On August 4, 1942, the United States government signed the Mexican Farm Labor Program Agreement with Mexico, the first among several agreements aimed at legalizing and controlling Mexican migrant farmworkers along the southern border of the United States. Managed by several government agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, as a temporary, war-related measure to supply much-needed workers during the early years of World War II, the Bracero (Spanish for "arm-man"—manual laborer) program continued uninterrupted until 1964. The agreement guaranteed a minimum wage of thirty cents an hour and humane treatment (in the form of adequate shelter, food, sanitation, etc.) of Mexican farmworkers in the United States. During the first five years of the program, Texas farmers chose not to participate in the restrictive accord. In 1943 the Texas growers, through the American Farm Bureau Federation, lobbied in Washington to weaken the terms of the agreement, since they suspected that the accord would eventually apply to seasonal workers in other areas, domestic service, and other related fields of temporary employment. Texas farmers, in the meantime, opted to bypass the Bracero program and hire farmworkers directly from Mexico. These unauthorized workers, often referred to pejoratively as "wetbacks," entered the United States illegally.
It has been estimated that in the 1950s the United States imported as many as 300,000 Mexican workers annually. This abundant supply of labor finally enticed Texans to participate fully in the program. By the end of the 1950s, Texas was receiving large numbers of braceros. The majority of the workers complied with the requirements of the agreement; many, however, remained illegally in the United States after their work time expired. Concurrently, the Immigration and Naturalization Service began Operation Wetback, a plan designed to round up unauthorized Mexican workers, particularly in Texas and California. Government data indicate that in 1954 Operation Wetback repatriated to Mexico more than 1.1 million migrant workers. By the middle of the 1950s the INS expulsions reached a high of 3.8 million. The necessity of additional manpower in agriculture during the Korean War encouraged Mexico to squeeze as many favorable modifications into the agreement with the United States as possible. In 1951 the Mexican migration program was revised under the "temporary" Public Law 78. The United States government included in the amended version several clauses pertaining to expenses of transportation from Mexico to reception centers in the United States, guaranteed burial expenses, assistance in negotiation of labor contracts, and a guarantee that employers would return workers to reception centers at the expiration of the contract. Public Law 78 was extended in 1954, 1956, 1958, 1961, and 1964.
Mexican agricultural workers, considered an unlimited supply of cheap labor, have been pawns to a host of economic, political, social, and humanitarian interests. Poor wages, lack of educational opportunities for the children, malnutrition, poor sanitation, and discrimination have contributed to continued sources of friction between Texas growers and migrant laborers and the federal government. Migrant workers have nonetheless continued to walk to the United States, legally or illegally. Between 1942 and 1964 more than 4.5 million braceros entered the United States. Most never returned. After the end of the Bracero program, the number of undocumented immigrants in this country may have increased. Though the Immigration Reform Control Act of 1986 gave legal status, or amnesty, to those who resided and worked in this country by January 1, 1982, undocumented workers continue to be hired and often exploited.