Historian’s Blog 7: First Draft
The Bracero Program & The Rise of Illegal Immigration
The United States caused its own problem of illegal immigration by exploiting migrant workers, cutting off channels of legal migration, like the Bracero Program, and militarizing the border. By acknowledging the faults of the U.S. in creating the problem, it is possible to attack the root causes of the problem rather than attack the effects.
As the U.S. went to war in 1941, there was a growing demand for a labor force in the United States to maintain agricultural production while soldiers were overseas. One of the main areas affected by the shortage of workers was in the southwester portion of the U.S., California in particular. With California and other southwestern states being so close to the Mexican border, agricultural employers turned to a migrant labor force as the ideal solution, which came in the form of the Bracero Program. The term bracero “comes from the Spanish word brazos, meaning ‘arms’ or ‘helping arms’” and will be used to refer to a migrant laborer from Mexico. The Bracero Program allowed Mexican laborers to temporarily migrate to the United States in order to work on a seasonal basis and then return to Mexico once the working season was over. As soldiers returned home from World War II, there were less jobs available in agriculture and American laborers struggled to compete with migrant workers because employers could pay migrant workers less than American workers. While this competition would lead to some anti-Immigrant sentiment, it mostly led to anti-Bracero sentiments. This growing disapproval of the Bracero Program would lead to the program’s eventual end, but the effects of the program would reach far beyond when it was ended.
Historians like J. Craig Jenkins argue that economic factors in Mexico are what pushed Mexicans to cross in to the United States. While Jenkins acknowledges that there are aspects of the United States economy that attract Mexican workers to the U.S., he argues that these are far less influential in the decision making process. According to Jenkins’ article, “Push/Pull in Recent Mexican Migration to the U.S.,” Mexican workers are being pushed out of Mexico due to a combination of population growth and a decline in available land and agricultural jobs. While the fertility rate in Mexico has not changed dramatically, the mortality rate decreased significantly, which means that while there may not be more babies being born, the population is steadily growing as a result of declining infant deaths. An ever-increasing population requires an ever-increasing job market, but due to the fact that there was no increase in available, there was little to no job growth, leading families to look for work elsewhere. On top of that, many of the agricultural employers in Mexico were requiring fewer employees as a result of increases in efficiency. According to Jenkins, these economic factors in Mexico are the driving force behind Mexican workers’ decision to seek employment in the United States, but his analysis downplays the United States’ role in this migration.
On the other side, historians like Barbara Heisler emphasize the role the U.S. played in encouraging Mexican migration. While in her article, “The Bracero Program and Mexican Migration to the United States,” Heisler acknowledges that the Bracero Program was a collaborative effort between Mexico and the United States, she points out that the problems associated with the program were a result of the U.S.’s utter disregard for the terms of the agreement. Government entities, like the INS and Border Patrol were supposed to work with Mexico to control the flow of migration but instead, these entities were turning a blind eye to illegal immigrants in order to supply cheap labor to employers. The violations by the United States deliberately encouraged Mexican migration to the U.S., especially illegal migration. The encouragement to cross the border by the United States decreased the incentive for migrants to go the legal route of the Bracero Program because there was little to no risk. The U.S.’s appetite for cheap labor and disregard for agreements made with Mexico ushered a wave of migration from Mexico.
These two opposing views of illegal immigration create different narratives by framing their arguments in a certain way. Jenkins presents this influx of immigrants as an “alien invasion.” By framing this issue as an invasion, it automatically sets up a situation for the reader of “us” versus “them.” Being that Jenkins’ target audience is the American citizen, he has already created a situation that forces the reader to view Mexican migrants negatively. While Jenkins sets up the reader to view Mexican migration negatively, Heisler sets up her argument in a way that makes the reader sympathize with the migrant worker. Heisler points out that this migratory pattern has been around for many years and the United States has been notorious for tricking and exploiting Mexican laborers. Framing the issue in this way puts the reader at ease because this is not a new phenomenon and even makes the reader feel sorry for migrant laborers because they are depicted as being exploited by the United States.
The Bracero Program was intended to fill labor shortages as a result of Word War II and do so in a way that would not damage the U.S. or Mexico. The United States and Mexico came to agree upon the following list of stipulations:
- Braceros were exempt from serving in the military.
- Discrimination against Braceros is not allowed.
- The United States was required to pay for transportation of Braceros from Mexico and back, once their contracts expired.
- The United States was required to provide adequate housing for Braceros.
- Braceros were not to be used to lower wages or take jobs away from Americans.
- Braceros were only allowed to work in agriculture and must sign a labor contract.
- The United States agreed to pay wages equal to those of the area and no less than 30 cents per hour.
- Employers were required to employ Braceros a minimum of 75% of the length of their contract.
- Braceros were given the right to organize and later were represented by their own representatives.
The stipulations agreed upon by both sides were intended to protect workers by making sure they were treated properly, paid adequately, and given appropriate living conditions. Employers would also benefit through the promise of an adequate work force. The U.S. economy and native laborers were protected by the assurance that Braceros would not drive down wages or displace native laborers. These stipulations were good in theory, but U.S. employers rarely abided by them. Cheap migrant labor was just too appealing to employers and exploitation prevented the system from working as it was intended.
