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What if you could learn from one of the world's most inspiring women? Now you can. Introducing Senecas 100 women to hear a new podcast brought to you by Seneca Women and I Heart Radio. I'm Kim Mazzarelli. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of American women getting the vote, we're bringing you the voices of a hundred groundbreaking in history, making women listen to Senecas 100 women to hear on the radio app Apple podcasts wherever you get your podcasts. It was an unimaginable crime, we couldn't believe something like that would happen here, three people dead, all from the same family.
Nobody had a clue about who or why you got eight people.
And things like that don't happen anywhere.
This is the PYKEN massacre. Listen to the pectin massacre on the I Heart radio app, on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Happy Saturday, everybody. In a couple of weeks, we're going to be doing an episode on the Delano Grape Strike, which took place shortly after the end of the Bracero program in the United States.
We covered the Mercero program on the show back on August 3rd, 2016. And rather than trying to go back over all of that same context in the Delanoe grape strike episode, we thought we would go ahead and just put this classic back into People's Feeds.
Episode also talks about a mass deportation effort that overlapped the Bracero program and that mass deportation effort was named after a racist slur. I wrote this episode back in 2016. If I were writing it today, I probably would have approached that differently. So we just wanted to know up front that there are multiple references to the program, including its full name over the course of this episode.
Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class A production of I Heart Radio. Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Terry Wilson. And I'm Holly Fahri. So today, I think a lot of people think concerns about immigration are a recent phenomenon.
I mean, definitely in the United States is where we live and can talk about from experience, but maybe in other nations, too. But definitely in the US. Right.
People don't think of this is a thing that's been around for a long time.
Yeah, I think there's a are you going to veiling thought that, you know, they're colonists came and that was the big immigration thing.
And then there was this big gap and now we're all arguing and worried about it again.
Yeah. Like the last. I don't know. 30 or 40 years.
So in a way, in a way, it definitely is a new concern for people, because for about 150 years after the nation was founded, there weren't really any immigration laws. Right. If you could get here, you've got to live here.
That was basically how it worked until, you know, the 19th century.
So back in the late seventeen hundreds, the country didn't really seem to care about about immigration. But to look at another way, it is not a new concern at all because the United States started passing immigration laws and a lot of them were targeted at immigrants from specific countries in the 1960s. So this is both a really new idea, given the whole history of the United States as a nation and a really old one, given that it's been around for more than 150 years.
So that whole division between legal and illegal immigration is simultaneously new and old.
And today's is today's story is part of that century's long history, because for parts of the 20th century, the United States and Mexico had agreements in place that were allowing and even encouraging Mexican nationals to enter the United States to do agricultural work and other labor, mostly in the American Southwest. And one specific program called the Mercero Program was launched during World War Two to address a labor shortage as American men were needed for the war effort. But an unintended side effect of this program that was about legally coming to the United States to work was this huge increase in the number of people who were crossing the border from Mexico illegally.
And these illegal entries reached a point that the government implemented another program, which I'm going to make it clear this is not an acceptable word to use today, but it is literally what the program was named. It was called Operation Wetback to deport Mexican nationals and huge groups. So the intertwined stories of these two government programs is what we are going to talk about today. And before 1910, there was simply not a lot of regulation of the United States border with Mexico.
People pretty much crossed back and forth as they pleased and as agricultural industries started to really grow in the Southwest. These industries started to really rely on this readily available and seasonal workforce that was coming in from Mexico in the 1920s. This also became true of other industries in the American West and Southwest as well, including railroads and mining. But today we're talking mostly about agriculture.
So using Mexican nationals as a source of labor basically came with some benefits, agricultural work and a lot of places is highly seasonal. And for the most part, migrant workers who were U.S. citizens were traveling as families. They would spend the year moving from place to place as a family, for the most part, spending a lot more time looking for work than actually working. And when there was work, it was usually work that the whole family did, including the children, and an effort to try to make enough money to last them for the rest of the year.
So that's not an ideal situation in a lot of ways.
Mexican workers, on the other hand, tended to be young men traveling in groups with other young men. A group of young men was overall a lot more efficient than a family with children. And on the more exploitive side of things, many were willing to accept lower wages than what was considered standard among Americans. Because of a limited proficiency with the English language, Mexican nationals were often unaware of laws or standards that could protect them in their work. And as a result, there were a lot of growers and farmers in the American West and Southwest who were willing to overlook the issue of whether a person had come into the United States legally or not in order to get cheap, easy to exploit labor.
