Mexican Guest Workers Fight for Pensions

Former bracero Ezequiel Acevedo

hide captionFormer bracero Ezequiel Acevedo with a document from the Mexican government, acknowledginghe is on the official ex-bracero registry and should receive a check for about $3,500.

Jordana Gustafson

Braceros — Mexicans who labored in the United States as part of a 22-year guest worker program put in place during World War II — have been fighting for more than 40 years to receive pension payments for their labor. Many have died or lack documentation that proves they were part of the program. Jordana Gustafson reports on the challenges braceros face getting compensated for their work.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm MADELEINE Brand. Millions of Mexicans came to work in this country decades ago as part of the U.S. government's Bracero program. The effort to bring in farm and railroad workers ran from the early days of World War II, until the mid-1960s. The Braceros were supposed to receive part of their payment after they returned to Mexico, but that never happened. And now there's a dispute over new efforts to pay these workers. Jordana Gustafson reports.

JORDANA GUSTAFSON reporting:

When they first came to the U.S. in 1942, these migrant workers were considered soldiers of the field. They were Mexico's contribution to the World War II effort, coming in to pick up where drafted American soldiers had left off, picking fruit in U.S. fields, and driving spikes on U.S. railroads. Each week, 10 percent of these workers paychecks were deducted and transferred to Mexico, where they were held by Mexican banks. This was meant to entice the workers to return home once their contracts expired. There are reports that a small returned Braceros did receive their money, but millions of others never did.

Ms. MACRENA CALDENAS(ph) (Representative, National Alliance of Braceros): (Through translator) This is a legal obligation, because there was an agreement, and agreements are legal and based in law.

GUSTAFSON: Macrena Caldenas represents the National Alliance of Braceros, an organization comprised of some 10,000 ex-Braceros in Mexico.

Ms. CALDENAS: (Through translator) So, it is the government's responsibility to resolve this problem.

GUSTAFSON: Just how much they're now owed is unclear. An investigation by a committee set up by Mexico's Congress found no record of the money. And estimates of just how much money was withheld over the years range from a few million dollars, to several hundred million. The Alliance plans to ask Wells Fargo, the bank responsible for transferring the funds to Mexico, to provide records of each individual worker's account.

Whether or not these records are handed over, last spring, the Mexican Congress announced it had set aside 27 million dollars to partially compensate the former guest workers. The Mexican government did not respond to requests for comment, but Fernando Gamboa, Consul General at the Mexican Consulate in Oxnard, California, explains the government payout.

Mr. FERNANDO GAMBOA (Consul General, Mexican Consulate): (Through translator) As a government, we don't have sufficient proof to consider this a legal debt, but in any case, it's a moral debt. As a country, we have a moral debt to the Braceros.

GUSTAFSON: Each ex-Bracero who has been approved for the government registry, he says, should receive a check for about 3,500 U.S. dollars.

Ms. BELAINE ASCEVARDO(ph) (Coordinator, Bi-National Union of Ex-Braceros): (Through translator) How do you say joke in English?

GUSTAFSON: Belaine Ascevardo and her husband Isakiel(ph) are coordinators for the Bi-National Union of Ex-Braceros, based in California.

Ms. ASCEVARDO: (Through translator) Yes, it's very little, but like my husband said, 3,800 pesos is better in my purse than in theirs. So I say, good, okay, I want to see it.

GUSTAFSON: For the last five years, the Ascevardo's have been working non-stop in their Anaheim, California home to help ex-braceros get their names onto the government registry. They say the amount the government is now offering is little, but it's better than nothing. But Macrena Caldenas of the National Alliance of Braceros considers the amount arbitrary and insulting.

Ms. CALDENAS: (Through translator) What we are fundamentally asking for is that they return the money that was deducted from their paychecks, plus the interest that is generated over time. So, the Alliance is not accepting this money, because the workers say they are not asking for handouts.

GUSTAFSON: The problem is that the original money may no longer exist. It's widely suspected that the money was stolen once it reached Mexico, though Mexican Consul Fernando Gamboa says that explanation is too simple.

Mr. GAMBOA: (Through translator) I believe from everything I've read that there was probably a combination of circumstances. I don't know. The truth is, I've asked the government and the government doesn't have one single position, either. They don't say, this is what happened.

GUSTAFSON: But Macrena Caldenas says the Alliance is committed to finding out what happened, as is a group of American lawyers. In 2005, they were allowed to pursue a lawsuit against the Untied States and Mexico and two Mexican banks on behalf of the ex-braceros. The case is currently being appealed by Mexican defendants in the ninth circuit.

Back in Anaheim, the Ascevardos are anxious. In January, Isakiel received a document confirming his ex-Braceros status, and his right to one of the 3,500 dollar checks, but he says he's still waiting to receive a phone call from the Mexican government telling him that the money is ready to be picked up.

Ms. ASCERVARDO: (Through translator) They already brought all the papers the government asked for. And here is says proof of payment, but when? It doesn't say when. According to them, they're going to call us, but I don't know when.

BRAND: And that report by Jordana Gustafson.

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