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When This Law Ended, What Happened to Mexican Immigration?

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"Picking crew of Mexican nationals employed by grower load burlap sacks filled with Antelope Valley carrots." Valley Times Collections, courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

Posted every Monday, the Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority.

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A."¨
Law: Bracero Program (Or, Public Law 45 and Public Law 78)
Year: 1942-1964
Jurisdiction: Federal
Nominated by: James Becerra

Don't get James Becerra wrong.

The Cal Poly Pomona Landscape Architecture faculty member understands that when it comes to the overlapping issues of immigration, labor, big business and bilateral foreign policy, there are not necessarily simple answers to the complex problems that the region -- and the nation -- face.

But that doesn't stop Becerra from engaging in the difficult conversation.

During a recent interview on the same bucolic campus where previous Laws That Shaped L.A. nominators Michael K. Woo (flat skylines) and Orhan Ayyuce (Prop 13) also each work, Becerra nominated a law for this column as well.

Or, to be more precise: "It's not a law," Becerra says. "It's the sunsetting of a law or legal program."

That program is the "Bracero Program," as it remains popularly known, or Public Law 45 and Public Law 78, in the nomenclature of the U.S. Congress.

By any name -- and there were other related names as well, such as the Mexican Farm Labor Supply Program and the Mexican Labor Agreement -- the Bracero Program served between 1942 and 1964 as the legal mechanism for farm workers to come to the United States, work, and then return to their previous homes.

Ostensibly, the legislation allowed for domestic workers as well, but in practice, as Becerra puts it, "they were back then 99.99% from Mexico."

[Previously, U.S. labor needs had been met in part by Chinese workers, until the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Japanese workers, this PBS history says, took over next. Executive Order 9066 (see this Laws That Shaped L.A. column) put people of Japanese heritage into camps in 1942; coincidentally or not, the Bracero Program began the same year.]

Becerra, as well as many others who have examined the Bracero Program during and since its conclusion, label the program as being somewhat to deeply flawed. Examples of such commentary are here and here. Lee G. Williams, of the U.S. Department of Labor, called it, "legalized slavery." The National Museum of American History asks whether the program was "opportunity or exploitation?"

But Becerra further posits that since nearly fifty years have passed since the Bracero Program ended, still not having a formal replacement for the program has led to a defacto system that is far worse. That's worse for the farm workers, the professor says, as well as for society in general.

"The sunsetting of the Bracero Program has had a phenomenal effect in Los Angeles -- physically, culturally and in just about every other way," Becerra says. "I think it really corrupted -- and I'm choosing my words carefully here -- the push-pull relationship that exists between Mexico and the United States."

Regarding that relationship, Becerra mentions during our conversation everyone and everything from Porfirio Díaz to Teddy Roosevelt to maquilladores to the Dream Act to various taxes to narco-trafficking and the current subversion of the Mexican justice system and journalism. The professor also praises Mexican public universities.

But Becerra -- whose grandfather was a labor contractor and his father as a young man picked fruit up and down the state -- focuses the majority of his "push-pull" discourse on agriculture, labor and the economy.

"In the absence of the Bracero Program," Becerra says, "Mexico again had no incentive whatsoever to manage their surplus labor."

He says the same was true north of the border: "Because there was no way to manage it, there was just this endless supply of cheap labor," Becerra says. "People would come and they would stay. That would affect the housing stock, and it certainly put more demand on general services."

Public Law 45, passed in 1943, allocated federal dollars for states to spend on the likes of recruiting, placing, training, protecting and medically tending to workers. With World War II underway and many American men overseas and men and women working in factories to make more war-specific parts and products, agricultural concerns sought more hands. Public Law 78, passed in 1951 during the Korean War, added to the program, which ultimately included some four million braceros.

Of course, another version of the above paragraph would put in bold that Public Law 45 offered up a thirty cents per hour minimum wage, and further note that the pay for similar field work today ain't exactly the same as a Facebook IPO windfall.

Still another way to look at the issue comes again from Becerra: "The Bracero Program's demise," he says, "made it even easier to forget, a) about how our crops get to our tables, and b) the fact that this number one industry in our state, in the eighth largest economy in the world, is to a great extent predicated on inexpensive labor."

Becerra also says that not managing the agricultural workforce has led to an increase in population in urban areas where farmers and, later, their family members settled. "I would argue," Becerra says, "that the schools never kept pace with that; parks didn't; and libraries didn't."

Becerra says that there was no "grand, evil design" to where all these issues wound up today. On a related note, he condemns the "laissez faire approach" as exemplified by both the financial crisis and the post-Bracero Project policies.

And on top of everything else, the professor says another effect of the post-Bracero Project condition -- and although he didn't use the following phrase, perhaps we could label this a sort of don't ask, don't tell approach -- is an occlusion of Californians' abilities to see the relationship between farm and food.

"This is the Golden State," Becerra says. "It's our soil, it's our land that really made this state what it is to a great extent. To forget that you need people to make it work is a shame."

To suggest a "Law That Shaped L.A." or otherwise contact the columnist via: arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page.

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