By the early 1920s, though, an increasing number of people were starting to think of this basically open border in the way it affected the labor pool is a big problem. Large farms were driving down their own costs by employing large numbers of Mexican migrant workers that a really low rate of pay and small farms considered themselves to be at a big financial disadvantage. As a result, labor organizations started tacitly excluding Mexican workers when they formed unions and also started using their political clout to lobby the government for more enforcement along the border and to put a stop to immigration from Mexico in 1920 for the United States formally established the Border Patrol as part of the Labor Appropriation Act.
As the U.S. government started taking steps to secure the Mexican border and curtail illegal immigration. In the 1920s, local communities and states began taking steps to regulate their own Mexican population as well. As we've discussed in our podcasts on Mendez versus Westminster and Macario Garcia, much of the Southwest and West approached its Hispanic and Latino population in much the same way. Most of the rest of the nation did its black population through segregation, which was reinforced either through laws or through social customs.
In places with large Mexican and Mexican-American populations, discrimination was widespread and socially accepted by much of the Anglo community.
During the Great Depression, which lasted roughly a decade beginning in 1929, and the Dust Bowl, which was a devastating period of drought and dust storms that struck much of the Southwest and Great Plains during the same time, life was pretty hard for pretty much everybody in the region, but it was especially hard for people of Mexican descent.
The Anglo community was increasingly hostile toward Mexican migrants, viewing them as unnecessary competition for incredibly scarce jobs. The industries that had been relying so heavily on Mexican labor for so long increasingly tried to exclude Mexicans from their workforce during the Great Depression.
Prior to the Great Depression, the United States and Mexico had been working together to find ways to send Mexican nationals who were in the U.S. illegally back to Mexico during the Great Depression. Those efforts increased. President Herbert Hoover ordered the Department of Labor to work out a deportation program, and the Mexican government tried to identify its citizens who were in the United States and in many cases paid for their return to Mexico. Also, due to the Great Depression, Mexico was facing its own labor shortage.
So part of the reason it paid to repatriate its citizens was to try to fill that labor shortage.
Between 1929 and 1935, about 85000 Mexicans voluntarily returned to Mexico and another 400000 were deported or repatriated, depending on how you want to look at it. Most of the ones who tried to return to the United States during the Great Depression were turned away at the border, which at this point was a lot more secure than it had been earlier than the 1920s.
However, things shifted dramatically once again during World War Two. The draft applied to all men residing in the United States, whether they were citizens or not. Roughly 750000 Hispanic men saw some sort of active service in the war.
And with so many men serving in the war, the job market changed dramatically in the United States. Many men who had held agricultural jobs went to serve in the war, and then other men and women moved out of agriculture and into higher paying manufacturing jobs that were either opened up as part of the war effort or because the people who had been doing those jobs joined the armed forces that were also disrupted trade with Europe, which cut off the United States sources of many goods and meant that basically America had to make them for ourselves.
The overall effect of all this on the labor pool for agricultural work was, as you might suspect, enormous. And it led the U.S. to work out a program specifically to recruit Mexican workers. And we're going to talk more about that after we pause and think one of the sponsors that keeps our show going.
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I'm running up the fact that I'm ranting Arab. And we're the hosts of Throughline, NPR's history podcast from Typhoid Mary, forced into quarantine for 30 years to conspiracy theories and all-American pastime. Listen to throughline on the I Heart radio app or wherever you get your podcasts. To return to the Vocero program, this huge shift in the workforce during World War Two had immediate and detrimental effects on agriculture. Soon after the war began, the SWS Cotton and vegetable growers were petitioning Congress to hire temporary workers to help them fill a labor shortfall that basically meant they couldn't harvest what they needed to harvest.
The key here is that this workforce would be temporary, in the words of a report from President Harry Truman's Commission on Migratory Labor later on in 1951, quote, The demand for migratory labor is thus essentially twofold to be ready to go to work when needed, to be gone when not needed. So the United States, leaning on Franklin D.. Roosevelt's good neighbor policy, started trying to work out a bilateral agreement with Mexico that would allow Mexican nationals to enter the United States to work and then return home when they were done.
