Mexican workers to on railroads across the nation. Arguing that this lesser known agreement is actually a better example of successful bilateral agreements than its agricultural relative since both parties fulfilled the provisions of the agreement, Driscoll maintains that it should serve as a model for future negotiations. In the railroad agreement, both the Mexican government and U.S. organized labor enjoyed real influence on the provisions and implementation of the accord. Despite the war’s dampening of militant action (a point illustrated by Craig), their mere presence influenced railroad bracero relations as Mexican workers received wages and benefits reserved for native railroad employees. In addition, whereas the absence of unions allowed growers to extend the agricultural agreement until 1964, the strength of labor in the railroad industry eliminated this prospect. Driscoll comments “the agricultural program continued willy-nilly” as a “unilateral farm season labor recruitment program” dominated by the farming industry. Driscoll terms the agricultural bilateral agreement a “failure”, thus, contrasting it with her positive interpretation of the railroad variant. When the program ended in 1945, all workers were repatriated to Mexico, though most never received the percentage of wages meant to be given to them upon their return.

Applying a structuralist approach, Driscoll examines the role of railroads, the government’s administration of the program, and its implementation. Some attention is paid to the braceros themselves. The industry treated Mexican workers better than their agricultural peers, but violations were not uncommon. Like Gamboa’s Mexican nationals, those in the railroad industry served complaints for the quality of food regularly. Housing was known to be substandard and often transportation to and from work sites was reckless, a common practice noted by Gamboa as well in the Pacific Northwest (many braceros died as result). Driscoll argues for the program’s importance because it is “the only example of systematic government sanctioned importation into the United States of non-agricultural employers.” As noted previously, she argues that it is the lesser known railroad accord that could prove instructional for any future U.S.- Mexico labor negotiations.


If newer additions to the historiography of the Bracero Program lack the scope of earlier works, it may be an indirect result of two prevailing trends. First, in American History circles, many leading scholars have lamented the fragmentation of history into smaller and smaller pieces. No longer looking to establish dense intertwining narratives, many newer works have focused on marginalized groups, whose experience has been ignored. The rise of social history in the 1960s and 1970s led to a broadening of scholarship illuminating lives and events previously unknown. However, this intense focus has come at a price, fragmentation. Both the The Tracks North and Mexican Labor and World War II limit themselves to shorter historical periods, yet, despite this limitation, each maintains a dialogue with the prevailing arguments of earlier contributions. While they may have no opinion on the program’s demise in 1964 or the repatriation efforts of Operation Wetback, they do offer new insights into other previously shadowed aspects. Moreover, they reflect upon the termination of the accord regarding their various areas, which differ from those of the more commonly studied example. Second, since general agreement concerning the causes of Mexican labor migration, the Mexican government’s willingness to enter into a bilateral accord, and the needs of U.S. government and its agricultural industry exists between historians, scholars are left with fewer issues to debate. Yet, with the American government’s newfound willingness to discuss “guest worker agreements” and the passage of NAFTA in 1994, the Bracero Program’s importance is magnified. Historians are affected by the societal conditions surrounding them. Mexico and America’s recent government sanctioned trade accords only intensify the focus on this area of research. Most disagreement occurs when discussing the interaction between governments, the influence of private interests, and the role, effectiveness and consequences of Operation Wetback and the general program itself.

Lawrence Cardoso’s work represents the agreed understanding many historians acknowledge regarding conditions that led to labor migration even before the institution of the Bracero System. As well, the opinions of Mexican nationals in his work reflect the later views held by the same men who participated in the government to government labor agreement. The work of Richard Hancock and Richard Craig reflect the sensibilities of their era. Both looked to promote the program as an efficient and fair labor agreement. The Cold War encouraged both to cite the agreement as an attempt at once to bring labor to the U.S., wealth and work experience to Mexicans, and blunt the effect of communism in the Mesoamerican region. Craig granted growers the benefit of the doubt in nearly all areas, barely admitting that the presence of a captive labor force might affect wages. As well, he fails to truly acknowledge the dismal record of growers in the Southwest in the areas of housing, safety, and labor protection. However, he does note the incredible influence planters had on government policy.

