Thursday, January 29, 2009
Dysfunctional Bracero Program
Remember George W Bush promoting a "guest worker program" some years ago so non-citizen workers could legally enter the United States? He never produced a huge program. But the U.S. actually had a major program during World War II, to supply laborers to replace the front line soldiers: the Bracero Program.
Thousands of Mexican Braceros left homes and families to harvest U.S. fields and work on U.S. railroads.
Many of them didn't see a little clause in the fine print of their contracts specifying that they'd get the final 10% of their measly pay after they returned to Mexico. This was intended to give them an incentive to return to Mexico, whether they needed it or not. But it became their nightmare. Although the Bracero Program itself ended in 1964, the ex-Braceros still have not received the money they earned!
Yesterday-January 28--was the final day of a window of opportunity the Mexican government gave the ex-Braceros to apply to receive the rest of their wages. By now, many Braceros are elderly and infirm from the toll their labors took on their bodies. Others have died, leaving widows and descendants who are among the worlds' poorest people. I assisted at the final day of registration, appalled that these humble ones are required to prove with original documents, including pay slips from decades past, their identities to "apply" for their own money. I hope to get access to the photos I took yesterday and post a few of the good ones. The faces--well, the whole experience reminded me of registering the homeless to vote back in October. Just to interact with the people enlivened my spirit and sent me home on a "natural high."
I'm embarrassed that my country had a hand in taking advantage of the Braceros, many of whom had very simple educations or were functionally illiterate. Bi-national Border leaders published an open letter to the Mexican government yesterday demanding an extension of the registration deadline a simplification of the application process. That letter claims that of thousands of applicants from the years 2003 and 2006 only 300 ever received their valid claim! Clearly the Braceros were used and are now abused.
There are two important lessons here. First, we must demand justice for the Braceros. The United States should intervene if necessary to rectify the situation and advocate for workers who served their needs for so many years. And, just as importantly, we need to learn from the past and not repeat past injustices. Should the United States reinstate a guest worker program, it needs to be highly regulated to ensure the laborers are treated with dignity and respect.
P.S. Guess what Bush & Co pushed through in December 2008? I got an email from the United Farmworkers today informing me that they revised to the federal guest worker visa program to weaken wage protections and housing standards for temporary agricultural workers, the people who already have far too few protections.
People, we've got some work to do!