62. Action Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Kubisch) to Secretary of State Kissinger1

The Mexican Illegal Immigrant Problem

The Problem:

The Government of Mexico has placed high priority on obtaining an agreement to permit large numbers of Mexican workers to enter the United States for temporary employment. Given our own high unem[Page 201]ployment rate and the strong opposition to the Mexican proposal by important sectors in the United States, how forthcoming can and should we be?


Historical Perspective: The existence of large numbers of Mexicans illegally in the United States has been a problem for many years. A surge of Mexican workers entered this country during the decade 1910–1920, partly to fill a labor need here and partly to escape the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution. This influx continued during the 1920s. Mexican migration to the United States virtually stopped during the depression years of the 1930s, and thousands of Mexicans who were in this country legally or illegally returned to Mexico, voluntarily or under forced repatriation. Mexican labor was again imported into the United States in the 1940s under a series of agreements in which the employer (agricultural and industrial), not the U.S. Government, was the contractor. Mexico increasingly expressed concern with the often-shoddy treatment of its nationals, the low wages paid them, and the lack of U.S. Government contractual guarantees. This resentment led to the passage by Congress of P.L.–78, which permitted the negotiation with Mexico of the Migrant Labor Agreement of 1951, commonly known as the Bracero Agreement. Principal provisions of P.L.–78 and the Bracero Agreement with its subsequent modifications are at Tab C.

During the life of that agreement (1951–1964), nearly four million Mexican workers passed through the Reception Centers operated by the U.S. Department of Labor. The peak was reached in 1957 when American farmers entered into nearly 500,000 labor contracts. By 1964, the last year of the agreement, the number had dwindled to less than 200,000, largely because of increased farm mechanization. The Congress allowed the agreement to expire in 1964 under pressure from U.S. labor because of high unemployment rates and the low wages accepted by the braceros.

The Mexican Illegal Problem: Mexican workers entered the U.S. illegally in varying numbers before, during, and after the time of the bracero program. In 1952, for example, INS apprehended 543,538 Mexican nationals illegally in this country; in 1954 this number rose to 1,075,168 (because of a special INS drive); by 1964 the number of apprehensions had been reduced to 43,844. Each year since then the number of illegals expelled by INS has increased significantly, reaching an anticipated 550,000 this calendar year. It is not known how many illegal entrants go undetected, but it is conservatively estimated that the total number of Mexicans living in protracted illegal status in this country is now over one million, and growing. Given the Mexican population growth projections (it will nearly double by 1990, to about 100 million) and the wage disparity between the two countries, the pressure for [Page 202] Mexicans to emigrate illegally to the U.S. will continue and probably increase.

The distribution and occupations of Mexicans illegally in this country have changed significantly in recent years. In the past, these illegals had traditionally remained in the border states and engaged primarily in agricultural work. Recent information indicates that now more than half of those apprehended are in non-agricultural employment, with many living in such areas as Detroit, Chicago, and New York City.

As the number of expulsions of Mexican illegals has increased, so have pressures on the Government of Mexico to negotiate a new bracero-type agreement. These pressures are due to:

—adverse publicity in the Mexican press, especially that drawing attention to the Government of Mexico’s inability to rectify alleged low wages paid to Mexican workers and other alleged unfair employment practices and mistreatment by American employers.

—embarrassing mass expulsions from the United States of Mexican citizens who have left their country in search of economic opportunity not available to them at home.

—fears that pressures in the United States may result in more stringent border control measures and even greater numbers of expulsions. (Such measures would exacerbate Mexico’s embarrassment, add to its already strained socio/economic infrastructure, and deprive it of foreign exchange remittances which may amount to several hundred million dollars annually.)

