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Snapshots in a Farm Labor Tradition

Howard R. Rosenberg
We are very grateful to Jack Lloyd and Hilda Mayer for providing these photos and personal observations on the circumstances around them. Ms. Mayer was on the administrative staff of the Farm Security Administration and its successor, the War Food Administration, in Mexico City in 1942-46 and in Los Angeles during 1947. She then joined the Ventura County Citrus Growers' Committee, Oxnard, where she served as office manager through 1969. As an officer of the U.S. Department of Labor from 1958 through 1961, Mr. Lloyd enforced employer compliance with terms of the Bracero Program. He organized and managed Coastal Growers citrus harvesting association, Ventura County, from 1962 until his retirement in 1986.
High rates of unemployment and underemployment today make farm labor shortages of the past seem even longer ago than they were. The very idea of a tight labor market rings peculiar to people who are either young enough to have not experienced one or old enough to have failing memory of those they lived through. Members of my generation may qualify for tolerance under both these criteria. But acute shortages have occurred, and programs established by our federal government to help cope with them have left their legacies.

Near the end of World War I, economic expansion reduced availability of labor for agriculture and led to a formal guestworker arrangement with the Republic of Mexico. In May 1917 the U.S. Department of Labor issued an order allowing farmers to bring Mexicans here exempt from the usual head tax, literacy test, and other restrictions as long as they were to perform agricultural work. After the wartime emergency order expired in 1920, immigration and hiring of Mexican agricultural workers expanded through informal arrangements, even as quotas were being imposed to stem the postwar flow of immigrants from non-western (chiefly European) nations. A few legislative proposals that would have similarly controlled Mexican immigration all failed in the later 1920s.

The great economic contraction that began in 1929, however, did much of what this legislation would have. Scarcity of job opportunities in and out of agriculture had a chilling effect on new immigration from Mexico. While prospective entrants were discouraged from coming, immigrants already here were encouraged socially as well as economically to go home, their repatriation peaking in 1931-32. Climbing unemployment meant even greater hardships for minority group members displaced by refugees from dust bowl and industrial states. Many Mexicans were forcibly deported by U.S. authorities, others merely left to their own devices and whatever assistance they could muster through the consul or local agencies.

An official welcome to Mexican workers was again extended ten years later, when the World War II effort had drawn U.S. citizens away from agriculture, and it lasted for more than two decades. The "Bracero Program" ran from 1942 through 1964 with an evolving set of rules initially established as the Bracero Agreement of 1942, continued after the war emergency under a Proviso to the Immigration Act of 1917, and further codified as Public Law 78 (amending the Agriculture Act of 1949) in 1951, during the Korean conflict that was absorbing much U.S. manpower.

In all, nearly 5 million foreign workers were contracted to work through the Bracero Program. During 1956-59, with use of the program at its peak, some 450,000 Braceros worked on nearly 50,000 farms in 38 states. More than three-quarters in 1959, however, were concentrated in Texas and California, 94 percent in those two states plus Arizona, New Mexico, and Arkansas. With increasing mechanization of the cotton harvest, California overtook Texas in 1962 as the leading user of Bracero labor. Tomatoes, citrus, lettuce, other vegetables, cotton, sugar cane, and strawberries were the crops in which most Bracero labor was applied that year. Ranked by ratio of foreign labor to all labor employed, the most Bracero-dependent crops were lettuce, sugar cane, cucumbers, melons, tomatoes, citrus, sugar beets, and strawberries.

From the outset the Mexican government was interested in cooperating but mindful of the depression-era experiences of its citizens who had worked on U.S. farms. Its leaders insisted on having the 1942 Bracero Agreement include special provisions to safeguard guestworker welfare. The U.S. War Food Administration served as the contractor of Mexican workers, and each Bracero became party to a written contract promising a minimum wage, employment or subsistence payments for at least 75 percent of his time in the United States, transportation from and back to the recruitment center, and living expenses while traveling. With domestic labor increasingly available after the war, official Bracero admissions dropped from roughly 80,000 in fiscal years 1944 and 1945 to about 20,000 in fiscal 1947 (12 months ending June 30, 1947). Meanwhile illegal immigration began to surge.

