August 13, 1999

Insult to Injury — Abuses of the Bracero Program Continue 35 Years Later

EDITOR'S NOTE: Between 1942 and 1965, the U.S. government issued some 4.5 million contracts to Mexican workers ("braceros") willing to come to the U.S. for brief periods. The program, widely criticized for failing to protect workers from abuse, seems to have added insult to injury by "losing" money that rightfully belongs to the workers.

By Jesus Martinez

A new immigrant-based social movement has emerged on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border that seeks redress from both governments.

The roots of the grievance stretch back more than 50 years, to 1942, when the U.S. government began the "bracero" program to fill labor shortages caused by World War II. Under this program, the government issued contracts to Mexicans willing to cross the border for temporary employment.

Braceros, working on farms and on railroads, made it possible for the U.S. economy to meet the challenges imposed by the war effort. Government and employers found the program so appealing that it was extended, through various acts, until 1965, when it was terminated unilaterally, after much pressure from unions and activists concerned with the systematic exploitation of the workers. During its existence, some four and a half million contracts were issued.

As part of their contract, braceros agreed to have ten percent of their wages withheld and placed in a fund controlled by the Mexican government. When they returned to Mexico, individual migrants could request that the money be returned to them.

According to Ventura Gutierrez, who heads the bracero redress movement in southern California, the overwhelming majority of the workers never received compensation. Moreover, the whereabouts of the funds remain unknown.

To resolve the matter, Gutierrez and other activists based in the United States and Mexico have initiated a campaign to have the Mexican government make payments to the braceros or surviving family members.

Despite their contributions to the U.S. and Mexican economies, claims Gutierrez, many former braceros now live in dire poverty, abandoned by the both governments, and without even the means to claim Social Security, which was supposed to be a benefit of the program.

The campaign, which started only a few months ago in Michoacan, Guanajuato, and other major bracero sending regions, has rapidly gained momentum. It has identified and enrolled tens of thousands of braceros, who have initiated individual claims for benefits promised by both governments.

The movement has emerged just as the Mexican government has established a temporary labor program with the Canadian government which, like the Bracero program, does not permit the workers the right to unionize to improve wages and conditions.

The movement has also arrived at a time when many in the United States are engaged in an intense campaign to create a new Bracero program. As in the past, they argue that there is a need for foreign, particularly Mexican, labor. Also as in the past, the proponents seek to create conditions of employment that will make the migrants exploitable and easy to control.

Securing justice for the braceros, their children and widows, is a necessary step in the process of reconciling the histories of these two countries. It will affect many people on both sides of the border, as most contemporary Mexican immigrants are direct descendants of the braceros. Several of my uncles, my paternal grandfather, dozens of other relatives, and scores of neighbors from my hometown in Michoacan contributed with their labor to the U.S. World War II efforts.

During the life of the Bracero Program, the workers were exploited by employers and often the targets of political attacks — as we have seen in recent years. Resentment against Mexican immigration is deep, and all too often this social sector becomes the scapegoat for the structural problems caused by government and the private sector.

At the very least, the Mexican government should investigate the whereabouts of the bracero fund and initiate payment to the migrants and their surviving relatives. One Mexican senator, Hector Sanchez of the opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), has agreed to introduce the issue as a bill to the Mexican Congress.

In turn, the very least the U.S. government can do is to honor the promises made to the braceros. In addition to economic benefits due to the braceros or their widows, it would be appropriate for the U.S. government to recognize and celebrate the braceros' contributions. After 57 years, it is time to acknowledge the role of all social sectors in making this nation great.

Jesus Martinez is an immigrant researcher and activist who was formerly a member of the Political Science Department at Santa Clara University.

Return to Frontpage