Study and Efforts to Ease the Problem: Referring to the migratory workers problem in their joint communiqué of June 17, 1972, President Nixon and President Echeverria announced that “it was desirable for each government to undertake immediately a study of this question with a view to finding a mutually satisfactory solution.” Both governments established special national groups to make the study. The two groups conferred once during the course of their deliberations. The U.S. Group, under the Chairmanship of former Assistant Attorney General Roger Cramton, submitted its report to the President on January 15, 1973. The highlights of its findings and recommendations are:

—control of the border should be strengthened.

—legislation should be enacted to impose penalties on employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens.

INS should provide facilities for Mexican consuls at its detention camps and otherwise improve its services to the detainees.

—legislation should be enacted to make adjustment of status available on a discretionary basis and to permit lawful permanent residence to any alien who has resided in the U.S. for a period of ten years.

—the institution of a new bracero program is specifically not recommended.

A more complete treatment of these recommendations is at Tab D.

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At the request of the Government of Mexico, the Mexican Study Group met in Washington July 15–18, 1973 to exchange views with an ad hoc team representing the same U.S. agencies represented on the original U.S. Study Group (Justice, State, Labor, Agriculture, HEW, INS). The Mexican presentation centered on the need for a new bracero agreement (as have all subsequent conversations with Mexican officials) which would overcome alleged injustices to Mexican workers in the U.S. and provide American farmers with what the Government of Mexico insists is badly needed farm labor. The Mexican Group was not encouraged to anticipate a new bracero agreement. Ways were sought to alleviate some aspects of the problem and a “joint statement” (Tab E) was prepared for the internal use of each government.

The following actions have been concluded, or are pending conclusion, as a result of the July meeting:

INS has offered office space to Mexican consuls at their three detention centers adjacent to the border and has named officers to coordinate with the Mexican officials in the handling of personal problems of the detainees. The Mexicans have been slow to respond, not yet having occupied the facilities offered by INS.

—the GOM and the USG have agreed to abolish Article I of the bilateral visa agreement (providing for waiver of documentation for government officials and thereby lending itself to widespread fraud).

—our Embassy in Mexico has been pressing the GOM to provide the names of Mexican officials with whom INS can exchange information concerning illegal recruiters, traffickers, and smugglers of aliens and vendors of fraudulent documents.

Recent Legislative and Administrative Actions: There are three legislative and administrative developments over the past few months that have a bearing on the Mexican illegal immigrant problem:

—On May 3, 1973, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 982 (Illegal Alien Bill) which, inter alia, provides that penalties be imposed on employers who knowingly hire aliens who are in this country illegally. A similar bill died in the Senate last year, and it is uncertain that the Senate will act on this one unless pressed by the Department and/or other government Agencies.

—In August this year the Social Security Administration promulgated a regulation implementing a statute of 1972 which requires persons born abroad to present proof of U.S. citizenship or immigration status entitling them to work in order to obtain a Social Security card. From the U.S. point of view, this action should have the salutary effect of discouraging the hiring of at least some of the recently arrived illegals.

—The House of Representatives on September 26, 1973 passed H.R. 981 which would place Western Hemisphere immigration under the same selection criteria and numerical limitation system as the Eastern Hemisphere (which would have the effect of reducing legal Mexican immigration by one-third, if enacted without amendment), would somewhat liberalize the provisions for admission of temporary workers, and would make other amendments to the Immigration and [Page 204] Nationality Act. A proposed amendment to H.R. 981, which would have greatly liberalized restrictions on temporary workers and which some opponents of the proposal described as a bracero-type program, was defeated 310 to 70.

The Rabasa Proposal: In the aide mémoire he left with you on November 3 (Tab F), Rabasa proposed that the U.S. and Mexico enter into an agreement that would include three basic points:

—depending upon requirements in the U.S. for imported labor, the two countries should each year agree upon a quota for the legal admittance of Mexican workers.

—these workers should be under contract to guarantee fair pay and humane treatment.

—Mexican consular representatives should be empowered to defend and represent these workers before all American authorities, including INS and the judiciary.

