Friday, October 17, 2008

Braceros set to finally get back wages

The Los Angeles Daily News, October 16, 2008
By Rachel Uranga, Staff Writer
Article Last Updated: 10/15/2008 09:14:54 PM PDT

Nearly 60 years after coming from Mexico to do the back-breaking work of this country's wartime effort, bracero Jose Rangel Belcazar will finally get paid the back wages owed him.

After a long battle with the Mexican government, Belcazar and thousands of his countrymen are eligible to receive about $3,500 each under a landmark settlement approved by a federal judge in San Francisco last week.

'They were robbing us,' said Belcazar, now 82 and in poor health. 'We were fighting this for so long. It's good that they are finally able to give us the money.'

Braceros were Mexicans who worked on U.S. farms, railroads and in mines to replace Americans who were fighting overseas during World War II. As part of the bracero program, the Mexican and U.S. governments withheld a portion of the men's wages with the promise that it would be distributed to them when they returned to their homeland.

It never was.

Under the settlement, the Mexican government agreed to pay about $14.5 million out to braceros and their descendants who live in the United States and worked for the program between 1942 and 1946.

Belcazar, who recalls picking lemons in Santa Paula under blistering heat and peaches and apples in Idaho, was among the 250,000 to 300,000 who came to fill the labor shortage in the fields mostly in California and along railroads during World War II.

Braceros like Belcazar or their widows can apply for payment at any of the dozens of Mexican consulates in the United States between Oct. 23 and Dec. 23.

'It's an outrage this thing took 60 years,' said Matthew Piers, a Chicago-based lawyer who filed the lawsuit seeking class-action status on behalf of former braceros. 'I am simply sorry we weren't able to do this 40 years ago. It's a shame but better late than never.'

The government's failure to distribute the money became a symbol of both governments' poor treatment of them.

The binational program was extended after World War II and lasted until 1964 with five million Mexican nationals participating.

Despite accusations that the practice lasted for years, Piers said there was no evidence the Mexican government violated an agreement with the United States after 1946.

'This is a decision that appears to be good on paper but is not good in fact for all ex-braceros,' said Juan Jose Gutierrez, a spokesman for the Braceroproa Alliance, representing surviving braceros and their families.

'From our point of view, this is not a gigantic legal victory because it is not going to benefit the majority of the ex-braceros.'

Several years ago, the Mexican government approved a budget of nearly $900 million to reimburse braceros, but advocates contend only a third has been released and many applicants are denied.

For more information on the case visit www.casobracero.com or call 877-436-9359.

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