What is the Bracero Program?

Mexican workers in Mexicali waiting for legal work in the US

What was the bracero program? It was an immigration program created through a series of bilateral agreements between the United States and Mexico in 1942. The program was designed to alleviate farm labor shortages in the United States caused by American entry into World War II and help Mexican farm laborers get work. Essentially, the United States agreed to allow Mexican farm laborers, "Braceros" in Spanish, to come to the US to augment the US farm labor force. Debates about immigration policy, including recent discussions about how documented and undocumented workers fit into the American labor system, are reminders of the United States’ biggest experiment with guest workers: the bracero program.

Mexican agricultural workers were brought to U.S. farms to replace American workers dislocated by the war. The program was intended as a temporary wartime solution, but American farms’ growing dependence on Mexican labor kept the program active for two decades beyond the war’s end. Over the life of the program, between 1942 and 1964, nearly 5 million Mexican men came to the United States on temporary, short-term agricultural contracts. The bracero program is historically controversial, prompting scholars to debate whether it was an opportunity for migrant workers or exploitation of Mexican labor. It continues to shape discussions of modern trade agreements and will color ideas about how, and whether, to process and utilize migrant labor.

Roots of the Bracero Program

The bracero program would not have been as easily implemented or as popular without the economic and cultural relationship established between Mexico and the United States since the late nineteenth century and if Mexican citizens could have made a living in Mexico. The Mexican economy had been uprooted by the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920); President Porfirio Diaz had opened Mexico’s economy to the United States in the early 1920s; railroad building across Mexico had created passageways to and from the north; and the Mexican government and companies based in the United States had bought land in Mexico for the building of maquiladoras (cotton factories) throughout the 1910s.

Land originally owned by farmers and the working poor were swallowed up by these companies, leaving these Mexican citizens with no other means to provide for their families. The economic circumstances and infrastructural possibilities were set for a culture of migratory labor.[1]

The Bracero Programs sought to ensure access to Cheap Guest Workers for American Farms

Whatever the circumstances, Mexico has long been a source of cheap temporary labor for the United States. Until the establishment of the U.S. Border Patrol in 1924, citizens of both countries crossed the border at will, and farmers in the southwestern United States recruited seasonal workers from Mexico without government oversight. Mexican workers also maintained the productivity of American agriculture after the United States entered World War I. The bracero program, at least on paper, was an extension of this type of labor arrangement—a more formal and more tightly supervised agreement to provide an adequate labor force during another global military conflict. [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 straightforward economic reasons. In the 1930s, white In mid-1941, as it became clearer to U.S. leaders that the nation would have to enter World War II, American farmers raised the possibility that there would again be a need, as had occurred during the First World War, for foreign workers to maintain agricultural productivity. The United States looked south for that labor, requesting that the Mexican government provide workers to address the ongoing demands of the American agribusinesses supporting the war effort and to replace the poor white, black, and Latino Americans were leaving farms to occupy jobs in better-paying industrialized factories. [3]

Mexico was initially hesitant, owing to strained racist cultural relations that had been brewing through the 1930s. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 ultimately pushed Mexican leadership into providing workers for the United States as a way to actively contribute to the Allied war effort. The Mexican government also believed that participation in such a program would modernize their country, transforming it into a modern nation-state. Even so, before Mexico would enter into a cooperative labor program with the United States, the nation demanded that four major issues be addressed:

  1. No Mexican workers would serve in the American military
  2. Mexican workers would not be subject to discrimination
  3. Mexican workers would be given transportation to and from their jobs, would be provided with decent living conditions, and would be repatriated at the end of their contracts
  4. Mexican workers would not be used to replace domestic servants or to reduce wage levels

Those concerns were addressed, and the final agreement that established the bracero program was signed on August 4, 1942.[4]

Migrants and Scapegoats

Opponents of the program in both nations raised concerns almost immediately. Labor unions in the United States argued that no significant wartime labor shortage existed and therefore no justification for a large continuing influx of migrant workers. Mexico and Mexican laborers raised an issue with violations of the agreement, including that American growers made Mexican workers pay for food, lodging, and tools, and required them to perform tasks beyond those specified in their contracts. Racism was also a common experience for the braceros, as was being paid wages that were far below levels required by the program. [5]

Regardless of complaints or violations, the program was renewed in 1947, with Mexicans expanding their work to railroads. The agricultural aspects of the agreement were also renewed in 1951, during the Korean War. Aware of the checkered history of the program, in the early 1950s President Harry S. Truman established a commission to study the agreement, evaluate complaints and violations, and suggest reforms. Any recommendations made by the commission were ignored, ultimately, because the program was economically popular among growers (because of cheap labor) and consumers (who paid lower prices for bracero-harvest crops). President John F. Kennedy finally ended the bracero program in 1964 after his commission determined (and convinced Congress) that the agreement was negatively affecting wages, employment opportunities, and the working conditions of domestic laborers.

Bracero Program's Significance

The Bracero Program had major effects 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 United States 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 ‘’maquiladoras’’ that would continue to flourish with the aid of the new trade agreement.[6]

Essentially, the Bracero Program was a vital part of U.S. and Mexican history as part of a larger pattern of migrant labor practices, whether considered opportunity or exploitation; 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. See also 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.
  2. Gonzalez, Gilbert G. Guest Workers or Colonized Labor? Mexican Labor Migration to the United States. Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2005. Study of the state of Mexican labor immigration to the United States into the early twenty-first century.
  3. Cohen, 111
  4. Edward Kosack, “The Bracero Program and Effects on Human Capital Investments in Mexico, 1942–1964,” 2013, http://eh.net/eha/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Kosack.pdf
  5. 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. See also 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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