June 17, 2005

Veteran Farmworkers Anticipate Compensation Fund

By Kent Paterson

Following years of protests and pressure, the Mexican Congress recently approved the creation of a special fund to compensate former Mexican guest workers for deductions made from their paychecks decades ago. The guest workers were enrolled in a legal program of contract labor from 1942 to 1964 for the United States known as the FNS Bracero Program. Most worked on farms, though some labored on the railroads during World War Two. Beginning in the 1990s, a movement erupted in Mexico and the United States demanding that money which was previously deducted from braceros’ paychecks and sent back to the Mexican government finally be returned to them.

Despite the fanfare over the announcement of the compensation fund, surviving braceros await the details. In an interview with Frontera NorteSur, Ignacio Ibarra, the project coordinator for the El Paso-based Border Agricultural Workers Center (CTAF) and Bracero Project, said he expected details of how the money will be disbursed to be announced in July by a technical group made up of representatives from Mexican federal agencies.

Until then, Ibarra said ex-braceros don’t know exactly how much they will be paid, where money will be distributed, or who will be eligible. “There’s a lot of confusion about the whole thing,” said Ibarra. “We’re trying to give the technical group some suggestions how to do it,” he said. “One of the suggestions is that older people, handicapped people, get the money first, and widows too.”

Ibarra estimated that about $20 million dollars in compensation will be paid, though there is talk of paying that amount every year for five years. Ibarra said El Paso’s Bracero Project has registered 5-6,000 former braceros in El Paso-Juarez-southern New Mexico alone, not including the Juarez Valley, with new people coming in all the time. Altogether, the group has registered 80,000 former braceros in Mexico and the United States, added Ibarra. Additionally, other organizations have registered braceros throughout the Mexico and the U.S. Given the number of former ex-braceros potentially involved, Ibarra rated as “not sufficient” the compensation figures being discussed.

According to Mexican press reports, the Mexican federal government is slated to provide approximately 70 percent of the compensation money while state governments kick in the remainder. At a recent meeting of Mexican governors, most reportedly gave their thumbs up to the compensation fund but some leaders conveyed hesitation because of tight state budgets.

In light of upcoming presidential and congressional elections in Mexico, Ibarra expressed concern that opportunists might charge braceros unnecessary fees for brokering access to their money, or that the fund will be used to further political careers.

On the U.S. side, the CTAF and Bracero Project are attempting to get Congressional recognition of the role played by braceros during World War Two and afterward. Although the 60th anniversary of the end of World War Two is being commemorated this year, Ibarra contended that history is being remembered without mentioning the Mexican braceros who kept the country’s farms producing and the railroads rolling while U.S. citizens went off to fight overseas.

“Back then, they were welcomed. They were serviceable. Now that they are older, they don’t get any recognition in the history books,” said Ibarra. “(Congressional recognition) would justify what they came to do in the U.S., and it would open a new chapter in our history.”

Because some braceros were ill-treated or never returned home alive,  Ibarra said the CTAF and Bracero Project are exploring ways to generate compensation from the United States government for workers who died in accidents or from sickness, or whose contractual agreements were not met by employers.

Reprinted from Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies, New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

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