At first, Mexico was reluctant to do this for a number of reasons. Mexican citizens who had previously emigrated to do exactly these types of work had faced discrimination and exploitive treatment in the United States. Many had been forced out of their jobs and stranded during the Great Depression. So basically Mexico remembered all of that and just didn't have a lot of confidence that its citizens would be treated fairly if they went back to the United States to work. So Mexico insisted that any agreement spell out protections for its citizens, one that would protect Mexican laborers while in the United States and would protect Mexico's own industries from suffering due to a lack of workers.
Mexico did, however, see some potential benefits to allowing its citizens to work in the United States. It was hoped that anyone who entered the program would return home with money that would be injected into the Mexican economy. Running parallel with that was the idea that Mexico's workers would learn new techniques relating to agriculture and then bring those new techniques back to Mexico.
The result of this negotiation between Mexico and the United States was the Bizzaro program, which was launched in 1942 by executive order and then formalized by a bilateral agreement on April 26, 1943. It would later be amended by Public Law 78 in 1951.
The basic terms of the Bracero program would be that this would be non-military work, not acceptable to recruit Mexican nationals to work in agriculture and then put them into the military service. Mexican nationals would be protected from discrimination. Employers would pay transportation and living expenses as well as a fair wage. Workers would get medical and sanitary services at no cost to them.
People enrolling in the Mercero program would sign a Spanish language contract and be paid paid a fair wage that would not be less than what was standard for Anglo workers in the area. And workers under the age of 14 were not allowed.
There were also protections if there was a shortage of work guaranteeing a subsistence level pay, if someone contracted with a Mexican national but turned out not to have work for them to do, a percentage of the braceros pay was also to be saved and returned to them once they returned to Mexico.
The criteria for the workers themselves were that they had to be young, healthy men who had agricultural experience but did not own land of their own. They also needed to have a letter from local authorities saying that their labor wasn't needed where they actually lived, and that was to try to diminish the impact on Mexicans that Mexico's own labor force applicants would go to collection points in Mexico, be fingerprinted, be sprayed down with DDT and then be taken to the United States.
In spite of concerns that Mexican nationals would take jobs away from Americans, at first this seemed like a mutually beneficial agreement. The United States would get the farm labor it needed and Mexico would get new modernized farming techniques, an injection of cash into its economy and jobs for citizens who needed them.
However, things took a turn for the worse. Pretty much immediately. Most of the work to be done was known as stoop labor. This was cultivation work that was done using a short handled hoe, stooped over rows into the in the fields. This was grueling and like it could have been done with a long handled hoe instead of a short handled hoe that required you to literally stoop over. But for some reason, people thought a long handled home was damaging to the crops.
Today, these short handled hoe is regarded as an occupational hazard, and in many states it is banned as unsafe.
There were also way more interested Mexican nationals than there were jobs, and soon officials processing applications were accepting bribes to move people ahead of the line. Recruitment efforts became prone to corruption. People who didn't meet these qualifications for one reason or another also started using the constant traffic back and forth across the border to make the crossing themselves illegally. And as was the case before, there were still plenty of growers who are willing to hire these people for almost no money.
Unscrupulous growers also figured out that a lot of the Mexican nationals who were actually part of the bracero program didn't have a lot of proficiency in English and weren't aware of the pay and protections they were legally entitled to under the terms of this program. This definitely was not universal in various parts of the United States. Braceros organized themselves and went on strike to protest low wages and poor treatment that were specifically outlawed in the bracero programs terms.
Many growers flouted the rules of the program and hired people who had crossed illegally to get around having to worry about all of this. Mexico eventually refused to send workers to the entire state of Texas because of flagrant hiring of unauthorized workers as well as other abuses.
So soon, illegal border crossings were rampant and the employment of people who had entered illegally was widespread, wages started to drop for basically everyone because there were so many low wage workers who had become part of the economy in the Southwest, that minimum standard housing and medical care that was supposed to be part of this program also didn't materialize. And a lot of people who actually were part of it wound up tightly packed together in barracks, on canvas cots where respiratory diseases and other illnesses spread like wildfire.
Over the twenty two year life of this program, 4.5 million Mexican nationals legally came to the United States to work, some of them returning to the U.S. repeatedly under new contracts, but far more entered illegally outside the bounds of the program. There was actually a 6000 percent increase in illegal immigration between 1944 and 1954. Support for the program, which had never been universal, started to wane after World War Two was over and Americans who had survived the war started to return home and try to reclaim their old jobs.
