WWII-era immigrant worker program teaches lessons for modern immigration debate

The heated immigration debate in Washington is shining a spotlight on a World War II-era agreement that allowed millions of Mexican immigrants to work in the U.S. as guest workers.

The Bracero Program grew out of a series of bilateral agreements between Mexico and the United States that allowed Mexicans to come to the U.S. to work from 1942 through 1964 under short-term, agricultural labor contracts. “Bracero” loosely translates to “manual laborer.”

The program was debated during a summit Friday and Saturday at the University of Texas at El Paso, hosted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“There were bosses that were stricter than others. Some treated braceros very harshly, others did not,” said Francisco Uvina, who was a bracero for seven years.

Uvina described his time working on cotton fields to Fox News through a translator.

“Braceros suffered a lot back then. Long nights. Picking while bent over. Hard work. Personally, I didn’t have a boss that treated me badly, but other braceros did. They would be taken advantage of,” said Uvina.

The first men crossed the border 75 years ago this September. That’s when braceros started what they said was difficult but worthwhile work for farmers.

One historian has said the braceros program was beneficial to many Americans -- but also started the pattern of bringing temporary workers into the U.S. and pushing them out when they’re done. Some braceros also became full-time residents and citizens of the U.S., starting families that are now multiple generations deep.

The fate of other programs that currently allow migrants to stay in the U.S., like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, remains up in the air.

“In these times when immigration is in the news and it’s so debated and so contested, I think the more that we in the United States know about immigration policy, the better we can actually make decisions,” said Yolinda Leyva, Director of the Institute of Oral History at UTEP.

One of today’s closest equivalents to the bracero program would be the H-2A visa, which allows immigrants to work temporary or seasonal agricultural jobs. To qualify, employers must show there are not enough U.S. workers who are able to do the work.

But the visa program has its critics.

Such temporary work programs “just provide a way for employers to control very low paid work force,” said Leyva. “I think that’s a bad pattern to have. If we want workers we shouldn’t just think of them as temporary people.”

In today’s society, a bracero-type program would play a very different role than it did 75 years ago. Machines have replaced many of the jobs braceros used to perform, so farmers need fewer hands for picking, but more skilled hands that are qualified to work machinery.

“I probably wouldn’t need more than 10 to 15 max,” said Craige Miller, an owner of the Miller Farm.

Miller said he might be interested in a similar program. “I’d have to see what all the requirements would be before I could say yay or nay on the deal.”

Miller was a child when he said some 400 braceros worked on his farm. He remembers working alongside braceros, packing cotton into the back of trucks. Miller said they were a big help, back when they picked the cotton by hand.

“Harvesting the crop would have been a real challenge without the bracero program,” said Miller.

But now Miller picks his cotton with a machine that he says can do as much work in a day as 500 men.

Coming to America gave many braceros their only opportunities to make a living, even if it wasn’t much.

“In that time, in southern Mexico, there was no work. So we decided to come on board as braceros. They paid a little more money,” said Uvina. “There was more poverty in Mexico.”

Uvina said he used to make 50 cents an hour as a bracero, but back then he could live on $5.00 a week.

Uvina was brought into the United States through Rio Vista farm in Socorro, Texas. He said he worked on a cotton farm in Socorro for six years until he said he was fired for complaining about cold conditions. From there, Uvina said he went to a farm in California for six months, and then back to Fabens, Texas, for one more year.

Now decades after he first arrived to work a temp job, Uvina is an American citizen along with his children and grandchildren.