Newstalgia Reference Room with the 1954 CBS Radio documentary The Wetbacks, as originally broadcast on April 11, 1954.
July 8, 2011

An all too familiar sight, even in 1954.

As was pointed out to me, the current problems we have with Immigration go back roughly to the post-World War 1 period of around 1919. Prior to that, it was pretty much an open door as Immigrants were encouraged to come to the U.S. in order to build up the labor force, join in the tidal wave of Western Expansion and generally bolster the population. But after World War 1 all that changed changed and suddenly the doors which were flung open were now suspiciously closed, and landing in this country as an immigrant became harder and harder. In 1924 the first Border Patrol was created in an effort to stem what had by then become a flood of Illegal Immigrants.

During World War 2 however, there was a flurry of activity with the Bracero Program (for Agricultural workers) along with the Railroad Bracero Program (for Railroad workers) which was passed in 1942 and implemented in 1943 and directed towards Mexico and Latin-America, but also as a way of shoring up the lagging workforce that had been drafted into military service. It didn't promise instant citizenship, but it offered a "fast track". And with our fears that Latin-American countries would go the way of the Axis, and since Mexico had also declared War on Germany, it was a good political move.

But when the War was over, so was the welcome mat and Immigration rules became tighter and more restricted. The Railroad Program was dropped in 1945 and the Bracero Program came under fire until it initially expired in 1947, but was renewed again in 1951 on a modified basis before it's complete demise in 1964. The Fear-On-Paper was the possibility of Communist infiltration. That spies and agitators would flow into the U.S. but the real fear was that, now the war was over, the workforce would return to its Pre-War level and there was very little need or desire for unskilled labor.

But outside the border America was still considered the Land of Opportunity and better wages were still to be had. So rather than make it easier to achieve legal Immigrant status, most chose the Illegal route.

Then as now, the logic has always been "go where the work is and the opportunities are". And employers on the other side of the border, in Manufacturing as well as Agriculture were more than willing to offer employment since it usually meant "off the books" and "negotiated wages" (i.e: well below market). Skilled labor, it should be noted and with personal experience, has always been given higher regard than unskilled labor. In short, it is easier to land Immigrant Status with a college degree, an in-demand skill or a good lawyer. The vast majority of people scrambling across the border are not skilled, do not have college degrees and certainly don't have lawyers. They are what have been called "country folk" (think Appalachia in Spanish), and they are degraded, chastised, vilified and discriminated against. But strangely, they are welcome with open, if not clandestine arms when it comes to building roads, picking oranges, cleaning toilets, straightening Hotel Rooms and dumping body fluids.

So in 1954 the problem was the same as it is now even though The Bracero Program was creaking along and offering legal employment to Mexican nationals with cooperation from conscientious American employers.

This documentary, produced by CBS Radio and KNX in Los Angeles, followed the path of the illegals, the Wetbacks as they were called, on a journey from Mexicali to Los Angeles. It was recorded on scene and, not only does it make for fascinating broadcast journalism, it also spells out exactly what was entailed at the time to get across the border and not get caught.

Bear in mind this is 1950's radio. It's a one hour Documentary that covers a lot of bases. Then as now, it's all mired in controversy and knee-jerk responses. The stereotype portrayals are just as prevalent then as they are now and the problem hasn't changed with one exception - in 1954 there was The Bracero Program and today there isn't. In 1954 there was at least an attempt at offering a solution, no matter how much of a band aid on a bleed-out it was. Today the conversation is back to Square One.

But there is a history.

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