Braceros want an old promise met
Mexicans who worked in U.S. in '40s seek to recoup hundreds of millions in unpaid wages
By ALFREDO CORCHADO and RICARDO SANDOVAL / The Dallas Morning News
HERMOSILLO, Mexico – Every day it gets harder for Zenaido Ramírez
Bernal to compete with the drone from the oversized air
conditioner that keeps the torrid heat out of his tidy home in this desert city.
While Mr. Ramírez has a sturdy body, strong hands and a prominent
set of bright brown eyes, his reedy voice is fading. But if the
94-year-old is slowly giving way to time, his recollections of his prime are not.
In the summer of 1942, Mr. Ramírez was the first Mexican laborer
to sign up for work in the United States during World War II as part of
a guest-worker program. He and thousands of other Mexicans came to help the United States fight the war.
The men, called braceros – Spanish for strong arms – were needed to
tend farms, work on the nation's railroads and otherwise provide the muscle
America's economic engine churning and its people fed.
"I was the first. I was proud of that because it meant helping our neighbor
when he needed it," Mr. Ramírez said, fumbling with a
yellowed work card stamped No. 1 by the Mexican Labor Ministry. "In California, the bosses and the other workers would forget
my name and just called me 'Uno.'
"The other men seemed to look up to me because of that. But it never earned me anything special."
The bracero experience in the United States has largely gone untold,
but that may change. A group of aging braceros has filed a
lawsuit seeking to recoup hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid wages they say are owed them by the Mexican and American
The money had been withheld from their pay between 1942 and 1948 and
was supposed to go into saving accounts that the two
governments had set up as incentives for the guest workers to return home. It was to be the braceros' nest eggs.
About 300,000 braceros worked in the United States between 1942 and
1948. By 1964, an estimated 3 million braceros had held
jobs in America.
The U.S. government maintains the lawsuit belongs in Mexican courts.
The Mexican government insists it is immune from suits filed
in foreign courts and says it has no documentation to support the braceros' claim.
But documents examined by The Dallas Morning News show that in the 1940s,
both governments kept ample records of what
each bracero was owed, and both governments recorded scores of complaints about missing savings.
The money apparently was mismanaged by Mexican officials in the 1940s
or lost in the complex bracero bureaucracy, according to
"This is a classic human-rights issue where we're talking about the
interest of individuals who were wronged," said Bill Lee, one of a
team of lawyers who have taken up the guest workers' cause.
"This is also about a greater social issue. This is important to the
Hispanic community because this is about the community's soldiers
in the field who are now seeking justice," said Mr. Lee, a top civil rights prosecutor in the Clinton administration and now a partner
in the San Francisco-based law firm Lieff, Cabraser, Heinmann and Bernstein.
Lawyers representing the U.S. and Mexican governments in the case refused
to comment, as did U.S. Justice Department officials
in Washington, and Interior and Foreign Ministry officials in Mexico City.
Privately, however, some officials suggested that if it's proved that
braceros' savings were never repaid, some kind of settlement is
likely. Both governments might contribute to a fund for payment to the few hundred surviving braceros, the officials said.
Some migration activists say the ex-braceros' lawsuits are a vital test
case for the two countries now engaged in talks over another
"Before we do another program of this nature, we must take care of the
old braceros," said Eliseo Medina, a Mexican immigrant
who is AFL-CIO executive vice president and a member of a binational advisory group on migration. "It would be too easy to
repeat the mistakes of the past, so we have to address those mistakes before we can move on."
Documents in the U.S. National Archives, the Library of Congress and
the Mexican National Archives indicate the bracero
program leaked money everywhere and that money that did reside in various government-run banks was badly managed.
For example, bracero complaints prompted a 1947 internal audit of the
now-defunct Banco Agrícola of Mexico. It found that
bracero savings accounts totaling at least 12 million pesos – about $4 million – had not been distributed.
Banco Agrícola was the primary holder of wartime bracero savings
accounts. In the document, bank officials say the money was
instead used to fund day-to-day branch operations.
Other documents, apparently from the Mexican president's office, show
that government regulators scolded bank officials for
diverting bracero money to cover day-to-day bank operations. But there is no evidence that the savings accounts were ever
In fact, another internal audit reports that Banco Agrícola was
still millions of pesos in the red before it was merged with Banrural,
Mexico's present-day rural development bank.