The official wartime program ended on December 31st of 1947, although the program continued to be extended for peacetime purposes for quite a while after that.
And eventually Mexico fed up with what it saw as the United States refusal to enforce the terms of their bilateral agreement stopped participating by just declining to send any more workers through official channels, according to the Texas State Historical Association's Handbook of Texas. The U.S. retaliated against Mexico's nonparticipation in 1951 by allowing thousands of people to enter the U.S. illegally, arresting them and then rather than deporting them, turning them over to the Texas Employment Commission to be put to work.
By the 1960s, the Mercero program was officially on the way out. Labor organizations had become a lot more influential in policy and had started advocating very vocally for jobs in the United States to be filled by Americans and not by Mexicans. At the same time, increasing mechanization in the agriculture industry meant that a lot of the physical labor that had required this huge labor pool was disappearing. The need for physical labor became a lot smaller.
The Bracero program needed to be reauthorized periodically and there were increasingly contentious debates whenever it came up for renewal. Its reauthorizations in 1961 and 1963 in particular were extremely hotly debated. There was a lot of pressure to end the program after a bus accident killed 32 migrant workers in 1963. The program eventually expired the following year in 1964.
With the abolition of the program, one of the things that proponents had often said about it turned out apparently to be true. A lot of people who were in favor of the program insisted that American workers did not want to do this work, which is why it needed to be open to Mexican nationals. After the abolition of the program, there were about 500, 19000 unemployed people in California, which should have been plenty to cover the 70000 people who were needed to do stoop labor in the agricultural industry.
But the nature, the nature of the work and the wages that were that were offered meant that a lot of these jobs went unfilled and tons of fruits and vegetables rotted in the fields so that there was a lot of argument that this should have been like a gradual phase out rather than just an abrupt abolition.
As we said at the top of the show, running parallel to all of this was a mass deportation program focused on Mexican nationals called the horrible name Operation Wetback. And we're going to talk about that after we pause.
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Ladies and gentlemen, I don't want to be your president, but if you want to hear where the president is hiding that AIDS vaccine, then listen to my mama told me available on the I Heart radio app, Apple podcast or anywhere else that pods are cast. To get back to Operation Wetback as an example of how the United States thinking on immigration shifted in the 1930s and 40s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt combined two other government agencies to form the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1933.
This agency was originally part of the Department of Labor in 1940 that changed the INS and the Border Patrol that fell under it moved from the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice.
With that, the INS and the Border Patrol were no longer about work. They were about law enforcement.
And as we said, Operation Wetback was a mass deportation effort that came along after the INS moved to the Department of Justice. It's often portrayed as a swift, decisive effort to deport people who had entered the U.S. illegally. But it was really part of a decades long effort that ran, as we said, parallel to most of the bracero program. In the 1940s, for example, special Mexican deportation parties were established to try to apprehend and deport Mexican migrant workers.
In 1945, there was an attempt to reinforce targeted portions of the border with chain link fencing. In the 1940s and 1950s, some Border Patrol agents ran an unsanctioned, quote, little barbershop, basically clippers that they carried with them to cut the hair of repeat immigration offenders, sometimes in intentionally humiliating ways.
In terms of the more above board efforts to control immigration, a lot of them really were across national. The United States wanted to keep illegal immigration from driving down wages and causing housing and social issues within its own borders. And Mexico wanted to have enough workers to meet its own labor needs and also protect its citizens from exploitation and discrimination. While they were in the United States in 1951, a report on Mexican migrant workers in the U.S. pinned all sorts of social and economic ills on illegal immigration and characterized the situation as an invasion.
Soon, the U.S. was diverting more and more of the Border Patrol and INS to the Mexican border, more than doubling the number of agents that were stationed there in between 1943. In 1953, there were a lot more people apprehended in illegal border crossings. The number rose from 11000 715 in 1943 to 800 and 85000 587 in 1953, with Mexicans making up more and more of those apprehended. At the same time, though, the United States didn't actually increase the Immigration and Naturalization Services budget.
So even though there are more agents on the Mexican border, there were fewer agents overall with the forces numbers dropping a third between 1942 and 1951 when Dwight D. Eisenhower took office as president in 1953. It's estimated that three million Mexican nationals in the U.S. had entered the country illegally, but previous efforts to deport them had increasingly stalled out because so many farms and ranches were dependent on this illicit labor pool. In the words of Walt Edwards, who served in the Border Patrol from 1951 to 1964, quote, When we caught illegal aliens on farms and ranches, the farmer or rancher would often call and complain.
