When America needed them, they came in by the truckload. Now, more than a half-century after thousands of braceros migrated to California during a World War II-era labor shortage, state legislators are working to ensure they get their just rewards.
Seen as an alternative to undocumented immigration, the Bracero Program was a series of guest worker agreements between the United States and Mexico. It began in 1942, when hundreds of braceros were brought into Stockton to harvest beets, and wasn’t officially ended until 1964.
For decades, ex-braceros claimed that the Mexican government owed them 10 percent of the pay they received between 1942 and 1946. The deductions from the workers’ wages were placed in savings accounts by the government to encourage the braceros to move back to Mexico, in order to claim them.
The accounts were supposed to have been guaranteed upon their return, but most braceros never received them.
As the result of a federal class action lawsuit settled in September 2008, the Mexican government declared that it would reimburse ex-braceros living in the United States for their savings accounts. Braceros employed between 1942 and 1964 became eligible for a one-time payment of 38,000 pesos, worth about $3,500 in American dollars.
The agreement gave the braceros until Dec. 23 of last year to file a claim, a deadline later stretched for those filing claims in the United States to Jan. 5 of this year.
Several state lawmakers, however, feel that those measures don’t go far enough. They want to make it easier and more convenient for the ex-braceros to get their money back.
An Assembly Joint Resolution passed by the State Senate on June 11 is urging the Obama administration to pressure the Mexican government to extend the deadline for braceros to submit claims for reimbursements.
The resolution, AJR 2, was authored by State Assemblywoman Anna Caballero (D-Salinas) and introduced in the Senate by Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria).
“My father was a bracero, so this issue is very close to my heart,” Maldonado said.
Abel Maldonado, Sr. was one of more than 4.5 million Mexicans admitted to the United States for farm work as part of the Bracero Program. Most of the braceros headed for fields in growing California agricultural communities like Santa Maria, where they picked strawberries.
According to the Rural Migration News website, run by the University of California-Davis, California farmers called for the importing of between 40,000 and 100,000 Mexican workers in 1942 alone.
Maldonado, Sr. came to California from the Mexican state of Jalisco in the mid-1960s, serving his “tour of duty,” as the senator calls it, in Watsonville and Santa Maria. While he said his father didn’t have deductions taken from his paycheck, he wants the deadline extended so former braceros have more time to prove that some of their wages were taken from them.
“I don’t have a fixed date; I just want them to extend it,” Maldonado said. “And if the bracero is no longer alive, his family should be able to get the money.”
Calling the repayments “sweat equity,” Maldonado said he would also like to see the burden of proof required for claims eased on the ex-braceros.
To qualify for reimbursement, the Mexican government required proof of Mexican citizenship and employment in the United States; including work contracts, social security records, and other documents showing wages earned from work in the Bracero Program. The government stipulated that only original or certified replacement copies could be submitted with the claim.
The ex-braceros were given about five months to submit their documents, and according to the text of the resolution, the requirements proved difficult to fulfill.
In addition to calling for the deadline extension, ARJ 2 also requests that the Mexican government accept a wider range of documents as proof of wages earned in the United States, including affidavits or copies of originals.
The measure has been forwarded to President Barack Obama and representatives of the Mexican government.
Jeremy Thomas is a Staff Writer for New Times’ sister paper, the Santa Maria Sun. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.