Even though the United States had made use of migrant Mexican labor in its agricultural sector since the early 20th century, such labor tended to be both migratory and seasonal, with many workers returning to Mexico in the winter. The situation changed with the involvement of the United States in World War II, creating a massive labor shortage in all sectors of the economy with the withdrawal of much of the nation's active labor force into the various armed services. The extreme labor shortage forced a change in immigration policy for the United States that resulted in development of the Bracero Program in conjunction with Mexico.
The Bracero Program was a guest worker program that ran between the years of 1942 and 1964. Over those 22 years, the Mexican Farm Labor Program, informally known as the Bracero Program, sponsored some 4.5 million border crossings of guest workers from Mexico (some among these representing repeat visits by returned braceros). Many braceros were able to secure green cards and legal residency, while others (known as 'quits') simply left the fields and headed for work in the cities. Today, millions of Mexican Americans trace their families' roots in the US to their fathers' or grandfathers' arrival as braceros.
Recent scholarship highlights that the program generated controversy in Mexico from the outset. Employers and local officials feared labor shortages, especially in the states of west-central Mexico that traditionally sent the majority of migrants north (Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Zacatecas). The Catholic Church warned that emigration would break families apart and expose braceros to Protestant missionaries and labor camps where drinking, gambling, and prostitution flourished. Others deplored the negative image that the braceros' departure produced for the Mexican nation. The political opposition even used the exodus of braceros as evidence of the failure of government policies, especially the agrarian reform program implemented by the post-revolutionary government in the 1930s. On the other hand, historians like Michael Snodgrass and Deborah Cohen demonstrate why the program proved popular among so many migrants, for whom seasonal work in the US offered great opportunities, despite the poor conditions they often faced in the fields and housing camps. They saved money, purchased new tools or used trucks, and returned home with new outlooks and a greater sense of dignity. Social scientists doing field work in rural Mexico at the time observed these positive economic and cultural effects of bracero migration. So the Bracero Program looked different from the perspective of the participants rather than its many critics in the US and Mexico.
The growing realization among businesses was that provisions within the program ensured an increase of costs for the imported labor. The program mandated a certain level of wages, housing, food and medical care for the workers (to be paid for by the employers) that kept the standard of living above what many had in Mexico. This not only enabled many to send funds home to their families but also had the unintended effect of encouraging illegal immigration when U.S. workers' quotas were met.
These new illegal workers could not be employed "above the table" as part of the program, leaving them open for exploitation. This resulted in the lowering of wages and not receiving the benefits that the Mexican government had negotiated to insure their legal workers well being under the Bracero program. This, in turn, had the effect of eroding support for the program in the agricultural sector for the legal importation of workers from Mexico in favor of hiring illegal immigrants to reduce overhead costs. The advantages of hiring illegal workers were that they were willing to work for lower wages, without support, health coverage or in many cases legal means to address abuses by the employers for fear of deportation.
Nevertheless, conditions for the poor and unemployed in Mexico were such that illegal employment was attractive enough to motivate many to leave in search of work within the United States illegally, even if that directly competed with the legal workers within the Bracero program leading to its discontinuation.
In 1956, labor organizer Ernesto Galarza’s book Stranger in Our Fields was published, drawing attention to the conditions experienced by braceros. The book begins with this statement from a worker: “In this camp, we have no names. we are called only by numbers.” The book concluded that workers were lied to, cheated and “shamefully neglected.” The U.S. Department of Labor officer in charge of the program, Lee G. Williams, described the program as a system of “legalized slavery.”
Labor unions that tried to organize agricultural workers after World War II targeted the Bracero program as a key impediment to improving the wages of domestic farm workers. These unions included the National Farm Laborers Union (NFLU), later called the National Agricultural Workers Union (NAWU), headed by Ernesto Galarza, and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), AFL-CIO. During his tenure with the Community Service Organization, César Chávez was given a grant by the AWOC to organize in Oxnard, California which culminated in a protest of domestic U.S. agricultural workers of the U.S. Department of Labor's administration of the program. In January 1961, in an effort to publicize the effects of bracero labor on labor standards, the AWOC led a strike of lettuce workers at 18 farms in the Imperial Valley, an agricultural region on the California-Mexico border and a major destination for braceros.
The end of the Bracero program in 1964 was followed by the rise to prominence of the United Farm Workers and the subsequent transformation of American migrant labor under the leadership of César Chávez. Dolores Huerta was also a leader and early organizer of the United Farm Workers. According to Manuel Garcia y Griego, a political scientist and author of The Importation of Mexican Contract Laborers to the United States 1942-1964, the Contract-Labor Program “left an important legacy for the economies, migration patterns, and politics of the United States and Mexico.” Griego's article discusses the bargaining position of both countries, arguing that the Mexican government lost all real bargaining power after 1950.
The guest worker program continued until 1964.