And depending on how politically connected they were, there would be political intervention. Yeah, that political intervention was basically getting their workers out of jail and turning away from the fact that they were not supposed to be in the United States in 1954.
Eisenhower appointed General Joseph Swing, also known as Jumpin Joe, as the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Swing started transferring immigration officials who had spent a long time in the Southwest to other parts of the country with the hope of breaking all those social and political ties to all the local farmers, ranchers and political bigwigs that was leading the service to not actually enforce immigration. Then, on June 9th, 1954, Swing announced the commencement of Operation Wetback. One arm of the operation was meant to physically apprehend and remove people who had illegally immigrated into the United States.
The other was meant to publicize this effort to make sure people who weren't in the country illegally knew about it and see the deportation force as a threat. A lot of this publicity deliberately exaggerated the size and aggressiveness of the deportation force in the hope of scaring people into leaving the country voluntarily.
On June 17th, 1954, immigration officials started the actual sweeps to apprehend and deport people who had illegally emigrated. About 750 immigration agents moved north through California and Arizona. They started in those two states because the entrenched resistance to deportation was lower there. So they were hoping to kind of get a good foothold before moving on to places where it was more contentious. They had a goal of apprehending a thousand people who had entered the country illegally every day. By the end of July, 50000 people had been arrested in California and Arizona, and an estimated eight thousand had fled the United States on their own.
And as Tracy had said, it started in California and Arizona. But from there, it moved into Utah, Nevada, Texas and Idaho. And immigration officials put the people that were apprehended in these sweeps onto trains and buses bound for Mexico far enough south that they simply couldn't turn around and re-enter the United States. Two ships were also used for this purpose. The emancipation in the Mercurio carried people from Port Isabel in Texas about 500 miles to Veracruz in Mexico.
At the time, the ironist claimed that it deported one point three million people during Operation Wetback, but those numbers have not really held up to historical scrutiny. It was definitely lower than that, and it might have been as low as 300000. These efforts actually disrupted some of the agriculture industry in the states that were targeted by deporting their workforces. Like we said, a lot of the agricultural industry in the southwest and West had become highly dependent on this illegal labor.
The government tried to reassure people that they could get new Labor through the bracero program, which was still in effect at this point.
In addition to the immediate impact that it had on the agriculture industry. There were other problems with Project Wetback as well. Aside from its name, which I'm going to say again is a racial slur, we would not normally say on this show everyone of Mexican descent was suspect, whether they had entered the country illegally or not. And a lot of the lawful residents, some of them American citizens, were deported in error. Families were broken up when some members were caught up in a sweep and others weren't.
Children were left with anyone, without anyone to look after them. When their parents were arrested and deported, Mexican-American communities were disrupted when their populations were basically decimated. And then that would basically leave whoever was left without the basic life amenities that they needed.
And the problems did not end north of the border. People who were dropped off in Mexico were often left in completely unfamiliar territory where they had no friends or family, without any food, without water and with no money. Eighty eight people from just one up died of heatstroke after being left in remote territory without food or water. Conditions on the Emancipation and the Mercurio were also appalling, incredibly overcrowded and dismal. On one voyage, a riot broke out and the use of ships was eventually stopped after seven people drowned during one voyage.
Apart from all of that, that 10 percent of their pay that was supposed to be withheld for legitimate participants of the Pesaro program and then returned to them when they returned to Mexico, a lot of people never saw it. A settlement was in the works in 2008 to restore this pay to the former workers and their descendants. But as of 2013, there were still marches and protests going on to have this money restored because it had never actually happened. So that is the basics of like this long, kind of convoluted, intertwined effort to both recruit and deport Mexican nationals in the United States.
I know for sure that there are folks in the world whose mindset is still there illegally in here, it serves them right. I personally think that if you are traveling hundreds of miles away from your family to do physically grueling stoop labor for little money, like imagine what your life is like to lead you to that decision, right? Yeah. Like what other option might you have?
Yeah. Have empathy. That's what I'm saying. Thanks so much for joining us on this Saturday. Since this episode is out of the archive, if you heard an email address or a Facebook URL or something similar over the course of the show, that could be obsolete. Now, our current email address is History podcast and I heart radio dot com. Our old HowStuffWorks email address no longer works and you can find us all over social media at MTT in history.
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