By Efrain H. Logreira
What would you do if at age 65 you went to collect your Social Security and your share of the funds was not available to you? If you contributed 10% of your income to your 401k plan for twenty years and upon retirement, you could not obtain your money. How would you feel? What about if you owned a company and your long time friend and neighbor, who also owns a company, says to you: “I don’t have enough workers, can I employ yours for a while?” You both agree and sign a contract sharing the responsibility of employing these workers, but your friend does not pay them. Who should be held accountable, your friend or both of you? These scenarios exemplify what happened between the United States and Mexico when they instituted the first grand scale Guest Worker Program between the two countries.
Let’s Consider History so we Could Move Forward:
In 1941, soon after War World II began, the United States found itself in the midst of a labor shortage and needed help to keep the country alive and prosperous. The U.S. government requested 5 million workers from its neighbor Mexico and the two good neighbors agreed to a deal. They signed a bi-national labor agreement that became the first grand scale “Guest Worker” initiative, known as the “Bracero Program” (Bracero essentially meaning “a man with strong arms”). This contract, among other incentives and requirements, specified that Mexicans entering the United States as result of this understanding should not suffer discriminatory acts of any kind, in accordance with the Executive Order No. 8802 issued by the White House June 25, 1941. One of the most significant points under the Agreement was that the workers would be paid in full, but a deduction of 10% of their wages would be placed in a special savings account and given to each Bracero when he returned home after working in the U.S.
After the agreement was signed on August 4,1942, 4.7 million Braceros were transported from Mexico to the United States and sent to work in agricultural fields and on railways all over the country. The Bracero program outlasted the war as the United States became dependent on cheap labor. The program was ended in 1964 primarily because of rampant human rights abuses and corruption. Today, more than 60 years later, these Braceros have never received the savings they earned. Those still living are in their 70s and 80s and, along with the widows and children of the deceased Braceros, they continue to fight to obtain their funds. Where is their money? Why have they not been able to get it? The official answer: “lost.” Activists would argue: “stolen.”
Here’s the Truth:
The 10% of their wages was automatically deducted by the U.S. employers and deposited into an American bank. The funds were then transferred to Banco Nacional de Crédito Agrícola de Mexico, where the Bracero was to claim it once he returned home. The United States government and U.S. employers say they did their part by deducting the pay and handing it over to U.S. banks. Wells Fargo, the bank keeping the funds, says it transferred the money to the Banco Nacional Crédito Agrícola de Mexico (and its predecessor, Banrural). Mexico and its national banks say the funds are “lost.” By the end of the Bracero program in 1964, the majority of the Braceros had returned to Mexico. Regardless of their current country of residence, most are caught up in an ironic “no man’s land.” Their unique place in history today prevents them from obtaining the economic assistance usually provided to the elderly in both countries.
Both Countries Owe Millions of Dollars to the Braceros:
Let’s take a closer look at the equations with the following educated assumptions:
In one day, 10% deduction of the wages of 5 million workers was approximately $750,000. In one year, assuming they only worked six months in a year, their 10% deduction would amount to more than 131 million dollars. Now, add the corresponding compound interest to today. The fund is an astronomical amount - reaching well into the billions of dollars.
As the wheels of justice moved at a snails pace, nearly half the Braceros have passed away. By the year 2000, the remaining Braceros filed a class action lawsuit against both countries, which languished through the slow-moving cogs of the American judicial system. Both countries responded by citing technicalities as to why they should not be held accountable. The U.S. cited “Statute of Limitations.” Mexico claimed “The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.” Eventually, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the lawsuit against Mexico could not be pursued in the U.S., so the Braceros would have to file a separate claim in Mexico. However, it was ruled that the case could move forward in the United States, based on its “complicity.” In other words, the United States watched the money being misappropriated stolen - and did nothing about it. According to the Bracero’s U.S. based attorney, whose firm is handling the case pro bono, “These men were treated in the most un-American of ways.” Ironically, in 2005, Mexico’s Legislature showed the first signs of acknowledging their guilt and voted to start a special fund for the Braceros, yet what they have offered is paltry and the method to obtain the funds is ambiguous.
What the Politicians Are Proposing Now:
There are numerous issues for the voters to consider. For example, one of the current proposals in front of Congress is to add 370 miles of triple-layer fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border and another 500 miles of vehicle barriers. It authorizes hiring an additional 1,000 Border Patrol agents with an additional 14,000 agents added by 2011. The bill includes assigning National Guard officers to the U.S./Mexico border at an approximate cost of $4,500,000. All of this costing billions of dollars to the taxpayer.
Something to Think About:
We already have a Guest Worker program that is far more comprehensive than most American voters know. It is called the H2A and H2B Program (the first is aimed at agricultural workers, the second at other service industries). We have tried other alternatives such as “free trade” under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was intended to economically unite all “the Americas.” According to the Public Citizens Organization, NAFTA opponents, including labor, environmental, consumer and religious groups argue, that NAFTA launched a race-to-the-bottom in wages, destroys hundreds of thousands of good U.S. jobs, undermines democratic control of domestic policy-making and threatens health, environmental and food safety standards.” During the 1980s, the “Maquiladora” program launched a system to take jobs to the border. For a while this was a booming success, but much less now because of outsourcing to other countries with even cheaper labor. The U.S. provided amnesty to many illegal immigrants during the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Now the Congress is considering proposals that are almost identical to the Bracero program of 1942. Well, almost the same.
What’s the Difference?
This time, the United States has no real plan to offer work contracts as it did in 1942. Instead it wants to impose fees on those workers already here, or “pay to stay.” It would be a great source of revenue. An estimated 12 million illegal immigrants would pay $5,000 or more in fees and fines, and there is no certainty of becoming a legal resident. We must get beyond the polarized opinions and determine how to strike a balance between opportunity and exploitation, economics and human rights. Ask yourself what part do you have in this decision? Would your decision be based on economy, need, and human rights?
The Last But not the Least Point to Consider:
According to the best estimates of the Social Security Administration, approximately $7 billion a year is paid in payroll taxes by employers and illegal immigrants with “fake” Social Security numbers. And this has taken place for decades. None of these employees will receive any of these benefits, but the Social Security system has extra funds because of these contributions and this is why its administration doesn’t talk about immigration issues. Will these funds be considered a partial payment of the fees and fines that the government is imposing on the illegal workers? Have the politicians who proposed these new immigration bills considered these billions of dollars contributed to Social Security by these “illegal” workers and apply them to the Social Security accounts of the immigrants once they become legal residents of U.S.? Or will these funds be put once again in the box of the hypocrisy to advocate slavery again but with a modern slant?
Efrain H. Logreira is the President of Corte Hispana, a company that writes articles about Hispanic issues in the U.S. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org Yvette Fernandez, an Emmy Award TV reporter and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles contributed to this article. She has produced and directed a documentary on the Bracero saga to be released by the end of the year.