World War II brought about a sudden and severe shortage of farm labor. German prisoners of war were employed, but they were only a partial solution. By enacting the Emergency Labor Program in 1942, Congress approved the importation of thousands of workers from Mexico, most to work in the fields but some to work on the nation's railroads.
The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture was assigned the responsibility of recruiting, contracting, transporting, feeding, and lodging the temporary farmworkers. So began the "Bracero program," the Spanish word braceros meaning "the strong armed ones. The railroad worker portion of the program, which imported workers to expand rail yards, lay track at port facilities, and replace worn rails-all part of the war effort-stayed in effect until 1945 and employed about 100,000 men.
The farmworker portion of the program was originally thought to be temporary, but after the war, the nation's growers, particularly those in California, vigorously supported the extension of the farm labor portion of the Bracero program, which eventually remained in effect for four decades.
In the post-war years, an even larger force of Mexican workers crossed into California and the Southwest to work in the fields. The exact numbers of these "illegal immigrants" or "undocumented workers" were never really known, although estimates are that each year more than 500,000 undocumented people worked on farms in California and in other states of the region.
In 1951 Congress adopted Public Law 78 as a "Korean war emergency" measure, which gave special legislative recognition to a new agreement with Mexico. In effect, the law and its emergency status produced the most comprehensive plan for importing contract workers that the nation had ever formulated. The actions also formed the basis for the continuation of the Bracero program, which outlasted the Korean War by 11 years.
The year with the highest level of bracero importation is believed to be 1957, when more than 192,000 workers were brought to California, and more than 150,000 other workers to other parts of the nation. By the peak season of September 1960, around 100,000 braceros were at work in California, constituting about 25 percent of the seasonal agricultural labor force. Most worked on the state's largest farms: Slightly more than 5 percent of the farms in the state employed 60 percent of the seasonal workers, including more than 80 percent of the braceros.
Major growers of the Southwest strongly favored the continuation of the program because the imported workers could be brought in when they were needed and made to leave when they were not. But it was apparent to anyone who cared to look that the program produced something far less than optimum for migrant workers-extremely low wages and dreadful working and living conditions.
In 1963, the Kennedy Administration and Congress acknowledged these criticisms and refused to continue the program, which ended a year later. Growers falsely predicted that disastrous consequences would accompany the program's termination. California farm output, however, reached a new high in 1965.
The Bracero program had two unforeseen legacies. First, it established migration patterns from Mexico to the U.S. that remain in effect today. Secondly, it fostered the terrible worker conditions that led to the dramatic attempts of Cesar Chavez and others to unionize the fields in portions of the nation's Sunbelt.
- Students analyze the economic boom and social transformation of post-World War II America. (11.8.2)