In response to severe labor needs during the second world war, the governments of Mexico and the USA initiated the Bracero guest worker program in 1942. The program enabled Mexico to contribute to the war effort by sending temporary agricultural workers to the USA. Mexicans were granted renewable six month visas to work on selected farms. Most migrants under the Bracero program came from the same three states, Michoacán, Jalisco and Guanajuato. They worked mostly in California and other states along the Mexican border.
As a result of the Bracero program, some farmers in the USA became very dependent on relatively cheap Mexican labor. The program was considered a great success by farmers. Unfortunately mistreatment of Bracero laborers was widespread. In protest, the Mexican Government threatened to stop the flow of migrants. During the war many Mexicans who were not recruited under the Bracero program entered the USA illegally looking for work. Tolerance for unauthorized migration developed on both sides of the border. With a large dependency in the USA on Mexican farm workers and a large supply in Mexico, there was virtually no way to put a halt to this migration stream.
Labor unions, churches and Latino groups in the USA opposed the Bracero program on the grounds that it held down farm wages and impeded the upward mobility of US Hispanics. They convinced the US Congress to halt the Bracero program in 1964. Between 1942 and 1964 an estimated 4.5 million Mexican Bracero workers entered the USA. At its height in the late 1950s more than 500,000 workers migrated each year. Most were temporary migrants who returned to Mexico within a year, often settling in larger cities, exacerbating the flow of migrants from rural areas to the growing cities. The Bracero program set the stage for the continued high volume of Mexican labor migration to the USA.
In an effort to ensure that the Bracero workers were only temporary migrants to the USA, the US government withheld 10% of all their earnings. The US government then remitted this amount to the Mexican government for payment to the workers on their return home. More than 70 years after the Bracero program started, many braceros are still trying to claim money that they earned legitimately years ago and that is still owed to them by the Mexican government.
The struggles of temporary bracero workers who were never repaid the 10% that had been withheld, are detailed in a short October 2013 article entitled “Bracero Guestworkers, Unpaid”, written by Adam Goodman and Verónica Zapata Rivera (history doctorate students at, respectively, the University of Pennsylvania and Mexico’s National Autonomous University).
The article also describes some of the other injustices faced by Bracero workers, including forced whole-body fumigation with DDT as they crossed the US border.
For more information about the Bracero program, see The Bracero Archive