Introduction and Background Information for Teachers

The economic and social upheaval stemming from both the Great Depression and World War II forced the United States to seek out a source of inexpensive labor to meet its manpower needs in both agriculture and railway maintenance.

Due to this need, a treaty was signed in 1942 between the United States and Mexico to alleviate the shortage of labor. With many American men sent off to fight in Europe and elsewhere, the recruitment and processing of an available pool of laborers from Mexico created what is called the bracero program. Bracero is a Spanish term which can be defined loosely as “one who works with his arms”, or as a close equivalent, as a field hand.

Under this program, Mexican workers, many of whom were rural peasants, were allowed to enter the United States on a temporary basis. Between 1942 and 1964, the year the program ended, it was estimated that approximately 4.6 million Mexican nationals came to work in the U.S. as braceros.

Many laborers faced an array of injustices and abuses, including substandard housing, discrimination, and unfulfilled contracts or being cheated out of wages. Nevertheless, the impact of the bracero program on the history and patterns of migration and settlement in the United States remains an important area to explore and assess, particularly in the contexts of civil rights, social justice, and Latino history in the United States.

Key facts and moments in bracero history include:

Several short-term labor agreements existed until 1951, when Public Law 45 passed and was reluctantly signed by President Harry S. Truman. Although many labor groups viewed the program as a temporary fix to the labor shortages during WWII and considered the presence of Mexican workers as a detriment to employing American laborers, many large farm owners were still able to lobby Congress to change the agreement between Mexico and the United States and create Public Law 78. This law had to be renewed by vote on a biannual basis, until the program ended in 1964.

The story of the Bracero labor program can inspire students to explore a wide range of subjects, including immigration, history, geography, economy, and world culture. The following activities are intended to supplement your curriculum and encourage students to practice historical research skills.

Activity-Learning from Photos


Best for students in grades six through twelve

Students will discuss their thoughts on immigration, learn about the Bracero labor program, and use photographs to develop deeper understandings of the Bracero labor program.

Activity-Tracing the Route of a Bracero


Best for students in grades six through eight
Students will examine an oral history related to the Bracero worker program and present their research on a map.

Activity-Learning from Documents


Best for students in grades six through twelve

Students will examine two public laws and other primary resources related to the Bracero worker program and apply their knowledge to evaluate whether the program was carried out as intended.