Research looks at 'bracero program'

by Peter Charalambous | 2/17/17 2:00am

Economics professor Ethan Lewis recently released a working paper about the economic impact of the “bracero program,” a series of bilateral agreements which allowed low-skill seasonal Mexican workers to legally enter and work in the United States between 1942 and 1964. When the program was terminated, however, nearly 500,000 workers were expelled from the U.S.

The paper found that the exclusion of braceros and their subsequent deportation had little effect on raising either employment or wages of domestic farm laborers. Lewis co-authored the paper with senior fellow Michael Clemens and research associate Hannah Postel, both of the Center for Global Development, an international policy research institution.

“We don’t find a lot of evidence supporting ... [claims] that by shutting down immigration, jobs open up for natives, wages go up,” Lewis said. “We found that when the bracero program ended, there was basically no increase in wages and no new jobs for natives.”

Clemens began researching the effects of bracero exclusion two and a half years ago while working with former President of Mexico Ernesto Zedillo and former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez on a possible bilateral trade agreement.

During the process of creating a report, called “Shared Borders, Shared Future,” which outlined the possible agreement, Clemens researched the last bilateral labor agreement established between the United States and Mexico — the bracero agreements.

He began his work by attempting to compile data about the flow of temporary labor into the United States from the 1940s to the 1960s. However, he soon ran into issues finding reliable data on the topic.

“Nobody had ever compiled how many braceros there were in each state at each time,” Clemens said. “There were books that could tell you how many braceros there were overall in each year, how many had left and returned to Mexico each year, but not what parts of the United States they were in each year.”

Furthermore, Clemens discovered that the preexisting research on the bracero program commissioned by the Department of Labor was flawed.

He found that the main U.S. government evaluation of the program was done by Rufus von KleinSmid, who was one of the charter members of a eugenicist group, the Human Betterment Foundation. The organization advocated for blocking all Mexican immigration based on the idea that Mexicans were genetically inferior to white Americans.

In order to find usable data, Clemens enlisted the help of Postel, who gathered and digitized data about the flow of bracero labor into the U.S. Postel spent two years gathering information from 10 archives in Washington, D.C., the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Kansas and the Truman Presidential Library in Missouri. The study was the first to digitize this data.

Clemens and Lewis began working together to interpret the data in the fall of 2016. This month, they released their working paper, which is the first major study, to their knowledge, to accurately analyze the effects of the exclusion of Mexican labor during the 1960s using a complex economic model.

“Our approach was ‘Let’s look at the whole country and compare those states where these bracero workers were concentrated,’” Lewis said.

They used states with historically low levels of bracero labor as a control group to contrast with states with high levels of bracero labor.

“That set up a natural experiment approach,” he said.

This paper bears some relevance to the current political climate, in which the federal government is considering deporting undocumented immigrants and building a wall on the Southern border.

While the exclusion of bracero labors bears resemblance to the current policies discussed, substantial differences exist.

Lewis noted that Mexican labor is currently utilized by a much more diverse set of industries including retail, manufacturing, construction and farming.

In addition, Gabrielle Clark, a former Charles Warren Fellow at Harvard University, added that the bracero program was legally contracted though a bipartisan agreement.

“The big difference is that we don’t have state regulation of migrations anymore,” Clark said.

She added that the labor from the program was highly regulated by the states.

“That means there were official contracts,” she said. “These contracts were backed by the states. If the employer reneged on their contractual guarantees … the U.S. government actually assumed liability.”

Despite these differences in current situation and that of the 1960s, both Clemens and Lewis think that lessons can be learned from the bracero program and applied to the current political situation.

“Policymakers cannot be so confident about what effects they’re going to get from those actions in labor markets,” Clemens said.

He said that just as the policy makers of the 1960s had misplaced confidence that they were going to see an economic boost, current policy makers cannot be so confident that they are going to get the desired results from their actions in labor markets. Lewis shared a similar sentiment.

“I want the message to be that closing down borders does not tend to be a good way to help U.S. workers,” Lewis said.