Rabasa recognizes that the root cause of the illegal problem is the great disparity between the two countries in employment availability and wage levels. He bases his argument for a new bracero program on the premise that Mexican workers are a vital necessity to the U.S., and he rejects as “absolutely untrue” statements made by U.S. labor unions, members of the U.S. Congress, and representatives of U.S. executive departments that Mexican workers “cause competition and unemployment.”

Since his démarche to you, the press has quoted Rabasa as saying that he was negotiating with you for the legal entry into the U.S. of 300,000 Mexican workers per year. President Echeverria on November 27 told a group of foreign correspondents that a new bracero program with the U.S. was needed.

Constraints on USG Acceptance of the Rabasa Proposal: High levels of farm worker unemployment, and the opposition of Congress, organized labor, Mexican-American groups, and some government Agencies offer the principal constraints to acceding to a new bracero program.

—A U.S. Department of Labor analysis (Tab G) shows that, except for a few minor and relatively isolated instances where small numbers of foreign workers may be needed to relieve temporary peak demands, there are no shortages of American farmworkers. In November, 1973, the unemployment rate of farmworkers amounted to 8.2 percent, as compared to the national rate of 4.7 percent. The Department of Labor spends large sums of money in making the transition from farm to non-farm employment. The Department of Labor estimates that in 1974 no more than 21,000 alien farmworkers from all areas will be required.

—Over the long run the need for farm labor is likely to decline owing to continued substitution of machine and chemical technology for hand labor. The Department of Agriculture projects that fruit and vegetable labor needs will fall 12 percent below the 1968 level by 1975. It also estimates that labor needs for tobacco growing will be cut 50 percent by 1975.

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—There is deep concern over wage levels being depressed by aliens who are willing to accept wages lower than those accepted by American workers. The Department of Labor points out that even in 1972, a year of high farm production, prices, and exports, 50 percent of all farm workers still received less than the minimum agricultural wage rate.

—U.S. labor unions are disturbed by the large numbers of Mexican illegals who depress wages, compete for jobs, and are often used as strike-breakers. They are strongly opposed to a renewed bracero program for the same basic reasons.

—There appears to be no significant support in Congress for the renewal of a bracero program. On the contrary, indications are that there would be strong Congressional opposition to such a proposal, particularly in the light of domestic economic uncertainties as a result of the energy crisis. (Senate Majority Leader Mansfield, who has a long history of sympathetic understanding of Mexican problems, remarked recently to Ambassador McBride that “a new bracero agreement is not in the cards.”)

—The increasingly vocal and politically active Mexican-American community is ambivalent with respect to the present situation with large numbers of Mexican illegals in this country. While the Mexican-Americans are sympathetic to the plight of recent Mexican immigrants (legal or illegal) because of their common language and cultural ties, their emotional response is not without cost. Many feel a bracero agreement would erode their painstaking progress to enter more fully into the mainstream of American life. There would be increased competition for jobs, increased financial load on their community through what has been called the “private welfare system,” and increased fears of harassment and discrimination by law enforcement officers, as well as possible diffusion of health and welfare resources. The Director of the Office of Spanish Surnamed Americans (HEW) states that on balance the Mexican-American community is opposed to a renewed bracero agreement.

—There is also a foreign policy consideration associated with any possible bilateral bracero agreement with Mexico. Several other nearby countries, notably those in the Caribbean, also have large surplus labor pools and would likely be most interested in entering into a similar agreement with the U.S.

To summarize, the GOM request for a new bracero agreement reflects mounting pressures in Mexico to do something about its growing unemployment problem. The long-term solution to that problem—and hence to the illegals issue—is the lifting of Mexico’s standard of living to a level which makes mass migration less attractive. Given Mexico’s population growth there is not likely to be sufficient narrowing of the economic/social gap for many years, perhaps generations. In the meantime we will be faced with large and continuing pressures for Mexican employment in the U.S. Our ability to absorb large numbers of Mexican workers is constrained by our own unemployment problems and sharp opposition of those sectors most directly affected by Mexican competition.