Ernesto Galarza as an author and activist appeared in nearly all the literature reviewed (the lone exception being the Hancock work). Sometimes surfacing as an author at other times as an advocate for the braceros, Galarza’s scholarship and activism affected, to greater and lesser degrees, nearly all the authors present in this study. His own work Merchants of Labor has long been considered a seminal work in the field, being the first to expose the negatives of the Bracero Program for both native field laborers and Mexican migrants. Standing as a response to the strucutalist interpretations provided by Craig and a counterweight to Hancock, Galarza exposed the human side of the equation. His later work, Mexican Americans in the Southwest serves as a precursor to the more social based history of David Gutierrez and others. With its focus on the effects of the program, its redistribution of both Mexican-Americans and Mexican nationals laboring in the United States into tightly packed urban areas, Galarza and his companions work illuminates its consequences for United States and Mexican culture. Galarza and later works by Gutierrez and Manuel Garcia y Griego critiqued the effects of the program and its critical moments such as the 1954 repatriation. All three authors contrast Craig’s view that Operation Wetback was an unmitigated success, instead it removed labor protections swapping braceros for “legalized ‘Wetback’” labor. While few deny that Mexican laborers enjoyed economic benefits as result, the sociological and economic consequences were more nuanced. Moreover, even within this group there is disagreement about the importance and meaning of the bilateral agreement. If Garcia y Griego sees value in studying the movement, if only to formulate questions concerning future labor accords, Professor Gutierrez views its importance in less sanguine terms arguing that studying such agreements prove to be an “impediment to our current search for a policy to effectively deal with contemporary migration movements.” With his focus on Mexican American issues this view is not difficult to understand. Certainly, economic, social, and political conditions have changed. Terrorism has forever altered U.S. immigration policy. Additionally, Mexico’s government has made enormous strides toward a democratic state with an active civil society. Past agreements, negotiated by a more authoritarian regime no longer reflect today’s realities. As well, the presence of a large advocacy movement among Mexican Americans and NAFTA means that negotiations on all sides would have to incorporate elements previously absent.

Kitty Calavita’s Inside the State refutes some of Craig’s thesis arguing that it was not only private interests that dictated policy but also the interactions of conflicting government agencies and the individuals responsible for them. In addition, though the accord benefited growers, Calavita makes great efforts in illustrating that the program also enhanced the I.N.S.’s power and funding, especially after Operation Wetback. For her purposes, the repatriation effort was a success for the I.N.S. (bringing public support and Congressional funding) but not necessarily for the program or its guest workers. Unlike Craig, she acknowledges the apparent incongruency of the bracero policy for the I.N.S and the fact that many of the program’s provisions concerning labor protections and the like went unenforced. Like Galarza before her and Gutierrez after, she notes the contradiction of importing labor while restricting migration from the same region. Her work attempts to extrapolate this tendency among policy makers as later immigration policies have followed this seemingly contradictory pattern noting as one confused citizen remarked “Why don’t we establish a quota for undocumented workers.?”

Ultimately, the question that remains concerns the importance of the program for future accords. Perhaps, Professor Gutierrez is correct when he maintains that intensive reflection can only cause confusion, since the political and economic conditions that created it have been significantly altered. Yet, the rise of America’s Latino population (within which Mexican Americans are the largest such nationality) and the reduction in tariffs between the two American neighbors hints at future negotiations. If newer additions to the historiography emphasize any relevant aspects, it is that paper agreements do not necessarily correspond to physical conditions “on the ground”. Despite hailing from similar backgrounds and regions, braceros of the Pacific Northwest differed greatly from their Southwestern counterparts. Local governments are responsible for implementing such expansive accords. Professor Garcia y Griego is correct when he asserts that the Bracero Program at the very least informs future policy makers, labor leaders, and activist organizations about the questions that need to addressed. While braceros contributed vital labor to the American economy, growers wielded an unfair amount of influence making a mockery of the original negotiations. To repeat the same mistakes in a new century would be a travesty of massive proportions. After all, fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.

Ryan Reft

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