Digital History
The Bracero Program and Undocumented Workers
Digital History ID 599

Author:   President's Commission on Migratory Labor

Annotation: Initiated in 1942 by an executive agreement between Mexico and the United States, the program provided for Mexican braceros (laborers) to enter the United States as short-term contract workers, primarily in agriculture and transportation. Before the program ended in 1947, an estimated 200,000 braceros worked in twenty-one states, about half of them in California. The program was resurrected by Congress in 1951, largely because of agricultural shortages created by the Korean War. It continued until 1964, peaking in 1959 when nearly 450,000 braceros entered the United States. In 1960 they formed twenty-six percent of the nation's seasonal agricultural labor force. Even after the program's termination, Mexican workers could enter the U.S. by green cards that permit temporary employment.

In practice, neither legal immigration nor the Bracero Program met the need for labor in agriculture, construction, or domestic service. The desire to escape poverty and underemployment in Mexico and the attraction of higher wages and greater economic opportunities in the United States led an increasing number of undocumented workers to enter the United States--workers who had to avoid government border patrols and live under the constant threat of deportation.

In 1951 a presidential commission on migratory farm labor discussed the plight of undocumented agricultural workers.

Document: Before 1944, the illegal traffic on the Mexican border, though always going on, was never overwhelming in numbers. Apprehensions by immigration officials leading to deportations or voluntary departures before 1944 were fairly stable and under ten thousand per year....

The magnitude of the wetback traffic has reached entirely new levels in the past seven years. The number of deportations and voluntary departures has continuously mounted each year, from twenty-nine thousand in 1944 to 565,000 in 1950. In its newly achieved proportions, it is virtually an invasion. It is estimated that at least 400,000 of our migratory farm labor force of 1 million in 1949 were wetbacks....

Farmers in the northern areas of Mexico require seasonal labor for the cotton harvest just as do the farmers on our side of the Rio Grande. There is, accordingly, an internal northward migration for this employment. American farm employers in need of seasonal labor encourage northward migratory movements within Mexico.

This rapid economic development in the areas immediately south of the border has accelerated the wetback traffic in several ways. An official in Matamoros estimates that twenty-five thousand transient cotton pickers were needed in the 1950 season, whereas the number coming from interior Mexico was estimated at sixty thousand. It is to be expected that many Mexican workers coming north with the anticipation of working in northern Mexico do not find employment there and ultimately spill over the border and become wetbacks....

Although smuggling of wetbacks is widespread, the majority of wetbacks apparently enter alone or in small groups without a smuggler's assistance. In a group moving without the aid of a smuggler, there usually is one who has made the trip before and who is willing to show the way. Not infrequently the same individual knows the farm to which the group intends to go and sometimes he has made advance arrangements with the farm employer to return at an appointed date with his group. Such wetbacks stream into the United States by the thousands through the deserts near El Paso and Calexico or across the Rio Grande between Rio Grande City and Brownsville....

Well-established practices to facilitate and encourage the entrance of wetbacks...range from spreading news of employment in the plazas [of Mexican towns and cities] and over the radio to the withholding from wages of what is called a "deposit" which is intended to urge, if not guarantee, the return to the same farm as quickly as possible of a wetback employee who may be apprehended and taken back to Mexico.

The term "deposit" requires some explanation. Members of this commission personally interviewed wetback workers apprehended by immigration officers in the lower Rio Grande Valley. These workers had been paid for the cotton they had picked during the preceding two or three weeks. However, there employers had withheld $10 to $15 from their pay. Such sums, we discovered, are known as deposits. To redeem this deposit, the wetback was required to re-enter illegally and to reappear on the farm employer's premises within ten days.

Once on the United States side of the border and on the farm, numerous devices are employed to keep the wetback on the job. Basic to all these devices is the fact that the wetback is a person of legal disability who is under jeopardy of immediate deportation if caught. He is told that if he leaves the farm, he will be reported to the Immigration Service or that, equally unfortunate to him, the Immigration Service will surely find him if he ventures into town or out onto the roads. To assure that he will stay until his services are no longer needed, his pay, or some portion thereof, frequently is held back. Sometimes, he is deliberately kept indebted to the farmer's store or commissary until the end of the season, at which time he may be given enough to buy shoes or clothing and encouraged to return the following season.

When the work is done, neither the farmer nor the community wants the wetback around. The number of apprehensions and deportations tends to rise very rapidly at the close of the seasonal work period. This can be interpreted not alone to mean that the immigration officer suddenly goes about his work with renewed zeal and vigor, but rather that at this time of the year "cooperation" in law enforcement by farm employers and townspeople undergoes considerable improvement....

Wages for common hand labor in the lower Rio Grande Valley, according to the testimony, were as low as 15 to 25 cents per hour.

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