The Political History of the World

the start of the Bracero program


August 4th, 1942 is the start of the Bracero program, a guest worker program that allowed Mexican nationals to take temporary agricultural work in the United States. Bracero is a name for an agricultural worker. The program would run until 1964 with millions of Mexican workers coming to this country as a result, mostly in the Southwest and West. This is a program that is at the heart of a lot of economic and cultural ties between the US and Mexico. Something that I guess we’re hearing about it a little less these days, but it’s certainly something and it’s been a factor in our modern politics.

The moral dimension of immigration between Mexico and the United States is kind of lost as the federal government tries to find the immigration plan that is most profitable to the U.S. and the least disruptive to the U.S. and they ultimately it well on this Bracero program as a guest workers program. But I mean, the U.S. federal government had spent the 1930s deporting both people from Mexico and U.S. citizens, Mexican-Americans to Mexico as a way of getting rid of what they saw as an illegitimate and excess workforce. I mean, in the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower has a program with a pretty racist name that’s aimed at, Mexicans living in the United States. So. what I like about using that song as a starting point is that it brings humanity to a story that when it came to policy-making, there just, wasn’t a lot of, care about human and civil rights.

Right. And so this is, you know, as sort of large farms are growing in this, in the Southwest, there’s just a need for labor. I mean, you know, we talk about, we’ve talked about ways of immigration, a bunch on this show, and it does really often seem to come down to a need for, for workers and I guess that sort of cliche, you hear tried it out, which is like Americans often are not in a position to do this work and so we need to bring in immigrants accordingly.

in 1942, there’s a major labor shortage and there’s a major labor shortage because of the World War that’s going on. So many Americans have been pressed into service, whether it’s, Fighting in Europe and in the Pacific, whether it’s working in munitions plants, the Southern labor force, particularly the black labor force moving to Northern cities to work in some of these war industries. And so that leaves us, especially in agriculture, across the United States, a shorter of workers. And so bringing in these workers from Mexico is the government’s fix for that problem.

this program is about bringing workers in seasonally on temporary contracts. there are some basic protections built-in at the time. There is a, you know, minimum wage, there’s sensible insurance that they’re supposed to be housing. As often in the case with these programs like this, especially programs, with particular communities that are not prioritized by our government. This is often left in the hands of the employers to enforce, and there’s just not good enforcement around this. And so you end up with really awful working conditions. And I guess, like, I give us a sense of the larger, worker protection context in the, in their early to mid-forties.

So, this is really a tricky time for unions because yes, we’re in the decades of some of the highest union power in the United States, the 1940s and the 1950s. But the war has put some limits on that. Right? The strikes that are happening are Wildcat strikes because striking has been banned because it would disrupt the war industries. And agriculture has always also been a trickier part of this. Agriculture was largely cut out of many of the protections of like the New Deal of the 1930s in large part because of black workers in the South who were working in agricultural jobs. And so the kinds of labor protections that you had in other industries often didn’t apply to agriculture and that leaves these guest workers a little out in the cold. 

And it’s not a coincidence that this program runs from sort of the mid-forties into the mid to late sixties. And it’s in the late sixties and into the seventies. That’s when you see the rise of the United farm workers and Cesar Chavez and a sort of real conversation about labor protections for these types of workers. Um, I’m curious about why it is Mexican immigrants who come in to do the job. I mean, there’s the obvious geography of it. This is a border with Mexico. And so I guess you could argue it that way, but I mean, you know, we’ve seen workers from other parts of the world come in, um, to the United States during different phases.

 immigration policy during the period between the 1920s and the 1960s, but it didn’t apply to the Western hemisphere. And so the most available source of migrant labour was coming from Mexico. And this is an interesting way that they’re like putting limitations on it through this guest worker program before the real limits come in with the 1965 act. 

for one, this is part of a broader civil rights movement that’s happening across the United States that often gets left out. But two like, Part of this is a set of arguments about labor and where labor comes from. And these are the kinds of fights that Americans had throughout the 18th day 19th century, but that they would continue to have, well, after this program was discontinued in the 1990s, the argument’s over, something like the North American free-trade agreement were fierce and they crossed party lines. Like they were, they were kind of politics that we’re not used to these days where the partisan and ideological lines get scrambled because of the economic fights sort of trump everything. so this is a good, a good reminder that there’s a lot of, there’s a lot of focus on immigrant labor in the United States. That leads to a lot of odd political alliances.

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The Political History of the World