The New Bracero Program within Comprehensive Immigration Reform

The New Bracero Program within Comprehensive Immigration Reform

The current debate over a comprehensive immigration reform is one chapter in a century of U.S. immigration policy regulating Mexican migration and a brief review of that history is the focus of this article. Of particular interest in this discussion is the continual reliance upon guest worker programs as a means of accessing Mexican labor, a policy which goes back to the first program initiated in 1917 which functioned till 1921. The second contract labor program was the infamous Bracero Program which lasted from 1942 till 1964. A current guest worker policy known as the H2A, initiated via the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, brings in some 65,000 workers every year. In continuing that history, the recently passed Senate immigration reform bill, S. 744 includes a new guest worker agreement to eventually import up to 377,000 workers into a variety of enterprises; the bill remains seemingly perpetually stalled in the House. A key argument put forward by the bill’s proponents from both sides of the aisle is that a guest worker program would serve to funnel potential undocumented into a state managed labor program. Several civil rights organizations have come out against S. 744 and one of the key points of opposition is the inclusion of a new guest worker agreement. Let us review that history.


A Century of Mexican Migration: Documented, Undocumented and Guest Workers

For over a century Mexico has served as a prime source of cheap labor: accessible, needing to work and deportable when the economy shrinks. Indeed, Mexican migration, legal, undocumented and temporary contract labor (guest workers), has arrived in three phases. The first occurred between 1900 and 1930 when at least 750,000 moved north, a migration propelled by the economic expansion of the U.S. into Mexico (and not the Mexican Revolution as is often used to explain this phase of Mexican migration). American railroads, mining operations and oil corporations, welcomed with open arms by the Porfiriato elites, invested over a billion dollars in Mexico by 1910, constructed 15,000 miles of railroads, developed nearly 300 mining sites and opened significant oil explorations around Veracruz. The construction of railroads over traditional campesino villages uprooted 300,000 peasants sending them on migratory trails becoming a surplus labor pool quickly recruited by the corporations to serve as work crews, particularly in mines and railroads. As such, the migration streamed northward within Mexico where they lived in mining and railroad camps, where the majority were located. The same companies then recruited the uprooted on a large scale into the U.S. and the border doors were opened widely to allow Mexican labor, documented or not, along with a guest worker program (1917-1921) establishing the first phase of Mexican migration.[1] The onset of Great Depression reduced the need for labor and a drive to deport Mexicans, citizen or not, became the order of the day. Approximately 500,000 were either forced or convinced to return. Soon, things were to change and into the 1940s Mexican labor once again became desirable.

The second phase, the Bracero Program, began in 1942 and brought over 5 million male guest workers recruited overwhelmingly from rural peasant villages in Mexico. The Program was ostensibly established to overcome a wartime labor shortage, but no evidence existed of a labor shortage and that it lasted till 1964 speaks of other reasons for having the Program. However, the goal of the Program, which was strongly lobbied for by the farming corporations, was to get rid of unions and strikes. In California alone, 140 strikes were carried out in the 1930s, but after the Bracero Program was established there were no successful farmworker unionization or strikes. Moreover, a steady stream of controlled, inexpensive, accessible and easily disposed of labor was sent to the corporate front door under a program managed by the federal government. The Program also signaled the availability of work and undocumented began to arrive in large numbers. The solution: a combination of an expanded Bracero Program established in the early fifties and the INS’ Operation Wetback which deported over a million back to Mexico.

What is also significant is that the Program which brought in as many as half a million a year in the mid-fifties, institutionalized working in the US. When the Program came under bitter attack from activists like Ernesto Galarza and was terminated in 1964 the men continued to migrate without contracts, as undocumented. An era of undocumented migration began and the national question around the undocumented, which soon utilized “illegal aliens” to define the migrants, began to surface.


