What is the Bracero Program?

Mexican workers in Mexicali waiting for legal work in the US

Immigration has been a political, social, and economic hot button issue in almost every decade since the U.S. became it’s own country. Whether they are Italian, Irish, Asian, or Middle Eastern, immigrants have made the United States their home and have introduced new and influential cultures to the country. Unfortunately for migrants, there are usually enormous issues facing them from their initial decision to migrate to the U.S. and even years after they arrive. Within the past century, Mexican migrants have seen some of the worst treatment and political hostility when it comes to migrant worker and immigrant history. Although there is no comparison to other groups of individuals immigrating to the U.S., Mexican migrant workers have an interesting history because of the U.S. – Mexico border and the political and economic policies and programs that Mexico and the U.S. have created within the last century. One program in particular is the focus of this article, the Bracero Program. It’s significance to the current issues surrounding immigration are paramount and will continue to provide an example of the violent and discriminatory cycle that Mexican citizens go through as migrant laborers in the U.S.

Problems In Mexico Pre-Bracero Program

There are a slough of factors that lead to the creation of this program, but in order to fully understand it’s impact, it is important to layout the transnational creation of large migrant working population in Mexico. The factors that are most important begin with the Mexican Revolution and the leadership of Profirio Diaz who opened up Mexico’s economy to the U.S. and other countries who began building factories and railroads to the U.S. creating the passageways for future migrants to travel in to the U.S. The Mexican government and companies based in the U.S. would buy land and eventually most of the land owned by farmers and working poor would be swallowed up. Without this land Mexican citizens who used to farm had no other means to provide for their families. With new ‘’maquiladoras’’ or factories (mainly cotton factories) being built, many Mexicans would flood to those and begin to internally migrate towards the railroads and factories.[1] In 1910, many of the workers employed by the cotton ‘’maquiladoras’’ and Communist Party members would join the ranks of Pancho Villa as the Mexican Revolution begins. These workers would continue to fight for workers rights and better wages within the ‘’maquiladoras’’ over the next three decades but without any real land ownership and the poor economic environment that lingered after Diaz’s reign, Mexican working and poor and the government it helped come to power, had no real choice but to head to the U.S. and it’s economic policies. [2]

The Creation of the Program

Braceros arriving in Los Angeles in 1942 (picture by Dorthea Lange)

The Bracero Program, officially named the Labor Importation Program, was created for economic reasons. In the 1930s, white Anglos farmers had decided to move in to the more urban and industrious cities in order to gain more wealth than what they had been earning working their crops. With this huge shift from rural to urban industries, the government had to make an important decision to bring in a labor force that would be able to sustain their large urban population and help pick the crops that would feed them.

After the Great Depression and the consequential ‘repatriation’ of thousands of Mexican and even U.S. born citizens that had migrated to the U.S. as political refugees from the Mexican Revolution, the U.S. would eventually decide to bring back some of the workers it had kicked out. Mexican migrants would be a scapegoat for many decades to come and each economic downturn in the U.S. would automatically create a ‘’Mexican problem’’, a cycle thrust in to existence by this first ‘repatriation’ during the Great Depression.

In 1942, the U.S. and Mexico struck a deal that would allow Mexican citizens to become temporary workers in the U.S. agricultural systems. This program was supposed to be completely under the supervision of the U.S. federal government and that all contracts would be overseen by them. Nevertheless, between 1947 and 1951, the federal government had given up their role as supervisor and allowed for workers and employers to create their own contracts, allowing for certain types of discriminatory practices, such as extremely low pay and shanti-like living quarters. After waiting sometimes weeks on end to enter the U.S. they were allowed in, stripped of their clothes and sprayed with DDT, a toxic chemical thought to rid Mexican migrants of diseases that they were presumed to be carrying in to the U.S. Following that, the men would then undergo a medical examination and only the men who seemed impoverished, poor, and only spoke Spanish were picked by the farmers.[3]

Migrants and Scapegoats

As the Korean War came to the surface in the 1950s, many U.S. citizens had once again felt that the ‘’illegal’’ migrants were getting out of control and were a threat to the U.S. economy in a volatile time. This time the ‘repatriation’ had a name, Operation Wetback. Under President Eisenhower, this operation would successfully deport over one million Mexican and U.S. citizens by 1954. [4] At this point, legislation had fallen through two years prior under President Truman, who tried to reinstate some kind of rights for the migrant workers. Unfortunately, the big agricultural companies and their lobbyists would thwart any efforts he had tried to make in order to come up with humane laws that the growers had to follow in order to keep migrant laborers safe and well-paid. [5]

The migrant worker population would further destroy Mexico’s economy because of mass migration out of Mexico with no money returning. With Operation Wetback in full effect directly in the middle of the Bracero Programs existence, the simultaneous need for labor and need for scapegoats would not help Mexico’s situation economically. In the U.S. the anti-Mexican sentiment would push migrant workers in the Southwest to organize for their rights with the help of organizations such as the United Farm Workers, the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America, and League of United Latin American Citizens. Such organizations were pivotal in creating the momentum for a larger Chicano Movement or ‘’El Movimiento’’ in the Southwest.


The Bracero Program is still a relatively unknown historical event. Needless to say, the program had major affects on both the Mexican economy and the U.S. agricultural business and immigration policies. Mexico would never truly recuperate from all of the migrants that were lost and the implementation of NAFTA only exacerbated the economic issues that it faced. Small farmers in Mexico would continuously have to compete with U.S. imported produce that was ironically being picked by Mexican migrant workers. Additionally, the U.S. would continuously rely on Mexican and Latin American migrant workers while calling for more border reinforcement. NAFTA would continuously allow products to flow through the border but would police the bodies that would cross. Finally, NAFTA would cause enormous job losses for U.S. citizens to new ‘’maquiladras’’ that would continue to flourish with the aid of the new trade agreement. [6] Essentially, the Bracero Program is important for U.S. and Mexican history because it is a part of a larger pattern that the U.S. constantly involves itself in and only when we acknowledge this pattern can we begin to change the way that migrant labor is handled in the future.


  1. Deborah Cohen, ‘’Braceros: Migrant Citizens and Transnational Subjects in the Postwar United States and Mexico’’, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 35-37.
  2. Deborah Cohen, ‘’Braceros: Migrant Citizens and Transnational Subjects in the Postwar United States and Mexico’’, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 37.
  3. ’’Harvest of Loneliness: The Bracero Program’’. Films On Demand. 2010. Accessed May 21, 2016. http://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=103120&xtid=43712.
  4. Deborah Cohen, ‘’Braceros: Migrant Citizens and Transnational Subjects in the Postwar United States and Mexico’’, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 212-213.
  5. Robert S. Robinson, “Taking The Fair Deal to the Fields: Truman's Commission on Migratory Labor, Public Law 78, and the Bracero Program, 1950–1952.” ‘’Agricultural History’’ 84, no. 3 (2010): 399.
  6. Bill Ong Hing, ‘’Ethical Borders: NAFTA, Globalization, and Mexican Migration’’, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010), 5.


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