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Competing Views on How to Regulate Illegal Migration

2 Nov

The Bracero Program, which drew hundreds of thousands of Mexican laborers to toil in American fields from 1942 to 1964, left a searing memory of injustice. The program has been blamed for depressing farm wages and abusing immigrant workers.

So I wasn’t surprised that some critics took a dim view of the proposal I wrote about in last week’s column, which suggests that an improved version of the Bracero Program might help manage immigration by low-skilled workers into the United States and curtail illegal immigration.

Critics argue that the Bracero Program did not stop illegal immigration. And they cite some evidence that farm wages rose after it ended. Other studies, however, suggest otherwise. There is no historical census of illegal immigrants, so the numbers will remain in dispute.

With Washington expected to return next year to the issue of illegal immigration, the debate deserves even greater attention. David Bacon, a journalist and author, and Philip Martin, an expert on immigration an the University of California, Davis, offer critical views of the proposal for a new guest worker program. Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development — the main author of the new blueprint to regulate migration from Mexico — and Edward Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations, another author, respond. Their letters were lightly edited.

“Spread California’s laws giving farm workers a legal process for forming unions.”

From David Bacon

The column by Eduardo Porter proposing a new Bracero Program contains significant misstatements of fact. They dramatize the reasons civil rights leaders of the 1960s, including Ernesto Galarza, Cesar Chavez, Bert Corona and Larry Itliong, opposed the old Bracero Program and persuaded Congress to end it in 1964.

Porter says apprehensions of people crossing the border dropped to zero during the 1950s. In fact, over a million people were deported in the notorious Operation Wetback operation in 1954. Anti-immigrant enforcement increases during periods of large guest worker programs, because those workers are needed to force migration into those channels.

Porter says farmworker wages hardly soared after the Bracero Program ended. In fact, the period in which farmworker wages rose the fastest was during the two decades afterward. Itliong and Filipino workers, whose strikes were broken by growers bringing in braceros, struck in 1965, the year after the program was abolished. When Mexican workers under Chavez joined that strike, the United Farm Workers union was born. The contracts achieved at the union’s height in the 1970s and early ‘80s gave farmworkers the highest wages, taking inflation into account, that they have ever had.

Porter suggests that a bracero program could be made palatable if employers were “encouraged” to hire workers in the United States first and had to apply for certification, and if workers were protected by United States labor law. Those requirements already exist for current guest worker programs. They have failed completely to protect workers’ rights, as documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center report “Close to Slavery.”

Porter proposes that part of workers’ wages be withheld and paid only after the harvest and their return to Mexico. Withholding wages like this is illegal for workers in this country. To this day, growers, banks in Mexico and the United States, and the Mexican government all blame each other for millions of dollars of withheld wages that have “disappeared,” and braceros are still fighting to reclaim them.

If the purpose of Porter’s proposal is not to provide labor at low wages, then I have a counterproposal. Spread California’s laws giving farm workers a legal process for forming unions and requiring growers to negotiate union contracts when they do to every other state. When workers have unions, higher wages and more protections, growers will find it easier to attract people to fill those jobs.

David Bacon is the author of “Communities Without Borders: Images and Voices from the World of Migration” (Cornell University/ILR Press, 2006), “Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants” (Beacon Press, 2008), and “The Right to Stay Home: How U.S. Policy Drives Mexican Migration” (Beacon Press, 2013).


“The era of border enforcement has cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars.”

From Edward Alden

In the summer of 2005, I visited then Representative, now Senator Jeff Flake on his parents’ ranch in Snowflake, Ariz. When he was a kid, the ranch hired dozens of Mexicans each year to tend crops that would feed the cattle when the winter snows came. Nearly all were unauthorized migrants; they simply followed the work and better wages, as their fathers had done before them.

The Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico were long part of a single labor market, with a line drawn by their governments in between. If the governments wanted to regulate what Douglas Massey of Princeton called this “circular migration,” there were only two choices — legalize the flow or criminalize it and impose harsh consequences.

The United States has tried both. In the 1940s, it worked with Mexico to create the badly flawed Bracero Program, which nonetheless helped reduce illegal migration to a trickle. The data are clear — as bracero quotas expanded, reaching 400,000 annually in 1954, illegal migration fell sharply. With the elimination of the program in 1964, accompanied by new quotas in 1965 that for the first time restricted legal Mexican migration to the United States, illegal migration soared.

For the last two decades, the United States has tried the opposite approach — a fierce border clampdown. The number of Border Patrol agents grew from a few thousand in the early 1990s to more than 21,000 today, nearly 700 miles of fences were built, and drones and other sensors now drape the border. Illegal migration from Mexico has fallen to its lowest level since the early 1970s.

Each of these approaches, however, has been very costly. Under Bracero, poorly designed rules and lax enforcement led to abuses of workers’ rights and unfair wage competition for United States workers. The era of illegal migration that followed was no better for Mexican or United States workers, and it led to the collapse of the American public’s confidence in the immigration system. The era of border enforcement has cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars, enriched coyote smugglers and led to hundreds of migrants dying each year in dangerous desert crossings.

Our report “Shared Border, Shared Future” argues that the two countries can do better. A well-designed bilateral labor agreement would require employers to pay a significant premium for Mexican workers; allow workers to switch employers freely; apply all United States labor laws to migrants and permit unions to organize; and give migrants the choice of returning home or seeking permanent residence.