The Third Phase: Channel the Undocumented into a Guest Worker Program

The rise of undocumented migration moved upward with the neoliberal trade policies initiated by the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) in the 80s but rose explosively with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. The dramatic rise of undocumented migration followed the signing of NAFTA which opened the door to U.S. agricultural and livestock products which competed with Mexico’s small peasant holdings producing the same products. Soon a mass uprooting took place and well over two million campesinos were removed from traditional subsistence farmlands and onto a northward trail; “illegal” immigration quickly became a critical matter across the U.S. As the undocumented entered into the job market, legislation to limit their public life such as California’s Proposition 187 soon set numerous states’ legislative agendas (which continues today, Arizona’s SB 1072 is a case in point). However, the matter of moving the undocumented (and those who might cross without papers) into the job market via a guest worker program simultaneously took on life.

The Essential Immigrant Worker Coalition, representing national businesses including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, lobbied with the Clinton administration in the late 90s to establish a new guest worker program, which Clinton supported but never followed through. The Bush administration revived the effort in the early decade and brought forward negotiations with Mexico’s President Fox for “a new guest worker program that would legitimize many who entered the country illegally”, which was derailed by 9/11 but the measure never left his desk. In 2004 Bush proposed legislation that the undocumented were to “be authorized as guest workers for three years and then required to return home”. Bush described his proposal as “a temporary worker card that allows a willing worker and a willing employer to mate up, as long as there is not an American willing to do the job…It makes sure that people coming across the border are humanely treated…” Although the proposal included importing guest workers, it failed to generate support, conservatives labeled the allowing of the undocumented to become guest workers as an amnesty for law violators. 

Several more proposals were brought forward by both sides of the aisle for a new guest worker program including what became known as AgJobs. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) proposed such a measure in 2006 which would require undocumented farmworkers to enlist, pass a review and work for 150 days a year for three years or 100 days a year for five years and at the end, with good deportment, would be granted legalization after paying a $400 fine. Agribusiness interests were strong supporters of the measure, as a report from the Senator’s office noted:

Senator Feinstein was joined at a news conference by dozens of growers and nurserymen. These growers were among the more than 100 members of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform (ACIR) who traveled to Washington, DC, to call on Congress to pass responsible immigration reform[2].

What is not noted by the supporters of the measure is that those who enlist will in effect become guest workers for set number of years, guaranteeing agricultural corporations a labor supply working at “prevailing wages,” in effect poverty wages. No immigration reform measure passed except that border enforcement rose to new heights.

The election of Obama did not alter the immigration agenda; however, deportations rose to new levels and detention facilities soon came to house over 30,000 undocumented waiting for final decisions. In 2011 the Obama Administration issued a report, Building a 21st Century Immigration System, in which the administration laid out plans for a temporary worker program and AgJobs. The proposal recommended reforms “that carefully balances the needs of businesses and worker rights” to the H2A agricultural worker and H2B non-agricultural guest worker programs.[3] Reform meant improving an existing guest worker program to serve businesses better while preserving existing worker rights. It should be noted that the Bracero Program guaranteed worker rights that domestic workers never dreamed of and that only if domestic workers were not available would braceros be contracted. But those federal regulations were virtually ignored and the violations were sanctioned by local, state and federal authorities.


Building Support for S. 744

On Easter Sunday 2013 newspapers announced that a deal had been reached between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO on a general framework for a new guest worker program within S. 744, the comprehensive immigration reform proposed by the Senate bi-partisan committee gang of eight. Although Senate and House committees were assigned independently to reach agreements on CIR, the matter of a guest worker program which both parties supported, was assigned to the Chamber and AFL-CIO for negotiation and inclusion in S. 744. That the guest worker program was intended by the Senate and House committees to be included in the final version (if one were to be reached) of comprehensive immigration reform is not at all surprising. The Congressional Research Service reported that since 2006 most CIR proposals have favored “[l]arge-scale low skilled temporary worker programs.” While the Dream Act or a 13 year pathway to legalization and citizenship for the undocumented has raised storms of controversy, the 2012 election prompted the Republican leadership to engage CIR. However, on the matter of guest workers both parties had long before reached general agreement and it has been a goal that U.S. corporations dependent on Mexico’s cheap, accessible, controlled and disposable labor have been championing for over a century. Including a new guest worker program in immigration reform has little to do with reform and has much to do with the history of guest worker programs employed by the U.S., in particular, the Bracero Program. Unfortunately, several immigrant rights organizations lobby worthy objectives, legalization, path to citizenship and more, but generally implicitly approve the guest worker proposals within CIR.


