This Day In History: August 4

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On August 4, 1942, the United States and Mexico sign the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement, creating what is known as the "Bracero Program." The program, which lasted until 1964, was the largest guest-worker program in U.S. history. Throughout its existence, the Bracero Program benefited both farmers and laborers but also gave rise to numerous labor disputes, abuses of workers and other problems that have long characterized the history of farm labor in the Southwestern United States.

The program was born from necessity, as the federal government worried that American entry into World War II would sap the Southwest of much of its farm labor. Manual laborers (braceros in Spanish) from Mexico became an important part of the region's economy, and the program outlasted the war. The program guaranteed workers a number of basic protections, including a minimum wage, insurance and safe, free housing; however, farm owners frequently failed to live up to these requirements. Housing and food routinely proved to be well below standards, and wages were not only low but also frequently paid late or not at all. Years after the program ended, many braceros were still fighting to receive the money that had been deducted from their salaries and allegedly put into savings accounts. Due to these broken promises, strikes were a common occurrence throughout this period.

Over 4.6 million contracts were issued over the 22 years of the Bracero Program. Though Congress let the program expire in 1964, it set the stage for decades of labor disputes and a dynamic of migrant labor that still exists today. The 60s and 70s saw the rise of the United Farm Workers, a union composed largely of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, which continued fighting many of the same inequalities that faced the braceros. To this day, migrant labor from Mexico continues to be a vital part of the Southwestern economy as well as a source of political and racial tension.

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