The Yardstick – “Let’s Look at the Bracero Program”


Striking farm workers hold a demonstration at a lettuce field, Salinas, California, c. 1970.

Courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

Between 1942 and 1964, the U.S. government sanctioned what was termed the bracero program, an agreement between the U.S. and Mexico to bring temporary contract laborers in from the latter into the former to work on farms due to a labor shortage caused by World War II and the deportation of Mexican workers during the Great Depression. The agreement was extended at regular intervals, and in 1951 President Harry Truman signed Public Law 78 that included protections for these workers. The program was discontinued in 1964 after numerous complaints from domestic workers that the Mexican contract workers were taking jobs away from Americans.

The program was vehemently opposed by Chavez and the National Farm Workers Association (later United Farm Workers) for just this reason. By 1973, however, a new threat to domestic workers was seen by the UFW and their supporters, this time in the form of illegal immigrants. These undocumented workers were hired by growers who did not have to provide the same pay benefits they would to domestic unionized workers.

In his The Yardstick column of October 21, 1974, Monsignor George Higgins addressed this topic, stating that in a meeting in Washington D.C. that September, Chavez said “If we could get the illegals out of the grape fields, and if we could get the illegals out of the lettuce fields, the growers would have to come and meet with us in 24 hours.” Higgins writes that attempts were being made by the government of Mexico at that time to reinstate the bracero program by using these undocumented workers, and that it would be a new boon for growers.

YS-Bracero Program.pdf

"Let's Look at the Bracero Program"
Courtesy of ACUA

At the time of the writing, Higgins said that the U.S. government seemed unwilling to cooperate with Mexico in this program, and he hoped that opposition would continue for the sake of the domestic farm worker. Since the program was not renewed, Higgins appeared to get his wish.



1. How did the bracero program empower growers to hire extremely cheap labor?

2. How did the growers circumvent the ending of the bracero program?

3. How did growers lure immigrants to California and the southwest?