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Bracero Program: Definition, History & Timeline

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

The Bracero Program was established by the U.S. government in 1942 to bring Mexican farm workers to the U.S. to cover for wartime labor shortages. The program continue in 1964 and was the largest foreign worker program in United States history, but also caused controversy that still reverberates in our immigration debates today.

Roots of a Current Controversy

From watching the news, you might think that the controversy over immigration, particularly the movement of people from Mexico to the United States looking for work, is a new issue. But in fact it's a controversy with deep historical roots. Understanding those roots can help us have a more informed opinion in the current discussion.

One of the most important events in the history of U.S.-Mexican relations, and Mexican immigration to the United States, was the Bracero Program which the U.S. government operated, in various forms, from 1942 to 1964. Under this program, the government encouraged Mexican citizens to come to the U.S. for work.

The name comes from the Spanish word for a 'manual laborer' and braceros under the program typically worked on farms. In the 22 years that the program was in operation, 5 million Mexican citizens came to the U.S. for work in 24 states. It became the largest foreign worker program in United States history.

Beginning of the Bracero Program

When the United States entered World War II in December of 1941, most of the young, able-bodied men in the country joined the Armed Forces and began getting shipped overseas. This left a massive labor shortage in the U.S., particularly in agriculture. As the 1942 harvest season approached, farmers lobbied Congress for a solution to their worker shortage.

This led to the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement, which was signed between the United States and Mexican governments on August 4, 1942. Under the program, braceros could be admitted to the U.S. to work on farms and were guaranteed basic rights such as adequate food and shelter and a minimum wage of 30 cents per hour. They were also not to be barred from 'whites-only' areas such as restaurants.

After World War II ended in 1945, the Bracero Program continued largely at the behest of the U.S. State Department. With the Cold War beginning, the State Department was worried about Mexico coming under communist influence, and the Bracero Program was seen as a way to promote harmony between the two countries and improve the financial condition of Mexicans.

Worries over illegal immigration and loss of American jobs made the program controversial in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but President Truman reauthorized the program in 1951 with Public Law 78. Under this new Bracero Program, the government, not the individual employers, became the guarantors of the braceros' contracts. While it also stated that braceros couldn't be used to replace striking U.S. workers, it also made it clear that braceros did not have the right to go on strike or negotiate their wages. This was in response to the several strikes from the braceros did break out over the course of the 1940s. These mostly took place in the Pacific Northwest and were usually disputes over wages, and some even succeeded (like the braceros from the Caldwell-Boise sugar beet farms in June of 1945).

Controversy

By the end of World War II, the program was already controversial for many reasons that will seem familiar to those who follow the current immigration debate. First, after the war ended, there was concern that the braceros could be used to replace U.S. citizens as workers, especially if the workers unionized or went on strike. The 1951 reauthorization attempted to deal with that issue.

However, the 1951 reauthorization did not deal with the other major issue related to the braceros. From the beginning, the program had brought in a relatively small number of workers, but there were more workers who wanted to come to the U.S. and farmers who wanted to hire them. This led to a massive increase in illegal immigration, with people coming across the border for work who were not officially part of the bracero program.

Throughout the 1950s, farm owners complained the program did not provide enough workers, forcing them to rely on illegal immigration, while unions complained the braceros took jobs from American workers and drove down wages for everyone. There were many attempts by the government to respond to criticism of the program. The most notorious is Operation Wetback, a 1954 effort to round up and return illegal immigrants to Mexico (and official governmental usage of the racial slur that had been around since the 1920s). Among the 3.8 million people who were sent back to Mexico were both people who had crossed illegally and members of the Bracero Program who had stayed in the U.S. after their contracts ended.

In 1961, President Kennedy extended the program, but acknowledged the complaints from American workers. The number of people admitted under the program fell dramatically, and in 1964 the program was officially ended.

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