By Miguel Angel Báez
Translated by Elena Shore
DELANO, Calif. At 74 years old, José Manuel Herrera lives on a total of $700 that he and his wife receive from Social Security. Both retired, they live in a small house west of Delano, where Herrera fights for what many consider to be a lost cause.
Herrera is a former Mexican guest worker, or bracero. He was a migrant worker from 1954 to 1960, when he worked on different farm jobs, primarily harvesting cotton.
“My reason for coming here was that at that time it was the height of migrant labor. I saw that people going back and forth were earning good money and I was very poor,” said Herrera.
Herrera came here with 20 other people from his native village in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Here, through the bracero program, he looked for better luck financially that would allow him and his family to have a better life.
The migrant worker program was established by the U.S. and Mexican governments to combat the shortage of farm and railroad labor that the United States was experiencing during World War II.
In the 20 years that the program lasted, an estimated four million workers entered the United Statesmany of them deprived of 10 percent of their salaries that has still not been returned to them.
This is precisely the cause for which Herrera works.
Herrera represents a group of former migrant workers from Delano, who through the Migrant Workers’ Alliance are attempting to recuperate the money that was taken by the Mexican and U.S. governments.
After several years of fighting for these lost funds, the Migrant Workers’ Alliance seems to be closer than ever to its goal.
“We are at a point where they may come to a yes or no decision,” said Ventura Gutiér-rez, coordinator of the U.S.-Mexico Migrant Workers’ Alliance and founder of the movement to recuperate the former migrant workers’ funds.
Earlier this month, Gutiérrez traveled to Mexico to arrange the final details and try to lobby the votes of at least 16 of the 30 representatives of the Population, Borders and Migratory Affairs Commission, in order to introduce an initiative to Mexico’s legislature before the end of the year.
Before Jan. 1, the Mexican Congress will approve the budget for next year, so the money for the braceros has to be appropriated before the end of the year to be considered in the 2004 budget.
“If we don’t get (the) votes … we are going to call for a movement to take over the offices of all the commission representatives until a proposal is introduced,” asserted Gutiérrez.
Gutiérrez said that nonetheless a bill would be presented to the House of Representatives by April 30, but that this isn’t enough. “That’s not what we want. We want it to be sent now so that it can be part of the 2004 budget.”
If it were sent in April, the bill would not be considered until Congress voted on the budget for 2005.
If approved, the initiative will only benefit those former migrant workers who registered with the Mexican government between April 7 and October 15 of 2003.
But the Migrant Workers’ Alliance has proposed that the government also take into account the former migrant workers who were not count-ed in the last registration.
“We didn’t agree with the registration,” said Leonel Flores, representative of the San Joaquin Valley Union of Ex-Migrant Workers. “Out of the million migrant workers that are estimated to exist, we think only 10 percent registered,” he said.
Ten percent would mean that only 100,000 former migrant workers would be eligible for the compensation sought by the bill.
In the Central Valley alone, according to Leonel Flores, only 2,500 braceros have been registered, but he said there are many more that have not been counted.
“The reality is we can’t put a gun to the migrant workers’ heads and make them register and go to the meetings,” said Flores. “There’s a little distrust, or they have just gotten tired of the Mexican government,” he added.
According to Gutiérrez, the bill proposes two options of economic compensation. One would grant $5,000, and the other would give $10,000 to each of the registered former migrant workers.
He indicates that these amounts, if approved, are only an “economic gesture of thanks on the part of the Mexican government,” according to Gutiérrez.
The question of actually recuperating the 10 percent of their salaries is still being resolved and there is currently a lawsuit in the San Francisco Federal District Court against the U.S. government, who was the official employer. Even as they are at this “point,” as Gutiérrez said, some former migrant workers like Herrera, who suffered through precarious conditions as migrant workers, still see the possibility of recuperating lost income as remote.
“We found out there is a possibility that the government may give money but I don’t believe that,” said Herrera, who says it is hard to get by on his Social Security check alone.
Now, like many former migrant workers (those who have not died), they are waiting for a decision by the Mexican government in order to receive their compensation, and from the Federal Court of San Francisco to rule in their favor and make the U.S. government pay its part.
For now, they will have to continue to be hopeful with Gutiérrez’s optimism. “One day, we don’t know when a final decision will be made, that is guaranteed, but we don’t know when and it could take many years.”