Texas and the Mexican Labor Question,
JOHNNY M. MCCAIN*
ONE OF THE MOST PERSISTENT AND PERPLEXING PROBLEMS IN THE
relations between the United States and Mexico since 1920 has
been the temporary migration of Mexican workers into the United
States in quest of employment. Mutually bitter and deleterious effects
of uncontrolled migration have impelled both nations on several oc-
casions to seek means by which controlled migration could better
serve national and individual interests. Such efforts led to bilateral
agreements during World War II that permitted Mexican workers,
braceros, to work on a contract basis on American farms and railroads.
Convinced that it was bargaining from a position of strength, the
Mexican government seized the opportunity presented by the Ameri-
can desire for braceros to demand an end to oppressive, discriminatory
practices against Mexicans in Texas. Persistent Mexican efforts to
compel reform produced dubious results at best.1
Mexican nationals have formed a major segment of the farm and
railway-maintenance labor force in Texas and the Southwest since the
188os. Political instability, personal poverty, and the lack of economic
opportunity in Mexico, together with the reported availability of jobs
in the United States, stimulated their migration. Prior to 1917, the
only American law regulating the entrance of Mexican migrants had
been aimed at Europeans. This was the 1885 Alien Contract Labor
Law, which prohibited the importation of laborers on a contract basis.
The General Immigration Act of 1917, however, placed general re-
strictions, including a literacy test and a head tax, on all immigration
and thereby closed what had been an open U.S.-Mexican border.
Until then, Mexicans had been free to enter or leave the United States
at will, to visit, to work, or to settle as they pleased.2
*Johnny M. McCain is professor of history and. chairman of the history department
at San Antonio College.
10tey M. Scruggs gives a slightly different perspective of this issue in "Texas, Good
Neighbor?" Southwestern Social Science Quarterly, XLIII (Sept., 1962), 118-125, and in
"Texas and the Bracero Program, 1942-1947," Pacific Historical Review, XXXII (Aug.,
1963), 251-264. The term bracero is used to denote a legally contracted worker.
2An open border is one at which unrestricted border crossing is legal. Although after
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 85, July 1981 - April, 1982. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101208/. Accessed May 20, 2013.