U.S. employers ignored or failed to meet the standards set in the Bracero Program and exploited migrant workers for personal gain. Living conditions for most Braceros were substandard with many of the camps lacking proper housing, facilities, and health and emergency services. Along with these poor living conditions, many Braceros received inadequate pay. “Instead of paying ‘prevailing wages,’ or even the 30 cent minimum specified in the agreement, growers met at the beginning of each season to decide on the wages they were willing to pay and these often did not meet the required 30 cent minimum.” The agreed upon terms were set up to make sure that both sides were protected, but once Mexican workers crossed over into the United States, they were under control of employers who were only interested in generating profits. The conditions that Braceros were subject to were similar to that of a concentration camp. Despite the terrible conditions and low pay, migrants kept working, mostly out of fear. If they refused to work, they would be deported and another worker would take their place.
The exploitation of migrant workers has negative effects on native laborers. According to Robert Callagy in his letter, “Bracero System Opposed,” domestic workers are suffering because growers, “discriminate against American Citizens in favor of their captive force of foreign workers,” because Braceros “are used to depressed wages and working conditions.” When the U.S. made this agreement with Mexico, they set out to make sure that these two issues would not occur in order to protect the native agricultural labor force. However, employers’ lack of respect for these agreements that set out to protect American workers had begun to hurt native laborers and they became disgruntled. While they were angry at the effects of the migrant labor system, they were aware that Mexicans were being exploited, so they did not blame them. The anger of Americans at the exploitation of Mexican laborers and the negative effects on the labor market led to the Bracero Program ending in 1964.
Cutting off routes of legal migration did not end the migration of workers; it merely forced them into illegal channels. Before 1965, temporary workers were steady at around 450,000 entering the U.S. annually, but dropped to zero by 1968 and as the number of temporary workers dropped, the number of illegal immigrants apprehended per year rose from around 40,000 to 460,000. “The end of the Bracero Program corresponded exactly in time with the rise of illegal migration.” Over two decades, the Bracero Program had established a circular migration that would bring workers to the U.S. on a seasonal basis but they would return home once the working season was finished. The abrupt end of the Bracero Program didn’t end these patterns because Mexican laborers still needed to make a living and employers still needed cheap seasonal labor. While it appears that there was a massive increase in illegal immigrants following the end of the Bracero Program, these figures can be misleading. The previously invisible circular migration of Mexican laborers was now very visible in the public eye and this was alarming to the U.S. public.
Fear of illegal immigration led to increasing efforts to protect the border. “For any given number of undocumented entry attempts, more restrictive legislation and more stringent enforcement operations generate more apprehensions, which politicians and bureaucrats can then use to inflame public opinion, which leads to more conservatism and voter demands for even stricter laws and more enforcement operations, which generates more apprehensions, thus bringing the process full circle.” By framing the influx of illegal immigrants as a crisis and subsequent increase of border apprehensions as a threat to society, politicians were able to gain votes and increase funding to control the border, which in turn, continued to feed the threat narrative with more apprehensions. This never-ending cycle is more about gaining support for conservatives than about the facts of illegal immigration. While there have been more apprehensions at the border, the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. has continued to increase. Increased Border Patrol is not deterring illegal immigrants from trying to cross but it is causing immigrants to think twice about returning to Mexico.
Increasing difficulty to cross the border has encouraged Mexican laborers to abandon circular migration for permanent settlement in the U.S. “As the costs and risks of unauthorized border crossing mounted, migrants minimized them by shifting from a circular to a settled patter of migration, essentially hunkering down and staying once they had successfully run the gauntlet at the border.” With hopes of decreasing the number of illegal immigrants coming in to the United States, the U.S. beefed up border patrol and deportations. However, these actions failed to deter immigrants and actually had the opposite affect by forcing illegal immigrants to give up circular migration and settle down due to the increased risk of crossing the border. The actions taken by the United States to secure the border and stop illegal immigrants from crossing in to the U.S. have all been attempts to counteract the symptoms of a larger problem that will need to be addressed before real solutions can be found.
 Carl L. Bankston and Danielle Antoinette Hidalgo, Immigration in U.S. History, Magill’s Choice (Pasadena, Calif: Salem Press, 2006): 104.
 J. Craig Jenkins, “Push/Pull in Recent Mexican Migration to the U.S.,” International Migration Review 11, no. 2 (July 1, 1977): 186-187.
 Barbara Schmitter Heisler, “The Bracero Program and Mexican Migration to the United States,” Journal of the West 47, no. 3 (Summer 2008): 68.
 J. Craig Jenkins, “Push/Pull in Recent Mexican Migration to the U.S.,” International Migration Review 11, no. 2 (July 1, 1977): 178.
 Barbara Schmitter Heisler, “The Bracero Program and Mexican Migration to the United States,” Journal of the West 47, no. 3 (Summer 2008): 65-66.
 Bankston and Hidalgo, Immigration in U.S. History, 104–105.
 Heisler, “The Bracero Program and Mexican Migration to the United States,” 68.
 West Oakland Farm Workers Association ROBERT J. CALLAGY, “Bracero System Opposed: New Law Permitting Importations to Continue Is Protested,” New York Times (New York, N.Y., United States, December 15, 1964).
 Douglas S. Massey and Karen A. Pren, “Unintended Consequences of US Immigration Policy: Explaining the Post-1965 Surge from Latin America,” Population and Development Review 38, no. 1 (March 1, 2012): 4–5.
 Ibid., 5.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 17.