In Opposition to CIR 744

In the agreement reached between the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce which allowed the inclusion of guest worker clause in S. 744, guest workers are to be paid the prevailing wages and provided standard working and living conditions, the very same measures that were to regulate the Bracero Program which were ignored. However, in none of the proposals put forward was there any mention of the dire working and living conditions that current H2 workers experience in spite of protections written into their contracts. The Southern Poverty Law Center researched the conditions and found that “far from being treated like “guests,” these workers are systematically exploited and abused…guestworkers do not enjoy the most fundamental protections of a competitive labor market.”[4] The immigrant rights organization, International Labor Recruitment Working Group, reported that guest workers generally experience “fraud, discrimination, severe economic coercion, retaliation, blacklisting and in some cases, forced labor…”[5] H2 guest workers are supposedly afforded all sorts of protections, as were the braceros, but facts speak otherwise. A new guest worker program is designed above all else to assist businesses acquire cheap labor while the rights of workers are marginalized, at best. Natalie Gochnour, the chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, underlined the expected reform outcomes: “Fixing the immigration system will create a more attractive labor supply, will lower the costs of businesses and we will have more customers.”[6] Rather than representing labor, the AFL-CIO and the United Farmworkers Union joined with the Democratic and Republican parties in supporting key objectives designed by corporations in their search for cheap, accessible and disposable labor. Mexico continues to serve as a huge pool of labor accessed when the need arises and in that capacity Mexico is now joined by Central America and the Caribbean. Guest worker proposals remain to be addressed critically by several civil immigrant rights organizations. One that has stood fast against a new guest worker program included in S. 744 is the Dignity Campaign.

The Dignity Campaign brings together 40 grassroots community, union, religious and immigrant organizations into a loose association working to implement immigrant rights and a just reform.[7] The organization’s assessment of S. 744 appeared on an online message with a title that tells all: “The Dignity Campaign Opposes S. 744, Dignity is not for sale; No Compromises on Human Rights.”[8] The Campaign made clear that the bill was “not the immigration reform that we seek” and defined the bill as a “corporate boondoggle that will be a civil rights disaster for immigrant communities.” In another statement proposing “Real Immigration Reform” the Dignity Campaign made clear that a reform must protect “human and labor rights”. However, it warned, the “powerful voices…[the] employers’ lobby”, meaning the “corporate lobby”, play a central role in constructing immigration reform in Washington, D.C. In identifying those voices the Campaign registered the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Essential Worker Immigrant Coalition and delineated their role in reform: “They propose managing the flow of migration with more guest worker programs…”[9] A guest worker program is one means to channel migrants into temporary worker status. The conditions which drive migration are not abated.

The Dignity Campaign declared that a just reform must account for why migrants are coming at the risk of their lives and often of indebtedness. Not one supporter of the bill examined in any detail as to why migrants cross without papers except to say that they come because they are looking for work, applying the long held, traditional push-pull approach to explaining Mexican migration. In its “Real Immigration Reform” statement the Campaign defined migration as a consequence of free trade agreements. The statement read:

So long as trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA [Central American Free Trade Agreement] create economic refugees, nothing will stop the movement of people. Migration is not the accidental byproduct of the free trade system. The economies of the U.S. and other wealthy countries depend on the labor provided by the constant flow of people.[10]



