July 17, 2002


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Pay dirt
Mexican farmworkers look for money owed after 60 years

By Camille T. Taiara

Immigrant laborers who say they were swindled out of hundreds of millions of dollars might finally get their day in court.

Six former braceros – agricultural and railroad workers who were part of a temporary guest-worker program instituted 60 years ago by the United States and Mexico – filed a class action suit in San Francisco's federal district court last summer seeking remuneration for earnings that were to be made available to them on their return to Mexico but that many never knew about or were barred from collecting.

On Aug. 2 the court will consider whether to let the case go forward.

Under the Bracero Program, established in 1942 and terminated in 1964, the United States recruited nearly five million workers for the agricultural and railroad industries to offset labor shortages created by World War II. Ten percent of the workers' wages were garnished from 1942 until 1949 and credited to San Francisco-based Wells Fargo Bank, which was charged with transferring the funds to individual savings accounts in Mexico. The idea was to discourage the immigrants from remaining in the United States illegally after their contracts expired. But many of the braceros – a vast majority of whom could not read – were unaware of why the deductions were being made. A substantial number of those who tried to collect their money in Mexico were turned away empty-handed.

"We have documents that show the U.S. government knew of the fraud that was happening, yet it allowed it to happen for many years," says Enrique Martínez of Lieff Cabraser Heimann and Bernstein, one of the legal firms representing the braceros.

The lawsuit came about when separate cases filed in 2001 were merged into one collective action covering all braceros owed back pay. Nearly 400,000 braceros worked at least 10 hours a day, six days a week, for pennies an hour at U.S. farms and rail yards during the seven-year period – most of them in California. Although it's too early to know how much money is involved, the estimates of plaintiffs' lawyers range from hundreds of millions of dollars to a billion or more, accounting for inflation and interest.

It's money the defendants won't part with easily.

All five parties accused of malfeasance and negligence – the U.S. and Mexican governments, Wells Fargo, Banco de Mexico, Banco Nacional del Credito Rural, and Patronato del Ahorro Nacional – filed a motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that too much time had elapsed and, in the case of the Mexican government and banks, that U.S. courts do not have the authority to try foreign governments or entities.

"Our responsibility was simply to act as a transfer agent for the U.S. and Mexico," Wells Fargo spokesperson Larry Haeg adds, explaining that the bank never held accounts for individual braceros and therefore "had no relationship with the braceros themselves as customers."

Countering the motion to dismiss, those representing the braceros argue that the defendants' misdeeds only recently came to light. The contract between the two governments and the respective banks, they say, constituted a "collective bargaining agreement," and the savings account transfers were a "commercial activity," which is indeed subject to legal action.

"The money we're asking for is ours," says Feliciano Pérez, an 82-year-old native of Oaxaca, Mexico. Pérez worked as a bracero on and off from 1942 until 1959 – toiling in Idaho's corn and potato fields, working on the railroad in Montana, picking cotton in Texas and Arkansas and tomatoes, cucumbers, and oranges in Michigan and California – and says he didn't know about any savings account until less than a year ago, when he read about it in a local paper in Salinas. "If they had returned that money to us when we earned it, we could have started a small business," Pérez continues. "We could have used it as a source of self-sufficiency for our community."

Congress is considering legislation that, should the court rule against the braceros, would allow the case to go to trial. On June 12, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois) introduced the Bracero Justice Act of 2002, which would prohibit the defendants from eluding prosecution on legal technicalities related to the statute of limitations, sovereign immunity, and other jurisdictional grounds. But time is running out for many of the workers in question – the youngest of whom are now in their mid to late 60s. "These people are getting old," says Ignacio Gómez, president of Braceros del Valle de Salinas. "They've never gotten recognition for the work they did here as part of the war effort. Many, especially in Mexico, are going hungry. They're living without medical insurance. They want their money now, not after they're dead." E-mail Camille T. Taiara at camille@sfbg.com.