The president pledges to remove more than a third of the Mexicans who work in the United States. He says this will improve “the wage and employment conditions of domestic workers.” That’s obvious, researchers tell Congress, since not even lawmakers can “repeal the law of supply and demand.” If the supply of workers goes down, wages must go up, right? The administration and Congress act together, and within a few years, those Mexicans are gone.
This is not 2017. It was 1962. The administration and both houses of Congress were controlled by Democrats. It was the last large-scale, targeted removal of Mexicans living in the U.S. And what happened next was nothing like what President John F. Kennedy promised.
For more than two decades leading up to 1964, the U.S. and Mexico created a lawful channel for Mexican braceros (manual laborers) to work temporarily in the U.S., mostly on farms. There were half a million at the program’s height. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson accomplished what Kennedy had pushed for: ending the program and expelling the braceros from the country.
They did it to help U.S. workers. Did they succeed? Until recently, nobody knew.
I just completed a two-year study of the removal of these braceros together with Ethan Lewis of Dartmouth College and Hannah Postel, my colleague at the Center for Global Development. Prior to our work, no one had ever systematically tested whether the exclusion of braceros achieved its economic goal. Historians had focused almost entirely on the politics. Kennedy’s beliefs about the economic effects of the braceros relied on the findings of a Department of Labor commission that hadn’t actually analyzed economic data and was, in fact, led by Rufus von KleinSmid, charter member of a society of eugenicists that had advocated blocking Mexican immigration, believing that Mexicans constituted a genetically inferior race.
We had to start by gathering detailed data on farm wages and employment from that period. The reason our study took us two years is that no one had ever assembled data on how many braceros were working in each state; we had to dig into boxes of yellowing paper archives all over America to uncover the data that would enable us to measure what really happened to U.S. workers’ wages and employment when the braceros were suddenly gone.