By Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante
We observe a little known anniversary this month, one that should be an opportunity to celebrate bi-national brotherhood but is instead a dark moment of shame and guilt. Sixty years ago, in August 1942, our country was reeling from the sudden, unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor eight months earlier.We were mobilizing an enormous army for a two-front war and rapidly converting civilian assembly lines to produce the materials of war. Hundreds of thousands of American men and women had left their jobs to volunteer in the defense of our nation.
In our time of need, we asked our Mexican neighbors for help and they responded. Four hundred thousand Mexican “Braceros” left their homes and families and picked up the tools left in the fields and factories by workers who had gone to war. The helping arms (Bracero in Spanish) of our neighbors continued the production of food and other goods and services vital to our nation and the war effort. To our everlasting dishonor, we cheated our neighbors of just and full compensation for the invaluable work they performed for us during the war.
The Bracero agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments required that 10 percent of each worker’s paycheck be withheld, deposited in an interest-bearing account through Wells Fargo Bank, and transferred to banks in Mexico, where it was to be held until the Braceros returned to Mexico to collect it. What happened after that is less clear. Perhaps the funds were transferred to Mexico, perhaps not. What is clear, however, is that 60 years after the funds were withheld, few Braceros have been able to collect their forced savings.
While unable to find a voice for many years, the plight of these workers has now come to light. Scores of “Bracero justice” groups have emerged in cities and towns on both sides of the border, calling for payment of the wages owed. A lawsuit has been filed against Wells Fargo Bank, the U.S. and Mexican governments, and a variety of Mexican banks on behalf of the Braceros and their descendants. The Mexican Congress opened an inquiry into the disappearance of the funds and legislators in the United States have passed resolutions supporting the Braceros’ demands.
Rather than join in the search for what happened and how to correct this injustice, both the U.S. and Mexican governments and the banks are trying to block the Braceros’ fight for justice. They have employed brigades of lawyers and created a cloud of legal technicalities to evade their responsibilities. Claiming “lapse of time” and “sovereign immunity,” they are asking American courts to reject the Braceros’ case on technical grounds, not because the case lacks merit.
This shameful situation must be remedied. The Braceros entered the country not only legally, but as America’s guests. They did a great service for America, but rather than receive recognition and honor for their contribution to our successful war effort and continued prosperity, they were defrauded of their wages.
On August 6, 2002, the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Bracero contract between Mexico and the United States, under which 400,000 men worked tirelessly on our behalf, I urged Wells Fargo Bank, the Mexican banks, and the U.S. and Mexican governments to restore our faith in justice.
Let’s stop the legal games and commence the search for truth and accountability. When we needed them most, our neighbors responded. The conscience of our nation demands that we now respond appropriately to their cry for justice. We must see to it that the Braceros are finally paid the money they earned.