1942: The Bracero Program

This year, we are taking a look at the history of the Texas-Mexico border and what events shaped it to where it is today. Join us for this series as we explore the key moments that built the foundation for the relationship between Texas and Mexico.

The United States’ dependence on Mexican labor has historically been both a source of opportunity and a source of conflict. In the 1940s, the U.S. began its largest experiment in creating a program to allow Mexican laborers to work in the U.S. on short-term labor contracts. Facing labor shortages caused by World War II, the U.S. proposed a series of labor agreements with Mexico for the purpose of recruiting Mexican guest workers to work on U.S. farms and in war-affected industries. In 1942, the two countries signed and adopted the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement, which is better known now as the Bracero program. Bracero is a Spanish word which means “laborer who works with his arms,” or indirectly “one who performs manual labor”. The Bracero program regulated a guest worker program in which laborers were to be offered decent living conditions, food, occupational insurance, sanitation, and a minimum wage of 30 cents an hour. In reality, employers did not always meet many of these requirements, and conditions were such that it led to several strikes. Additionally, after World War II, guest workers were restricted from working in a multitude of war-affected industries, which only left work opportunities in agriculture.

Despite attempted safeguards to protect both Mexican and American workers, the program was controversial due to the low wages offered to Mexican workers as well as rising American worries that guest workers would increase competition for American jobs. Between the 1940s and 1950s, farm wages significantly dropped as a portion of manufacturing wages due to the low pay given to Bracero program participants, who despite their labor lacked full rights in America. This era also marked a rise in illegal immigration, as many workers who were not qualified to participate in the Bracero Program crossed the border illegally and found work with growers who wanted to keep their costs low. Abuse from participating employers, costs associated with the program, and corrupt practices even caused some who qualified to participate in the program to illegally seek work outside of its auspices. The Bracero program nevertheless continued until 1964, when civil rights and labor reformers successfully lobbied for its termination. Even though the program was not without controversy, it managed to regulate Mexican guest workers in the U.S. over the course of 22 years, during which 4.6 million contracts were signed by 2.2 million individual workers, making it the largest U.S. contract labor program.

To learn more about the History of the Texas-Mexico border, go here.

This post was written by Katherine Rossmiller ’21. She is a Meadows Scholar studying Public Policy and Music with minors in American Politics and Statistical Science. She is on the Pre-Law track and is also involved with SMU’s Symphony Orchestra and the Belle Tones.

Information cited from the following sources:

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