Mexican workers recruited to work in the United States in the 1940s moved one step closer in their quest to receive pay that was deducted from their paychecks and never paid back.
In a unanimous vote, members of the California State Assembly's Judiciary Committee moved to the floor a bill (AB2913) that would amend the state statute of limitations to allow the Mexican workers, known as braceros, to seek the back pay.
Last year, a lawsuit was filed against the U.S. and Mexican governments on behalf of hundreds of thousands of braceros denied pay during their years of working on U.S. farms and railroads. The bill making its way through the California state legislature would prevent the U.S. government from arguing that the workers should not be paid because the statute of limitations had expired.
"It's unconscionable that these workers have been waiting as long as 60 years to receive the full pay that was promised to them," said braceros attorney Jonathan Rothstein. "In their vote today, the Judiciary Committee said it's never too late to correct the mistakes of the past." "So many of us across the nation are the sons, daughters, nephews and nieces of braceros who came to the United States to do back-breaking work when it was most needed," added Dolores Ponce de Leon, executive director of Bracero Justice, and herself the daughter of a bracero. "We have seen the struggle of our parents and will not rest until we achieve the justice and honor that they deserve."
The California State Assembly is expected to vote on AB2913 in the next two weeks. Assuming it passes, the bill would then proceed to the California State Senate for consideration by that chamber. Today's action by the Judiciary Committee follows a rally on the west steps of the State Assembly building yesterday in which dozens of Latino political, labor and social-justice leaders gathered to support the legislation.
The funds in question are millions of dollars taken from the paychecks of the 300,000 Mexicans who were recruited to work in America's fields and railroads in the 1940s to replace men who had gone to war. As part of the international agreement between Mexico and the U.S. for the "bracero program," 10 percent of each worker's paycheck was deducted with the promise of the return of the "savings" upon their return to Mexico. The U.S. government extracted 10 percent of their wages from each check and Wells Fargo banked the garnished wages for transfer to Mexican banks, yet few braceros ever received the forced savings.
The lawsuit filed last year in federal court charges the U.S. and Mexican governments and Wells Fargo Bank with malfeasance and negligence. Resolutions or other statements supporting justice for the braceros already have been
adopted by the U.S. Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the California State Assembly, as well as the United Farm Workers of America, California State Federation of Labor, National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, National Council of La Raza, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, Service Employees International Union, National Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, National Alliance of Farmworkers, and a host of other civic and labor groups.
"The time that has passed is hardly a reason to deny braceros justice, rather it is an indictment of those who counted on a conspiracy of silence to hide this crime against this most vulnerable group," said California Assembly Majority Floor Leader Marco Firebaugh, who introduced the legislation. "The legislation," he explained, "is based on previously passed legislation that extended the statute of limitations for Holocaust victims and Korean slave-workers."
While some braceros did receive their money, according to the lawsuit and recently written news reports both in Mexico and the U.S., most braceros either were never told about the funds or were never able to access them. Many reports documents long trips by braceros from their home towns to Mexico City to claim their money, only to be told that "it couldn't be found," or to come back later, or that there was no money to be had.
"Whether wittingly or unwittingly, the U.S. and Mexican governments have defrauded these men and deprived their families of their earnings," said Michael Moreno, legislative coordinator for the United Farm Workers. "As the U.S. and Mexico discuss a new guest-worker agreement, we must insist that the inequities of the past be remedied before we move forward."
The lawsuit that has spurred the legislative action is Ramirez Cruz, et al. v. United States, et al., filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on March 1, 2001, which charges the U.S. government, the Mexican government, three Mexican banks, and Wells Fargo Bank with malfeasance and liability in connection with the "lost wages" of the braceros. All of the defendants have filed motions to dismiss the case, urging, in part, that the claims are barred by the statute of limitations. Attorneys for the braceros include the law firms of Gessler, Hughes, Socol, Piers, Resnick & Dym, Ltd. and Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein, LLP.