From 1943 to 1964, the United States authorized a special program for the admission of temporary agricultural workers from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Initiated as a way of aiding agricultural production during World War II, in 1947 the program became the legal basis for the Bracero Program, which lasted until 1964. This program allowed seasonal agricultural workers to be admitted on a temporary basis from Mexico to meet U.S. agricultural labor shortages. In practice, the federal government operated reception centers near the Mexican border that screened applicants who arrived from Mexican recruitment centers. The program oversaw the transportation of the farmworkers to the work sites and ensured that employers provided transportation and wages. Employers were required to pay the prevailing wages in the area, to employ the workers for at least three-quarters of the contract period, and to provide free housing and meals at reasonable cost. By the early 1960s, critics of the program were claiming that Braceros adversely affected the wages, working conditions, and job opportunities of resident farmworkers (Martin, 1996). At the same time, increased mechanization was reducing the heavy reliance on agricultural workers for several crops and political support for the program from farmers had weakened. In the final stages, the Mexican ambassador asked the U.S. government to continue the program, but President John F. Kennedy supported only a final two-year extension, and the program ended in 1964.

Although immigrants were relatively few throughout the 1930s and 1940s, there were large numbers of applications for refugee admission from Europeans fleeing Nazi persecution. Applications for legal admission into the United States increased following World War II—and so did illegal immigration. It was also clear by the late 1940s that many of the old immigration laws were outdated. Faced with large numbers of refugees seeking entrance into the United States, special legislation was required for each group. The national-origin quotas severely limited the numbers who could be admitted from Asia and Eastern Europe, yet many from these areas who wished to immigrate had desirable occupational skills. Congress responded by passing several laws permitting displaced persons and refugees to enter the United States outside the quotas.

President Harry S Truman believed that special legislation for refugees was not enough. He appointed a special commission in 1952 to examine immigration and naturalization law. Although the commission recommended substantial changes, Congress took no action. President Dwight D. Eisenhower also wanted the system liberalized, but reforms were delayed until 1965, when major amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act were enacted. These amendments removed quotas and placed all countries on an equal footing with similar numerical quotas. Although only 20,000 immigrant visas could be issued to any single country in the Eastern Hemisphere, by the new rules, immigrants who had immediate relatives (spouses, children, and parents) in the United States would not be automatically excluded because of their national origin. The 1965 act also placed the first numerical limitation on immigration from the Western Hemisphere.

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