These requirements go far beyond the current H-2 programs and would address head-on the legitimate criticisms of many past temporary worker plans. And sustained enforcement would be needed to ensure that illegal paths do not again become more attractive than the legal ones for migrants and for employers.

Much has been learned since the Bracero Program was ended more the 50 years ago. It is time to apply those lessons and regulate Mexico-United States migration to better serve the interests of Mexican workers, American workers and employers.

Edward Alden is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an author of the study Managing Illegal Immigration to the United States: How Effective is Enforcement?


“The farm labor market today is responding to rising wages as economics predicts.”

From Philip Martin

Rather than substituting for illegal migration, the Bracero Program set the stage for large scale illegal Mexico-United States migration via two major channels. First, the availability of braceros combined with water projects and the Interstate System of highways allowed labor-intensive agriculture to expand far away from consumers, so that California replaced New Jersey as the nation’s garden state. Second, Mexican workers and United States farmers gained experience working with one another, a mutual dependence they were reluctant to end.

Nevertheless, there was not an immediate upsurge in illegal migration after the Bracero Program ended. Instead, farm wages jumped 40 percent, from $1.25 to $1.75 an hour in the United Farm Worker grape contracts of 1966. The lack of braceros prompted a wave of labor-saving mechanization, including forklifts in the fields to move 1,000-pound bins of produce, and the mechanization of the tomato harvest. Modern personnel management, such as scheduling work carefully and identifying and retaining the best workers, permitted fewer workers to do the work.

There are three important lessons from developments in the farm labor market after the Bracero Program. First, economic principles worked, as a reduced supply of labor led to higher wages that primarily reduced the demand for farm workers. Second, farm employers began to treat more expensive workers better, adding benefits such as health insurance and pensions to retain experienced workers. Third, farmers anticipating ever-higher wages sponsored research on labor-saving mechanization, so that one major study predicted there would soon be no hand-labor jobs on farms.

Rising unauthorized migration in the 1970s reversed these trends. One example tells the story. In the late 1960s, the citrus industry supported 70-odd projects aimed at harvesting oranges mechanically; by 1980, this industry support ended. Increases in unauthorized migration stabilized labor costs and reversed grower incentives to treat farm labor as an ever-rising cost.

Today we are at another farm labor inflection point, and farm employers are responding with the four strategies expected by rising labor costs: satisfy current workers to retain them on the farm work longer, stretch their productivity with mechanical aids that raise productivity, substitute machines for workers where possible and supplement the aging work force with younger H-2A guest workers. Just as in the mid-1960s, the farm labor market today is responding to rising wages as economics predicts, making it hard to understand the call for new and untested guest worker programs.

Philip Martin is chairman of the Comparative Immigration and Integration Program at the University of California, Davis, and editor of the newsletters Migration News and Rural Migration News.


“It is time to move past the failed policies and fossilized positions of the previous generation.”

From Michael Clemens

I write to correct several statements by David Bacon and Phil Martin regarding Eduardo Porter’s discussion of a proposed United States-Mexico labor migration agreement by the “Shared Border, Shared Future” working group.

Bracero visas obviously substituted for illegal migration. Immediately after the United States vastly raised the number of visas to an adequate 400,000 in 1954, illegal migration collapsed to near zero for the duration of the program. This outcome required both the adequate legal pathway and stronger enforcement, as Kelly Lytle Hernandez documents in her groundbreaking book, “Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol.”

Substantial illegal migration occurred exclusively in the early years of the program, when the number of visas — around 100,000 a year — was insufficient. But the end of this legal channel in 1965 was followed by unprecedented illegal migration in the 1970s and ’80s.

Mr. Bacon and Professor Martin misrepresent the labor-market effects of excluding bracero workers. They are right that farm wages rose in the states that excluded braceros in the late 1960s. They do not mention that farm wages rose by the same amount, in the same years, in states that did not exclude any braceros (because they never had any). Farmers’ response to bracero exclusion was to quickly adopt labor-saving technologies — particularly in cotton, tomatoes and sugar beets — in perfect accordance with “economic principles.” That actually harmed United States farm workers by eliminating many of their own jobs.

Mr. Bacon mentions the unacceptable abuses of workers under the existing seasonal work visa. That is why this new proposal departs sharply from that tainted model. The proposal prevents workers from being tied to a single employer, and it eliminates unscrupulous recruiters the only way it can be done: bilaterally. He also mentions that many braceros’ wages were stolen. No one knows that better than this group, which includes Alejandro Poiré, a former director of the Mexican government’s program to restitute those losses. Thus the group insists on a 21st century system to transfer any withheld wages from the United States government securely and directly to individual workers.

Professor Martin suggests that the Mexican migration of the 1970s to 1990s was somehow created by the bracero agreements in the 1950s. But Mexican migration networks are far older; the Mexican-born fraction of the labor force in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico was higher in 1920 than 1990.

The policy decision of 1965 was to outlaw those longstanding, generational traditions of temporary mobility across the border. The dark consequence of that decision is today’s giant black market in labor that has immeasurably harmed United States and Mexican workers. It is time to move past the failed policies and fossilized positions of the previous generation, and the “Shared Border, Shared Future” report offers a specific vision of how to do that.

Michael Clemens is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. He was the lead author of “Shared Border, Shared Future: A Blueprint to Regulate U.S.-Mexico Labor Mobility.”