Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Twice in the twentieth century the United States recruited Mexican workers for seasonal employment on American farms, and twice large numbers of Mexicans were repatriated. The first government-approved recruitment of Mexican workers occurred on May 23, 1917, when the Department of Labor permitted Mexicans to enter the United States to work for farmers for up to one year. Many Mexicans had previously left the United States in the spring of 1917, in part because of rumors that they would be drafted into the army. To replace them, as well as to replace American residents who were drafted, Mexicans were legally admitted.

Mexicans were eager to emigrate. During the Mexican Revolution (1913–20), the seven west-central states of Mexico–Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Guanajuato, Jalisco, and Michoacán–were a battleground between the central government in Mexico City and revolutionaries from Mexican border states, and the fighting led most haciendas to reduce their employment. Between May 1917 and June 1920 some 51,000 Mexicans entered the United States legally under these exemptions. Eighty percent were farmworkers, including sugar beet workers in the Great Plains; others worked on the railroads and in mines. Housing and meal arrangements under this program were left to the discretion of employers. As a result, some Mexican workers wound up owing money to farmers at the end of the season. Mexicans continued to migrate north after 1921, so that the number of Mexican-born U.S. residents rose rapidly in the 1920s. However, between 1929 and 1933 an estimated 400,000 Mexicans were returned–voluntarily and forcibly–to Mexico, meaning that more Mexicans were repatriated during these four years than had immigrated in the 1920s.

In 1942 farmers again won permission to recruit Mexican workers, and over the next twenty-two years, some 4.6 million Mexicans were admitted to the United States to do farmwork, under what was called the Bracero Program. At the insistence of Mexico, braceros were not allowed to be employed legally in Texas between 1942 and 1947 because of discrimination there against Mexicans. The Mexican government also prohibited its citizens from working in Wyoming after 1963. Both states eventually regained access to braceros.

There was a major repatriation of Mexicans during the Bracero Program. In June 1954 the Immigration and Naturalization Service launched "Operation Wetback" to ensure that Mexicans employed in the United States had work authorization. "Operation Wetback" began in California, moved to Texas, and then into the Midwest. In coordinated sweeps with state and local law enforcement authorities, some 1.1 million persons were returned to Mexico in 1954, including at least 20,000 from Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City; many Mexicans living in the Midwest left for Mexico before they were apprehended. Apprehended Mexicans were returned to Mexico via Presidio, Texas, because the Mexican city across the border, Ojinaga, had rail connections to the interior of Mexico.

The Bracero Program and "Operation Wetback" are considered mistakes in U.S. immigration policy. The Bracero Program set Mexico-U.S. migration in motion, and "Operation Wetback" allowed the U.S. government to violate the rights of legal immigrants and American citizens in the name of regaining control of its borders.

Philip Martin University of California-Davis

Galarza, Ernesto. Merchants of Labor: The Mexican Bracero Story. Charlotte NC: McNally and Loftin, 1964.

Garcia, Juan Ramon. Operation Wetback: The Mass Deportation of Mexican Undocumented Workers in 1954. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Martin, Philip. Promises to Keep: Collective Bargaining in California Agriculture. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1996.

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