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The Options:

1. Make an energetic effort with organized labor and the Congress to reinstitute a bracero program as proposed by Mexico and at the same time work out with Mexico an effective program to reduce the flow of illegals.

Advantages: (if successful)

—would alleviate Mexico’s internal political problem, continuing to provide an escape valve for social problems.

—would remove a source of irritation to our bilateral relations.

—depending upon the size of the program, might ease (but not eliminate) the problem and expense of control and deportation.

—would make the aliens less vulnerable to abuse.

(If Unsuccessful)

—would nonetheless be a positive indication of the Administration’s sincere interest in attempting to solve the problem along the lines proposed by Mexico.


—Congress is unfavorably disposed toward this solution.

—The Departments of Labor, Agriculture, and HEW, labor unions, and the Mexican-American community oppose this approach.

—Unless huge in scope, a bracero program would not significantly alleviate the problem of illegal immigration.

—It would have some adverse effects on the U.S. balance of payments through increased remittances to Mexico.

—It might be considered discriminatory by other nearby countries with large surplus labor pools.

2. Do not reinstitute the bracero program; work out with the Mexican Government a program which effectively reduces the flow of illegals which in turn would result in a larger demand for certification for legal temporary workers. Take the following concurrent actions designed to alleviate the situation:

—Introduce legislation to regularize (legalize) the immigrant status of those illegals who have been in the U.S. for at least ten years.

—Continue efforts to assure that detainees are not mistreated.

—Encourage the Senate to pass H.R. 982 providing for penalties to American employers who knowingly employ illegal aliens, and also abolishing the present prohibition against the adjustment of status in the U.S. by natives of the Western Hemisphere.

—Elicit the cooperation of Mexico in controlling the outflow of illegals.


—Would indicate to U.S. organized labor that its employment position is being protected by continued enforcement actions against illegals.

—Would provide for a greater number of temporary workers, although not in the magnitude sought by Mexico.

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—Would provide opportunity for legal residence to thousands of Mexicans who have resided here for many years, raised their families in this country, etc.

—Would reduce the demand for illegals by imposing penalties on employers who knowingly employ them.

—Would indicate to Mexico our sincere desire to alleviate some aspects of the problem.

—Would avoid mass expulsion programs that would add to the GOM’s political problems and damage bilateral relations between our countries.


—Would fall far short of what the GOM hopes for—establishment of a new bracero program.

—Would in the short-run require continued control and expulsion measures on a relatively high scale.

3. Do not reinstitute the bracero program and continue apprehension and expulsion at present levels, i.e., maintain the current posture.


—Will not call attention to the problem of Mexican immigration and consequently will not arouse the opposition of groups hostile to such immigration.


—Does not face up to the major problem of how to stem the invasion of illegals.

—Does not consider the aspects of alleged unfair treatment by employers and enforcement agencies.

—Is costly to enforcement agencies and not totally effective.

—Does not overcome the concern of labor unions and minority groups.

—Shows disinterest on the part of the U.S. to a problem considered to be of extreme importance to the GOM.

4. Do not reinstitute the bracero program; mount an enforcement program to keep out Mexican illegals; make a major effort to locate and deport those illegals already in the U.S.


—Would meet with the enthusiastic approval of all those sectors opposed to a large influx of Mexican workers.


—Would be very costly in terms of the money and manpower required to patrol the 2000 miles of common border.

—Would be extremely disruptive, at least in the short run, of U.S./Mexico relations.

—Would damage the image of the U.S. (particularly if exploited by Mexico) in Latin America and elsewhere.

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Relative Merit of the Options:

On the illegal immigrant question the U.S. faces a sharp conflict of interest. On the one hand the high unemployment rate among farm workers and the additional wage competition represented by Mexican illegals translates into opposition to a new bracero agreement by organized labor, ethnic (Mexican-American) groups, and a substantial majority in the Congress. On the other hand, from the standpoint of Mexican-United States relations, it would be advantageous to accommodate the Mexicans with a bracero agreement. Separate but related to the Mexican initiative for a new bracero agreement is how to handle the growing problem of illegal Mexican immigrants.

