Public Law 78 - Why We Should End the Bracero Program

-David R. James

From 1885 to 1951, the U.S. Immigration laws specifically prohibited the importation of alien contract labor. Farm owners throughout the Southwest and West have long ignored this law in their recruitment and importation of Mexican, Japanese, Hindu and other foreign laborers.(1) In 1943, to meet the critical wartime manpower shortage, 52,000 Mexicans ("braceros") were admitted to the U.S. to work in agriculture and railroad maintenance jobs.(2) A maximum of 36,000 braceros worked in California during this wartime "crisis". (3) The program was never terminated after the war. In 1958, under P.L. 78 which has laid down the provisions of this program since 1951, there were 3,250 braceros in California (4). Since 1956, there has been an annual average of 400,000 braceros in the entire nation (5).

Under P.L. 78, the Secretary of Labor is required to administer its provisions designed to protect both domestic and Mexican workers. One extremely important provision is that braceros are not to be imported unless there is a shortage of available domestic workers. The bracero is to be paid the prevailing wage and he is not to be imported if such importations would depress the working conditions of the industry. Those who are imported are to be guarenteed a minimum amount of work at the prevailing wage; they are to be transported in equipment which meets certain minimal standards, to be housed in facilities that are sanitary, and to be protected from accident and illness losses by an insurance policy (6). That these provisions of the law are met has been vigorously denied by many observers (7).

The principal argument made in favor of P.L. 78 is that it allows for the problem of a labor "shortage" in agriculture to be met. That whatever labor "shortage" as does exist in agriculture has been the result of abysmally bad working conditions and wage scales is never mentioned by the apologists for the law. That the importation of braceros depresses domestic farm workers leaving the Imperial and Lower Rio Grande valleys has been directly proportional to the use of braceros in the fields(8). American farm workers who once worked permanently as farm workers in these year-round growing areas have been forced as a result of bracero competition to become migratory. There is reason to believe that the working days of these laborers has been cut by 1/3 as a direct consequence of the bracero program. The number of workers so affected in the valleys mentioned is at least 50,000 (9).

The second major argument for the retention of P.L. 78 is that American labor will not do "stoop" labor. Such arguments, as was pointed out by the President's Commission on Migratory Labor, date back to at least 1917 and have been constantly used by agricultural and industrial employers who desire a cheap labor market(10). Such arguments fail, conveniently enough, to refer to the "stoop" labor of say the carpenter and roofer who, because of the wages and conditions offered by the construction industry, do not hesitate to do such labor.

The argument that a labor "shortage" is furthered by the "stoop" work involved in agriculture has a corollary in the notion that farm work is itself "unskilled" and, for this reason, is unattractive to many breadwinners in the U.S. That such labor is "unskilled" is belied by the facts of the industry. It is true, of course, that many farm laborers do little else than pick up vegetables which are lying on the ground. It is also true, however, that many farm workers operate expensive machinery which demand considerable skill. Many more, moreover, perform such tasks as pruning of trees, an operation which unless performed by skilled workers can mean the loss of years of growth. While many other examples of the variety of skills needed by the farm laborer might be cited, the degree of skill in the industry at large may be imputed from the fact that agriculture has the third highest accident rate of any industry in the U.S.(11). For the nation as a whole, mining and construction lead but agriculture is ahead of transportation, service, public utilities, manufacturing and trade(12).


One of the most often quoted arguments used in favor of P.L. 78 is that it greatly benefits the braceros themselves, as well as the whole Mexican economy. Let us examine this. It may be true that, in the short run, braceros are able to find higher wages and steadier employment than in Mexico. However, the contracts are often for a six week period only. The average stay of a bracero is only 3.1 months(13). The $14-$15 he sends home weekly is not enough for him to invest in land, livestock, seed or equipment after he pays his most immediate family expenses. Moreover, while the prospective bracero is waiting in Mexico hoping to secure such a contract, he is obliged to refuse any local employment. The disruption thereby caused the Mexican economy and labor market is hard to estimate but undeniably real. It is a matter of fact that the bracero is, more often than not, unemployed and unproductive during his wait in Mexico for a new contract. There is usually a legion of waiting braceros in Mexico during all but the peak seasons in the U.S.(14). As a consequence, the bracero program creates local relief and sociological problems within Mexico that are getting worse each year. This is true even without mentioning the serious effects the program has on family life and other social institutions. Finally, it should be noted that the program allows the deep-seated economic problems of Mixico to remain insoluble. It allows Mexico's leaders to postpone even the barest beginnings on the difficult thinking and planning which ultimate economic solutions will surely require.

In conclusion, probably nothing better can be said that to quote from the U.S. Senate subcommittee's report on the migrant farm laborer(15):

"Apart from all of the above is the moral question. The foreign migrant is indentured to a particular farmer of farm association for the duration of his contract. One grower, speaking of the Mexican labor program, said that we used to own slaves, now we rent them from the Government. If, indeed, the few large farms which employ most of the migrant farm labor are unable to produce our fruits and vegetables at wages and under working conditions sufficiently attractive to recruit domestic labor, it seems preferable for the Government to subsidize them directly rather than by recruiting foreign labor at "coolie" wages."

This issue of the bracero program is inseperable from other much needed reforms in the field of farm labor. In addition to working for the abolition of P.L. 78, the author would suggest that student groups interested in this problem should work for the following things:

  1. State and federal legislation to cover farm workers with minimum wage and maximum hours, workmen's compensation, effective social security and unemployment insurance.
  2. Legislation recognizing the collective bargaining rights of the farm laborer.
  3. Increased afforts toward fair and complete enforcement of existing legislation designed to protect the farm laborer.
  4. Elimination of local residence requirements for public assistance, so that farm laborers may qualify more easily than they can now.
  5. Institution of State and inter-state annual worker plans, either through public agencies or with some public aid, to more effeciently utilize the domestic farm labor force. This might possibly supplement the hiring hall method of recruiting currently being used in other industries.

Selected Bibliography - appended to the whole body of working papers on farm labor.

1. Agricultural Workers' Organizing Committee (AWOC), AFL-CIO, Human Resources and California Agriculture, 1959, Stockton, p.13.
2. U.S. Senate, Migrant Farm Worker, p.10.
3. Op. cit.
4. Op cit., p.14.
5. Op:cit., P.10.
< 6. Public Law 78, 82nd Congress, as amended and other docs. in U.S. Department of Labor, Information Concerning Entry of Mexican Agricultural Workers in the United States, 1959, Washington, D.C.
7. See E. Galarza, Strangers in Our Fields, 2nd ed. 1956 (pub. by Joint United States-Mexico Trade Union Committee).
8. AWOC, Op.cit., p.14.
9. Ibid.
10. US Senate, Op.cit, p.12.
11. Ibid. p.61.
12. Ibid.
13. AWOC, pg. 15.
14 Ibid., p.16.
15. U.S. Senate, Op.cit., p.13.E