• U.S.

MEXICO: North of the Border

3 minute read

It was enough to drive a farmer to drink. North of the Rio Grande, bumper cotton and sugar-beet crops were ready for harvest, and U.S. farmers were faced with the nightmare of losing it all for want of extra farm hands. Meanwhile, jammed into the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez, just below the river, nearly 8,000 Mexican workers waited to be registered as seasonal braceros and to go on north to the harvest. But nothing was being done to send them north; they were stranded.

The villain in the piece was bureaucracy; minor officials of the two countries were involved in a prolonged haggle over wages and terms of employment. Meanwhile the braceros milled about in Juárez, restless, hungry and shelterless. Juárez’ Mayor Carlos Villarreal pleaded for help. He got it—from an unexpected direction.

Agents of the American farmers quietly moved around among the braceros, passing the word that anyone who wanted to work could just go to a shallow place in the river and wade across. Trucks would be waiting, nobody would get in trouble, the U.S. authorities would understand.

Over the River. For three days, U.S. officials thrashed about feebly, arrested some 400 Mexicans. Then Grover C. Wilmoth, district immigration director at El Paso, opened the border. His agents hastily registered the braceros at the river bank or on the roads, and waved them along to the waiting farm trucks. Technically they had all been arrested, and paroled to work. The fanners were happy, the braceros were happy; Juárez, if not happy, was mightily relieved.

But Good Neighbor Mexico was hopping mad, and the U.S. was caught with its hand in the jam jar. The list of U.S. and Mexican labor, immigration, health and customs laws that had been fractured would be as long as a rebozo (traditional shawl of Mexico’s Indian women). Worst of all, from the Mexican point of view, responsible U.S. officials had outrageously violated the signed agreement of Feb. 21, 1948, designed to control the flow of seasonal labor and protect Mexican workers from exploitation and prejudice in the U.S. (The February agreements barred bracero labor in Texas because of its past ill-treatment of Mexican workers.)

New Club. In Mexico City, Foreign Minister Jaime Torres Bodet curtly announced last week that the agreement had been abrogated by unilateral U.S. action. In Washington, Chargé d’Affaires Rafael de la Colina delivered a protest which U.S. diplomats described as a “stemwinder.” Mexico’s press wrathfully asked whether U.S. agreements were scraps of paper.

The U.S. State Department, after privately landing on the Immigration Service with both feet, composed an apologetic note that made the Mexicans feel happier. The braceros were at work. The incident was closed.

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