The Sonoran Desert’s Domestic Bracero Programme: Institutional Actors and the Creation of Labour Migration Streams

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Abstract

This paper traces the journeys of male migrants to Empalme, Sonora, Mexico to uncover the development of the often overlooked domestic bracero programme that operated in conjunction with its well-known international equivalent. Drawing on interviews and observations with ex-braceros who met at a park near the Mexico-US border, I examine their experiences and participation in Mexico’s domestic bracero program, an unintended and unexplored consequence of its international counterpart. The study shows how regulation and control were constantly reinvented at every step of the selection process by state actors and their affiliates in Mexico. The paper reveals how the oversupply of labour and modernization of agriculture in Sonora resulted in the development of a migration industry where local municipal leaders, coyotes, the state, and Mexican agribusiness capitalized from men’s displacement. The migration industry during the bracero selection process controlled who gained access to the United States labour market by capturing migrant labour en route to the United States in the process fueling a thriving cotton industry in the otherwise stagnant Sonoran Desert economy. The study concludes by taking the lessons from the historic domestic bracero programme to show one instance in which internal and international labour markets were closely interwoven. In the end, I call for more research that examines the relationship between markets on both sides of the border that uncovers how networks are not only structured by personal ties but also by state and market relations.

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