Program revisions in 1948 shifted the contractor role to the individual farm employer and removed from the U.S. government responsibility for guaranteeing terms of the work contract. An intergovernmental agreement the next year allowed for the contracting of Mexican agricultural laborers already in the United States on or before August 1, 1949. During the following 11 months, a total of 19,813 Mexican farm workers were admitted into this country and another 96,239 already here were contracted under the 1949 agreement. Public concern mounted in Mexico about how the reduction of U.S. government control was affecting Bracero terms of employment, and in the United States about how the guestworker program was affecting the domestic labor force.

Congress addressed these concerns when it enacted P.L. 78 on July 12, 1951, giving new structure to the Bracero Program. This law, refined through amendments at virtually every biennial extension, authorized the Secretary of Labor to arrange for recruitment of Mexicans to work temporarily in U.S. agriculture when (1) U.S. domestic workers were not sufficiently available, (2) employment of Mexican workers would not adversely affect wages and working conditions of U.S. workers similarly employed, and (3) employers had made reasonable efforts to attract enough U.S. workers. It was up to state employment agencies to certify shortages, investigate potential adverse effects, and certify employers to contract with foreign workers. The federal government arranged for the movement of workers from Mexico. Bracero employers were strictly forbidden from hiring unauthorized foreign workers. If found with even a single such illegal worker, their certifications to employ any Braceros at all were subject to summary revocation.

Duration of a Bracero work contract could range from four weeks to six months, extendible to 18 months. Employers were required to guarantee employment for 75 percent of the contract period, pay the prevailing wage in their area, supply adequate meals at limited charge and housing at no charge to the worker, provide medical care, and furnish free transportation between Mexico and the work location. Braceros were advised to call the nearest Mexican consulate if they wanted to lodge any complaint about unfair treatment under the work contract. The consul was to routinely relay the complaint to the U.S. Department of Labor, which had agents assigned to investigate cases and empowered to issue remedial orders. A major criticism of the program was that this enforcement machinery was intimidating to many aggrieved workers and insufficiently staffed to handle even the cases that were brought.

Probably contributing most to the program's ultimate termination was the sense that it was preventing normal interplay of labor supply and demand, infringing on employment opportunities for U.S. resident workers, and dragging down their wage levels. With each successive extension, proponents of the Bracero Program faced greater opposition. Reduction of demand for Braceros after 1959 was related not only to mechanization in cotton and sugar beet production but also to tightened enforcement of program requirements. Tests for "adverse effect" were made more specific, and in early 1962 Bracero wage rates were raised sharply to a level determined to protect the wages of U.S. workers. When P.L. 78 came up for renewal in 1963, Congress decided to give it but one final year.

Representative B. F. Sisk of California, a long time supporter of the program, observed that ". . . the time has come to serve notice on the American farmer that he and we combined must come up with an alternative program. . . This is the last time I shall enter the well to ask for an extension. . . We have come to the end of the line." In his statement upon the end of the Bracero Program on December 31, 1964, Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz presented three policies to guide the government's role in the farm labor market: (1) there will be no administrative extension of the situation existing under Public Law 78; (2) the responsibilities of the Secretary of Labor under the Immigration and Nationality Act will be strictly administered; and (3) an active domestic labor recruitment program has been instituted and must be continued.

The accompanying photos show steps in contracting for employment on U.S. farms in 1943, during the very first year of the 22-year Bracero Program, when it was a World War II emergency effort. The Bracero Agreement between Mexico and the United States became effective in August 1942, and Mexican farm laborers began to enter El Paso under the program in late September that year. Recruitment was directed for a brief period by the Farm Security Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and then assumed by the War Food Administration, U.S. Department of Labor. At that stage of the program a soccer stadium in Mexico City was the screening and contracting center for all prospective Braceros.

Further reading on the Bracero Program:

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