September 6, 2002

Braceros suit against U.S., Mexico tossed

Judge says 1940s case not covered by law

A federal judge says he sympathizes with thousands of Mexican migrant workers who claim they were cheated out of many millions of dollars in California wages in the 1940s, but they are not entitled to legal compensation.

In dismissing the workers’ lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer of San Francisco said he has no doubt that “many braceros never received savings fund withholdings to which they were entitled.”

However, he said, the government of Mexico, which allegedly was holding the money for the workers, is immune. In addition, he said, the workers missed the deadline for filing a claim against the U.S. government, which had contracts with the workers and was supposed to oversee the withholding and transfer of their wages.

Breyer, whose ruling was made public Tuesday, also dismissed claims against Wells Fargo Bank, which was supposed to transfer the money to Mexico, saying the bank did not violate the workers’ rights.

About 400,000 braceros entered the United States under short-term contracts for manual labor from 1942 to 1964, virtually all on farms in the West. Under the agreement, the U.S. government deducted 10 percent of their wages until 1949 and put the money in savings accounts that were supposed to be paid to the workers when they returned to Mexico.

The suit, filed last year, said hardly any of the withheld money was ever paid. Advocates said the braceros and their descendants might be entitled to $500 million, including interest.

In dismissing the suit against Mexico, Breyer said the 1952 U.S. law that repealed foreign governments’ legal immunity does not apply to events that took place earlier.

In releasing the United States from the suit, the judge said the legal deadline for such claims is six years from the time the alleged wrongdoing was discovered. He said the current version of the suit says the workers knew from the start that the money was being withheld.

“Given this knowledge, it is of no consequence that (the workers) may not have fully understood their legal rights or the available legal remedies, even if such ignorance was the result of unsophistication or illiteracy,” Breyer wrote.

Juventino Ortiz, a former bracero who took part in the suit, said he wasn’t surprised by the dismissal.

“The other guys were all dreaming, but I knew there were no possibilities,” said Ortiz, now 81 and living in Hollister. “They sent all the money to Mexico and the guys in power (there) spent it all.”

Reprinted from “The San Francisco Chronicle”, by Bob Egelko, August 29, 2002

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