Mireya Loza: 100 Years of Mexican Guest Workers in the United States

UNC Press Authors Off the Page - Expert Commentary on the Issues of the Day - Roundtable 1: #immigration

Today’s essay on #immigration comes from Mireya Loza, curator in the Division of Political History at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. She is author of Defiant Braceros: How Migrant Workers Fought for Racial, Sexual, and Political Freedom.

100 Years of Mexican Guest Workers in the United States

As institutions and communities across America begin to mark the centennial of the United States’ official entry into World War I (April 6, 1917), there is another little-told U.S. story that also marks 100 years: the guest worker program with Mexico.

Many current politicians, agribusiness owners, and those in the hospitality industry have suggested guest worker programs might function as a policy solution to immigration reform. This is not a novel concept. For a century America has relied on Mexican guest workers. The very first guest worker program brokered between Mexico and the United States was carried out during World War I. In 1917, Mexican men entered American farm fields at growers’ request after concerns the industry lacked the necessary manpower needed to pick crops due to the departure of Americans to war. While this was the first introduction of Mexican guest workers, it would not be the last.

A man on a truck uses a machine to assemble Cookie lettuce boxes in a field in the Salinas Valley, California, while braceros pick up the ready boxes to fill them with lettuce, 1956. Leonard Nadel Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

The Bracero Program

The largest and best known recruitment of guest workers, called the Bracero Program, was introduced during World War II. From 1942 to 1964, over 4.5 million contracts were issued to Mexican guest workers. To be sure the term “guest worker” was not used to describe these men, they were called braceros, a term that cast them as “arms of labor.” Some men entered the United States for one short contract of 30-60 days, while others obtained contract after contract. The Bracero Program was composed of a series of agreements that targeted Mexican males to work in two industries, railroad and agriculture. At the end of the war, U.S. veterans returned to reclaim their positions as railroad workers, thus ending the contracts of the Mexican traqueros, while the agricultural component grew in both scope and size.

An official examines a bracero’s teeth and mouth with a flashlight while others stand next to him with their backs to a wall at the Monterrey Processing Center, Mexico, 1956. Leonard Nadel Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
Although architects of the program attempted to standardize wages, living conditions, travel, and accommodations, growers were rarely held accountable when they failed to uphold these standards. The binational agreement also prevented braceros from formally entering unions, and although braceros could choose a representative to voice their interests in the fields, growers were not formally obligated to address these concerns.

While some braceros stood up and resisted this exploitation, others felt that they could not voice their concerns for fear that growers would terminate their contracts and set them on the fast track to deportation. Growers could not only terminate contracts easily, they could also blacklist braceros they viewed as “agitators” or “communists.” Some men who suffered work-related injury found it difficult to secure medical treatment and feared that demanding access to doctors could also lead to the termination of their contracts. The asymmetrical relationship between these growers and workers led to significant violations of the workers’ contracts, among them inhumane living conditions, substandard meals, and low wages.

Braceros, standing in line, show their documents to an official while more wait beyond a barbed wire fence at the Monterrey Processing Center, Mexico, 1956. Leonard Nadel Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

An Unconventional Social Standing

As a public historian who has worked to document the oral histories of this community, many have asked me: “if the conditions were so bad, why did they come?” The answer is never simple. Throughout my research, I met men who signed up as braceros because they wanted to remake themselves and others who came because they felt they had few opportunities in Mexico. When braceros entered the United States they became what labor organizer Ernesto Galarza described as “strangers in a strange land.” They occupied an interesting social space, in that they were not undocumented, not residents, and certainly not citizens.

Some braceros opted to skip out on their contracts and become undocumented laborers because they found working as undocumented labor was freeing. As one migrant worker explained, he preferred an undocumented status because, “If I didn’t like the way my boss treated me I could leave my job and find another one.” Braceros could not do the same and keep their status as guest workers. By design, the program did not create avenues for workers to find permanent status as residents in the United States.

Braceros talk, eat strawberries, and listen to the radio in a living quarter at a camp in California, 1956. Leonard Nadel Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

From Bracero to H2-A

The experiences of braceros reveal contradictions within U.S. immigration policy that render Mexican laborers as necessary and Mexican settlement as unnecessary and unwarranted. The Bracero Program cemented the idea that in modern America, Mexican workers could come in, contribute their labor and expect no avenues of permanent incorporation into American life and no legal protections as workers.

The termination of the Bracero Program did not bring an end to Mexican guest workers, as Mexicans found themselves recruited for H2 visas. This category of visa was first introduced in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, and by 1986 the status was subdivided and the letter “A” was added for agricultural workers. H2-A laborers not only walk in the historical footprints of the braceros that came before them but many are the children and grandchildren of braceros, creating one more link in the century of Mexican guest workers in America.

So after 100 years of guest workers policies, do we continue to create an unequal system in which a group of people are only valued as laborers and never given the opportunity of true belonging as American citizens?