Guestworker Programs

The United States currently has two guestworker programs for temporary work lasting less than a year: the H-2A program, for temporary agricultural work, and the H-2B program, for temporary nonagricultural work.These programs allow employers to obtain permission to hire foreign workers on temporary visas after engaging in recruitment in the U.S. and promising to meet certain requirements regarding recruitment, wages and/or working conditions. Each program imposes on foreign workers a temporary, non-immigrant status that ties workers to particular employers and makes their ability to obtain a visa dependent on the willingness of the employer to make a request to the U.S. government. History has shown us that foreign guestworkers who hold restricted status in the U.S. are vulnerable to workplace abuses. The Bracero program (1942-1964) became notorious for abuse and exploitation as well as the indignities of racism and discrimination inflicted upon the workers. Even when Congress and federal agencies have sought to impose substantial labor law requirements on employers of guestworkers, the protections have often been meaningless because the workers are unable to enforce the law or are unwilling to attempt to enforce the law for fear of losing their job or not being called back in a future year. The use of guestworker programs raises fundamental questions about this nation's commitment to providing people within its borders the economic and democratic freedoms that we have come to expect.

View H-2A and H-2B Resources

History of Bracero Program

During World War II, Congress responded to growers’ worries about a shortage of agricultural workers by approving the temporary entry of migrants from impoverished rural areas in Mexico. The Bracero Program became the largest guest worker program in US history, employing more than four million Mexican workers over its 22-year history. The program was controversial; some argued that the low wages at which migrants were willing to work threatened the jobs of domestic farmworkers. Though rules were in place to protect both migrants and domestic workers (such as guaranteed minimum wage and “humane treatment”) many employers ignored them, using braceros simply as a source of low-paid labor. The program became notorious for abuse and exploitation as well as the indignities of racism and discrimination inflicted upon the workers.

The Bracero Program was finally abolished in 1964, in response to pressure from labor unions and religious organizations. Recent debates over a new large-scale guest worker program have renewed public and scholarly interest in documenting the history and abuses of the Bracero Program. That history highlights the consistent use of guest-workers by employers as a cheap, exploitable alternative to hiring domestic workers who enjoy legal protections. More than 40 years after the end of the Bracero Program, one of the many injustices that those workers endured --illegal wage deductions-- finally gained some redress. In October 2008 a federal district court in San Francisco awarded some of these workers (those who worked from 1942-1946) backpay which they were supposed to have received after they returned home to Mexico. To receive this money from the government of Mexico, individuals were required to fill out a claim form before January 2009. Ex-braceros living in Mexico were also entitled to a small benefit. Though this was a welcome development for many ex-braceros, the low amount of the pay-out and difficult process to certify eligibility disappointed many braceros and advocates.

A number of resources explore the little-known history of the Bracero Program:
• “Bittersweet Harvest” is a travelling exhibit created by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History that explores how the Bracero Program produced both exploitation and opportunity. An online exhibition includes many photos and quotes from former braceros.
The Bracero History Archives has made available a rich collection of oral histories and artifacts from those who came north as part of the Bracero Program.
• A new documentary, Harvest of Loneliness (2010), foregrounds the voices and stories of bracero workers as well as wives and families they left behind.
Bracero Stories (2008) is an award-winning bilingual documentary that explores the personal stories of five former braceros.
• The Bracero Project of the Sin Fronteras Organizing Project (El Paso, TX) aims to educate the public and gain greater recognition for the contributions of Mexican workers to agriculture in the United States

Further reading:

Calavita, Kitty. Inside the State: The Bracero Program, Immigration, and the I.N.S.. 1992, Routledge.
Cohen, Deborah. Braceros: Migrant Citizens and Transnational Subjects in the Postwar United States and Mexico. 2011, University of North Carolina Press.
Galarza, Ernesto. Merchants of Labor: The Mexican Bracero Story. 1964, The Rosicrucian Press.
Gamboa, Erasmo. Mexican Labor and World War II: Braceros in the Pacific Northwest 1942-1947. 2000, University of Washington Press.
Jacobo, Jose Radolpho. Los Braceros: Memories of Bracero Workers, 1942-1964. 2004, Southern Border Press.
Villasenor, Victor. Macho! 1973, Bantam Books (novel).
Topete, Jesus. Aventuras de un bracero. 1948, Editorial AmeXica (in Spanish)