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Bracero Program Hurt Domestic Farm Workers
Article first published in Vol. 12, 1994.
By Ronald O. Marcell
U.S. workers were made the same promise of job security, yet the bracero program brought about the loss of jobs and pay to many El Paso and other U.S. farm workers, something NAFTA supporters say will not happen this time.
The word bracero when translated means "hired hand" or "laborer" and was used to describe Mexican farm laborers brought into the United States under Public Law 45 of 1942 and 78 of 1951. The bracero program was brought about by a call from large farms because of a labor shortage. Many young men had either enlisted in the armed forces or were drafted, and the farms suffered the loss of able bodied men.
Farmers pleaded with the U.S. Government for a supply of labor, and an emergency agreement was reached between the U.S. and Mexico to import workers into the U.S. from Mexico. There were conditions attached to the agreement. For example, Mexicans imported would not be discriminated against while working in the U.S.
Instituted on August 4, 1942, Public Law 45 stated only that Mexican workers would not be subject to discrimination while in the U.S., but the law did not define what constituted discrimination. The first agreement did not have the impact on farm workers of Texas as it did on those of other states because Texas was removed from the program by the Mexican government for discriminating against the braceros. The discrimination included prohibiting the workers from eating in public restaurants. On December 31, 1947, Public Law 45 and its extensions ended.
During the 1950s, many of the same farm groups called for another bracero program because they said they could not find field workers. In July 1951, Public Law 78 was passed, bringing about the importation of workers for the second time into the United States for agricultural purposes.
Stoop labor is not nor has it ever been an easy job, but many U.S. citizens and resident aliens do this type of work year after year. With the importation of workers into the United States, many U.S. workers lost jobs or job opportunities.
Cheryl Abbot, an employee with the Texas Department of Agriculture, explained that people reporting as farm laborers declined by over a million and a half from 1950 to 1959, according to census reports. El Paso County's drop was from 10,214 in 1954 to 1,444 in 1964. During the same period, an average of almost 450,000 farm workers were imported yearly into the United States.
One of the common scenarios reported occurred in California but applied to El Paso as well. In 1951 approximately 25 percent of the tomato harvest was done by Mexican nationals, yet five years later over 90 percent of the harvest was done by Mexicans.
To say all positions were lost to braceros is unfair since some positions were lost to modernization and to mechanical harvesting machines. Texas had gone from harvesting 25 percent of its cotton by machine in 1956 to 78 percent in 1962.
Public Law 78 was supposed to protect domestic laborers from loss of jobs, but a 1959 study by the Labor Department found the law regulating importation of Mexican workers "had adversely affected American workers' wages and job opportunities." Farm laborers were never paid well, but the work provided a living for them and their families.
When the farm market was flooded with braceros, many farmers offered jobs to U.S. workers at reduced pay. Several farmers told workers, "If you don't like the pay, don't work. I'll hire braceros for less money."
Ramon Torres-Hernandez, a U.S. citizen and agriculture worker in El Paso during the 1950s, remembers that in 1959 he was making 61 cents an hour, 10 cents more that the braceros were making, but still 30 cents below the national average.
One farm worker who testified in front of Congress said that before the importation of braceros, he made about $4.00 per 100 pounds of cotton picked. After the braceros were brought in, wages were cut to $3.00 and $3.25 per 100 pounds of cotton.
Farmers were required only to pay Mexican workers a prevailing wage which the employees themselves could set. As with NAFTA, the bracero program had laws strictly forbidding cutting wages, but it was still done.
Although the U.S. farmer succeeded financially during this program, it was the bracero who truly won. U.S. farm salaries were nine to sixteen times higher than prevailing Mexican wages. In 1956, the Mexican minimum daily wage was 5.99 pesos compared to 70.00 pesos offered by U.S. farmers. Wages that were high for Mexican workers were still low by U.S. standards, and Texas paid some of the lowest wages of all states using the program.
However, some braceros were content with the program because they were treated fairly.
Vicente Figueroa, a former bracero, says, "I started working with the bracero program first because I needed the money. But I returned several seasons because the work was good, and I was treated well." Figueroa says he suffered no discrimination or conflicts with either the farmers or other people in the town he worked in.
Francisco Villegas and Jose Jimenez, both former braceros, also expressed similar feelings about the program, and all three wish there were another program legally allowing them to come and work in the U.S.
The bracero program ended on December 31, 1964, with the realization that the program had adverse effects on domestic workers. As early as 1962, the program had begun to lose its appeal to farmers when federal laws were passed to protect domestic workers.
Minimum wages were set for braceros and they could not to be used as strikebreakers in states where farm workers were unionized. Hiring a bracero became just as costly as hiring a domestic worker.
Many employers and workers on both sides of the border are enthusiastic about NAFTA, just as U.S. farmers who used braceros embraced that program. While the number of foreign workers to be hired under NAFTA is just a fraction of the number of braceros who legally worked in the U.S., some border residents worry that this latest international labor agreement could have similar job and wage repercussions.