Return of the ‘braceros?’ |

Return of the ‘braceros?’

Felicia Fonseca and Sue Major Holmes
This 1950's photo provided by the University of Texas at El Paso Special Collections Dept., shows Braceros leaving Chihuahua City, Mexico, for El Paso, Texas. (AP Photo/University of Texas El Paso Special Collections Dept., File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – They were called braceros, young men from Mexico who came to the United States for two decades to help this country with the necessary work of its farms and railroads.The bracero program – conceived by the U.S. government – brought the Mexicans in as temporary workers, mainly in agriculture, to fill a labor shortage created by World War II. The program continued for years afterward, as growers regularly petitioned Congress to extend it.Now, more than 40 years later, the bracero program is being looked at again. With estimates that 12 million to 15 million illegal immigrants hold jobs in the United States today, Congress is considering a complete overhaul of the immigration system – including the possibility of some form of guest-worker program.The question is whether a new program can avoid some of the abuse and exploitation that characterized the original.From 1942 until the program ended in the 1960s, up to 5 million temporary Mexican workers followed the promise of a steady job to the United States. Jorge Bustamante, a United Nations expert on human rights of migrants, said figures show 4,203 workers came the first year; the numbers peaked at 445,197 in 1956.They were lured by wages far above what Mexicans were earning at home.”It was very easy because Mexico was suffering rampant poverty and unemployment,” Bustamante said.The bracero program was a full-service operation. Recruiters in Mexico found workers, and brought them to the U.S.-Mexico border. They came by the thousands; many traveled up to 17 hours on buses and trains from Chihuahua, Mexico, to the processing centers. From there, they were distributed to labor camps and farms. When the contracts ended, the process was reversed.Bob Porter worked with the program in the mid-1950s as director of labor for the Dona Ana County Farm Bureau in Las Cruces, N.M. His group bused workers from the El Paso, Texas, area to Las Cruces. There, farmers would apply for the number of workers they needed. On occasion, they’d request laborers by name.”People could return to farmers they had previously worked for … but it wasn’t widely available,” Porter said. “When it was allowed, it worked really well.”Intimidation factorThe bracero agreement prohibited discrimination and stipulated that Mexican workers earn the same wages as U.S. farm workers in the same area. It required free, clean, adequate lodging, and medical and sanitary services identical to those furnished to other agricultural workers.But as the years went by, the U.S. Labor Department became increasingly concerned about exploitation.For example, although the agreement promised braceros the prevailing wage, their earnings in California never really caught up, the late Ernesto Galarza wrote in “The Merchants of Labor,” a study of the program there. Braceros in California’s Imperial Valley in 1958 often received 70 cents an hour compared to $1 to $1.25 an hour for other farm laborers.University of New Mexico sociology professor Felipe Gonzales said there were other abuses – concerted attempts to subvert worker organizations, using the threat of deportation to intimidate, violating labor laws such as an eight-hour work day, or providing inadequate housing and food.Eventually, more people were showing up at recruitment centers than needed, Gonzales said. Braceros often slept on the streets or the floors of recruitment centers for days or months with little or no food waiting to be selected. Some bribed recruiters, paying up to $500, said Cris Luna, who worked as a bracero as a young man.The possibility of a U.S. job led even more people to cross the border illegally. In addition, some workers stayed between jobs instead of returning to Mexico to await a new contract. By the early 1950s, the rise in illegal immigration prompted a major increase in the Border Patrol – and indirectly reinforced the clout of growers.”The growers didn’t have to worry about maintaining control over their workers; they had Border Patrol officers,” Gonzales said. “If someone could be reported as a slacker, then they could be rounded up and sent back. That was a major intimidation factor.”‘Room for abuse’Despite written contracts, the program had few real protections for workers.”You had a lot of room for abuse,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley specializing on labor and the global economy.Camps were crowded, and braceros could face lousy pay, poor food, long hours without breaks, exposure to hazardous materials and, sometimes, physical abuse. But Shaiken said fear of losing their jobs motivated the braceros.On the other hand, some program requirements were difficult for farmers to meet. For example, the program required housing to have screened doors, bedding and utensils. But the housing sat vacant much of the year, subject to vandalism.Despite its problems, Porter feels the program benefited everyone.”Overall, it was a tremendous help to the farmers,” he said. “It was a great program and worked remarkably well.”It also was good for the workers, many of whom were destitute when they arrived, he said. Porter said braceros saved as much as they could to send to their families and bought goods – everything from tools to sewing machines – to take back.According to Galarza’s study, in 1946, between 35 percent and 45 percent of wages were sent home, and that percentage rose even higher in later years.Congress canceled the program in the early 1960s, largely because of abuses. In addition, Gonzales said, the Kennedy administration was not as sympathetic to large growers, and the growing farm labor movement was gaining attention.And farmers and ranchers turned again to Mexicans illegally crossing the border.Carlos Corella of Clint, Texas, who was in charge of bracero importation near Juarez, Mexico, for three years in the mid-1950s, said any new guest-worker program would have to include not only agriculture, but restaurants and factory work. Even that would not stop illegal immigration, he said.”They are risking a little, and they might just benefit a lot,” he said.___On the Net:Braceros history: http://www.farmworkers.orgVail, Colorado

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