Of the four options discussed in the previous section, the last two do not deal adequately either with the Mexican desire for a large bracero program or the problem of Mexican illegals in the United States. Option 3 is a stand-pat alternative which contemplates no further progress on either of the objectives. Option 4 would put a stop to the flow of illegals but at a very high financial cost for enforcement if it is to be effective. The diplomatic cost to our relations with Mexico and our image elsewhere would also carry a very high price tag.

Options 1 and 2, on the other hand, would advance our objectives of being forthcoming to the Mexicans and at the same time deal with the illegals problem. The first option, however, faces strong opposition in Congress, labor and ethnic groups. It is also opposed by the Departments of Labor, HEW, and Agriculture. A major effort by the Administration, including the President himself, would be required to overcome this opposition, and even then a favorable outcome with the Congress cannot be assured.

Option 2 offers a progressive approach toward the Mexican desire for a greater flow of legal temporary workers into the United States while at the same time reducing the illegals problem without seeking Congressional authority to negotiate a new bracero agreement. Its acceptability to the Mexicans would have to be tested. Their response would depend in large part on their—and our—perception of how many Mexican laborers can be “transferred” from the illegal to the legal categories and how fast. Option 2 would allow you to meet the second and third points contained in Rabasa’s aide mémoire.


That you approve Option 2 which contemplates no new bracero agreement but offers a joint program with the Mexicans for effectively reducing the flow of illegals thus allowing for the certification of larger numbers of legal temporary workers. In the meantime certain interim measures would alleviate Mexican complaints.

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If you approve Option 2, it will be necessary first to obtain Secretary Brennan’s approval of the labor certification aspects of the proposal. (The Labor representative who participated in this study expects no problem on this score.) Following this step, you may wish either to send the suggested letter to Secretary Rabasa (Tab A), explaining where you came out in the study you promised, or, if you prefer to handle it orally, use the talking points at Tab B.

Alternatively, you may prefer to make the energetic effort with other government Agencies, organized labor, ethnic groups and the Congress to reinstitute the bracero program (Option 1) proposed by Mexico, and at the same time work out with Mexico an effective program to reduce the flow of illegals.

If you approve Option 1, you should initially speak to Secretaries Brennan, Weinberger, and Butz to enlist their support, following which we will undertake consultations with Congress, labor leaders and Mexican-American leaders.


Tab A - Suggested Letter to Foreign Secretary Rabasa.

Tab B - Talking Points for discussions with Foreign Secretary Rabasa.

Tab C - Summary of Bracero Agreement of 1951–1964.

Tab D - Summary of Recommendations of U.S. Special Study Group.

Tab E - Joint Statement of Mexico/United States representatives’ meeting of July 17, 1973.

Tab F - Foreign Secretary Rabasa’s aide mémoire of November 3, 1973.

Tab G - U.S. Department of Labor analysis of the need for imported labor.

  1. Summary: Responding to Rabasa’s interest in an agreement that would permit large numbers of Mexicans to enter the United States as temporary workers, Kubisch presented a study of the illegal immigration problem and recommended against the reestablishment of a bracero program.

    Source: National Archives, RG 59, ARA/MEX Files, Lot 78D235, PER–Ambassador Joseph John Jova, 1973–1975. Confidential. Drafted by Bowdler and Torrey on December 20. Kissinger approved Option 2 on January 4, 1974. Sent under a December 21, 1973, covering note from Kubisch to Kissinger that indicated the memorandum was based on a study carried out by an inter-departmental working group after Kissinger told Rabasa in an October 4 meeting that the U.S. Government would reconsider its position on the illegal immigrant problem. (Document 61.) Tabs A through G are attached but not published. The draft letter to Rabasa attached at Tab A was sent on January 4, 1974.