Classroom Resource: The Bracero Program and Guest Workers

by Zhaoyang Liu

N.B. – This resource includes quotations with racist anti-Mexican language.

Guest workers, in the most basic sense, are foreigners who are temporarily permitted to live in a host country under contracts of manual labor. The term itself is often linked to its German counterpart, Gastarbeiter, which described the Turks that West Germany recruited to help rebuild after World War II.

Perhaps one of the the most significant programs that brought temporary guest workers into the United States, the Bracero Program of the mid-twentieth century involved agreements between the U.S. and Mexico to send Mexican workers to the States for use by American farmers. Around the time of World War II, some Americans were concerned that the country would need a supplementary workforce should their country join the conflict. Mexican leaders were initially uninterested in providing these workers, but when both Mexico and the United States joined the struggle against the Axis, they saw sending workers as a way to support the war effort. Mexico could provide jobs for its unemployed men, who would be able to bring back useful skills upon their return, while the United States could bolster its workforce as many American men went to war. The program was heavily criticized by American labor unions, who perceived no labor shortage, and Texas farmers, who disliked the bureaucracy now being imposed upon the importation of Mexican farm workers. On August 4, 1942, the United States and Mexico penned a provisional agreement regarding the temporary guest workers, officially titled the Mexican Farm Labor Program.

Between the years of 1942 and 1964, around 4.6 million bracero contracts were signed, and for each year between 1948 to 1964, around 200,000 Mexican workers were transported to the United States. This totaled to around two million individual guest workers. The agreements between the U.S. and Mexican were consolidated by the Agricultural Act of 1949 (Public Law 78) and its subsequent amendment, the Migrant Labor Agreement of 1951. There were rules regarding how the braceros should be used and treated; they were only supposed to be commissioned for areas with certified labor shortages, could not be used to break strikes, had to be paid similar wages as their American counterparts and were to receive adequate amenities. However, these regulations were not always heeded. The result was that American farmers could take advantage of the guest workers as a cheap workforce, causing farm wages to drop during the years of the program.

Inspecting the Bracero Program is important for garnering a better understanding of the nature of guest worker programs and the trials and tribulations that accompany them. How does examining the treatment of these workers by the American government and the logistical challenges posed by such a program form a more complete picture of how migrant workers are perceived by a host country? Furthermore, what kind of economic situations gave rise to the use of guest laborers and how does that affect the sentiment surrounding them? The following excerpts from the correspondences between Senator Clinton Anderson of New Mexico and President Truman, as well as between Senator Carl Hayden of Arizona and the Yuma Producers Cooperative Associations, both dating from 1949, may give insight into these matters.

In the first set of letters, Senator Clinton writes to President Truman about the conditions surrounding the deportation of contracted Mexican workers. Using racist language to refer to Mexican workers, he cites the words of one of the largest farmers in his state:

“‘This morning’s paper states that 150 wetbacks are to come before Federal Judge Thomason in El Paso for deportation… Farmers are desperate. The labor contract negotiated by the State Department and Mexico is so absurd and unworkable that no farmers will sign it… Unless we can use Mexican wetbacks farmers will lose hundreds of thousands of dollars of deterioration of cotton in the fields.’”

He then adds a statement of his own, and, as in the previous post, he uses a racist slur:

“This just shows how difficult they are making the situation. They give us an unworkable contract and then start picking up wetbacks so that we can’t have any type of labor.”

In the latter set of letters, the vice president of the Yuma Producers Cooperative Associations writes to Senator Hayden, addressing the policies of the Bracero program. He writes about how American farmers expressed apprehension towards both the labor agreement rules (discharge proceedings, expenses, responsibilities, etc.) and the workers themselves. He is particularly upset that Bracero workers to present their concerns to the Mexican consulate. The following is an excerpt from the first of these letters:

“This contract and agreement was arrived at without giving any of the users an opportunity to comment on it, which I believe is very unfair. I think our officials should have refused any agreement that worked such a hardship on the United States farmer, as this one will, if it is not modified. I sent you a telegram, yesterday from El Paso, where a large meeting of users of this labor from Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California met and they were all agreed that this is a very tough contract.”

Similar beliefs are reflected in the second letter:

“Each year these contracts become tougher and tougher and it is getting to where it is showing strong hand methods Mexican authorities [sic] using to help us out on our labor problems [sic] in fact trying to and getting away with making better bargains on their labor than what is expected of us on our own American labor. Present contract if put into effect would enable Mexican worker without any excuse whatever to make unfavorable and troublesome reports to Mexican consul and might bring about conditions where American contractor for this labor would get stuck for a lot of money before the situation was corrected.”

If you wish to view the documents in their entirety, they can be found at the following link:

Reflection Questions:

1. “Wetback” is a derogatory term referring to Mexicans living in the United States. While most sources suggest that the term refers to people who have come to the United States without proper documentation, it is often used to target all people of Mexican-American heritage. Considering both the use of “wetback” and the context of the situation, how do the farmer and Senator Clinton’s statements highlight the precarious situation faced by Braceros? What does the language reveal about the relationship dynamic between American farmers and Braceros? What are the short term and long term impacts of racist language on those that are targeted as well as on the society at large?

2. What is the concern being expressed by the vice president of the Yuma Producers Cooperative Associations? What insights does his concern give you into the challenges of implementing a fair guest worker program? How would the situation be different if the workers were recognized as permanent residents of the United States?

3. Most of the resources available on the Braceros in U.S. archives are from non-Mexicans. Many of the resources available with the voices of the Braceros are in Spanish, and therefore not easily understood by those that don’t speak Spanish. What is lost by not hearing, or not understanding, the perspective of the Braceros themselves? Whose responsibility is it to share those stories? What might people who do not speak Spanish learn if they were able to understand the stories of the Bracero workers? 

Note: The Smithsonian Institution has created an archive of Bracero stories, many of which are available online as audio recordings.

4. The Bracero Program was a temporary guest worker program. What do you see as the advantages of creating temporary worker programs? Who benefits from such programs? What might be the disadvantages of this kind of program as compared to creating opportunities for people to immigrate permanently?