Elvira Arrellano, a migrant and co-founder of the Chicago-based Familias Latinas Unidas and who was once sheltered in a church for a year, later deported and returned, wrote on the consequences of free trade policies on the economics of the sending countries. Although Arrellano’s explanation for migration is most important, it is ignored in Washington D.C. and by the supporters of S. 744:

We cross to find work, to rejoin members of our family or someone we love, sometimes our children. We do so because the economy of our country is not adequate. It is not adequate because of corruption and mismanagement—and because it has been raped by such projects as NAFTA which put five million agricultural workers out of work and sometimes off their own land; or such projects as “restructuring of debt” ordered by U.S. bankers which destroyed so many businesses.[11]

This explanation for Mexican migration stands apart from the historical explanation applied in past and present U.S. immigration policy that focused directly or indirectly at Mexico (and now S.744). The push-pull model used to explain Mexican migration, that is, poverty in Mexico (the push) and work in the U.S. (the pull) does not stand a serious historical review. Migration is generally defined within public policy circles only upon migrants after crossing the border. But studies have shown that Mexican migration originates in the interior of Mexico where the social consequences of late 19th and early 20th century economic expansionism, the Bracero Program and now NAFTA, uprooted the peasantry from their traditional lands sending them on a migratory trail which continues across the border where they are classified as illegal aliens.

Placing the U.S. policies (NAFTA) at the center for explaining the huge rise in undocumented migration in twentieth and into the 21st century is taken by several organizations and applied in their opposition to S.744. The guest worker program within S. 744 is essentially a means to channel the undocumented migration created by the North American Free Trade Agreement into a guest worker program, a state managed circular migration. Doris Meisner, former INS Commissioner and the sponsor of Operation Gatekeeper, made clear that a temporary worker program will be “in effect recreating the migration rhythm between the United States and Mexico that existed before the hardening of the US border…likely to become the norm in the next decade and beyond.”[12] Comprehensive Immigration Reform coupled with mass deportation drives, border walls and massive border surveillance seeks to direct the potential undocumented into a guest worker program as did Operation Wetback channel labor into the Bracero Program. S. 744 is no solution, rather it is a continuation of a century old policy for securing Mexican labor.


[1] For a review of the first phase of Mexican migration see Chapter Two in Gilbert Gonzalez and Raul Fernandez, A Century of Chicano History: Empire, Nations and Migration, NY: Routledge, 2003.

[2] “Senator Feinstein Calls for Inclusion of AgJOBS Legislation in Comprehensive Immigration Reform Package”, United States Senator Feinstein, May 15, 2007. http://feinstein,

[3] “Building a Twenty-First Century Immigration System”, The White House, May 2011. Pp. 25-26.

[4] “Close to Slavery: Guest Worker Programs in the United States”, Southern Poverty Law Center, 2013 Edition.

[5] “Fair Labor Recruitment”, International Labor Recruitment Working Goup,

[6] Brian Bennet, “Key Deal is Reached on Immigration”, Los Angeles Times, February 22, 2013.

[7] David Bacon, The Dignity Campaign’s Alternative Vision for Immigration Reform,” The Nation, (June 2, 2013)

[8] “The Dignity Campaign Opposes S.744 Dignity is Not For Sale; No Compromises on Human Rights,”

[9] The Dignity Campaign, “Real Immigration Reform,” ND.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Elvira Arrellano, “The Reality,” Historia Chicana, July 10, 2013.

[12] Demetrious G. Papametriou, Doris Meisner and Eleanor Shnen, “Thinking Regionally to Compete Globally: Leveraging Migration and Human Capital in the U.S., Mexico and Central America,” May, 2013, Migration Policy Institute, P.4.

Gilbert G. Gonzalez. Professor at School of Social Sciences, University of California, Irvine. He is the producer and co-director of documenatry Harvest of Loneliness. 

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