Behind the scenes, Mexican officials have quietly attended meetings
with former braceros. Mexican Interior Minister Santiago Creel
also has met with a Mexican congressional committee investigating the scandal, promising cooperation with the probe.
But publicly, American lawyers hired by the Mexican government support
an expected bid by the U.S. Justice Department to have
judges throw out the braceros' lawsuits, filed in January 2001 in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
If judges go along, analysts said, the case probably will die a quick death in Mexico's cumbersome civil courts.
Bracero lawyers allege that both governments broke their promises to
make savings funds available. They have not yet disclosed a
dollar amount that they seek.
The same lawyers discount the government moves. They point out that
while U.S. officials contend it's a Mexican matter, American
courts have a history of weighing human rights cases from around the world.
These include the Holocaust survivors who were robbed of assets and
Korean women forced into prostitution by the Japanese
military in World War II.
"Besides, some of these braceros are actually now American citizens,"
Mr. Lee said. "And these men worked in the United States
under contracts co-signed by the United States."
The U.S. State Department reviewed the bracero program in 1943. Officials
reported that "the War Manpower Commission shall
send directly to [Mexico] a list containing the names of the beneficiaries and the amount corresponding to each of them for the
'Established a system'
In 1944, Mexican Labor Ministry officials responded in a letter to the
U.S. War Manpower Commission about how to get back
pay and savings fund withholdings to braceros already back in Mexico.
"The institution is technically and practically apt to return the total
amount of savings funds to Mexican [workers] ... we have
established a system of bookkeeping ... which allows us to have the individual accounts up-to-date," the officials replied.
Those passages have former braceros fuming.
"How could there be documents then, that are now in its own archives,
while the government now says it can find nothing proving
individuals were owed money?" asked Ventura Gutiérrez.
Mr. Gutiérrez is a California farm labor activist whose inquiry
into savings withholdings from his late grandfather's bracero
paychecks sparked the current legal fight.
Mexican officials have countered with evidence they say showed that their country's debt to braceros was largely paid off.
A report published last year in the Los Angeles Times described a 1946
Mexican report that detailed the payout of more than
three-quarters of the money in bracero savings accounts.
But elsewhere in the same document, Mexican officials acknowledge that
record-keeping in the bracero savings program was a
mess. They called it "another motive for discontent and protest."
Bracero lawyers also insist the 1946 document is an unsubstantiated shell.
"There are no details, no supporting documentation on withdrawals by
braceros, nothing but officials in Mexico City putting up
simple numbers to satisfy an inquiry by the United States at the time," said Jonathan Rothstein, a Chicago attorney representing the
He said the Labor Ministry did not offer receipts that would prove that braceros actually collected the money.
$35 a week
Jesus Ibarra Roque says he was one of the thousands cheated out of earnings.
From March through October 1945, Mr. Ibarra pulled potatoes from wind-blown
fields in Idaho. He was paid an average of $35 a
The money wasn't much, but it was better than anything the 30-year-old
had seen in his life of hard work on the family farm near the
village of Tepezala, 330 miles north of Mexico City.
But for all his work, he says he never received $90 owed him. That's
what the U.S. government withheld from his pay for deposit
into a savings account for him. Mr. Ibarra also figures he's owed 56 years worth of interest and compensation for his inconvenience.
He said he vigorously pursued the money after his return to Tepezala,
joining other braceros from his hometown in filing complaints
about missing money.
After a year, Banco Agrícola wrote to Mr. Ibarra, saying it had
mailed him two money orders totaling 518 pesos – about $120 in
"I never saw the money orders. I never saw my money. And the amount
they quote in that correspondence doesn't even sound like
what I was owed," said Mr. Ibarra, who still wonders what happened to his money.
Mexican government officials counter that even if there is enough proof
to sway a jury, the actual amount owed might be significantly
lower than $500 million, the amount a Mexican congressional committee estimated the workers were due.
The bracero deal, signed in 1942 by presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt
and Manuel Ávila Camacho, stipulated that the 10 percent
withholding would not accumulate interest.
Bracero lawyers argue that it's always been illegal for a bank to hold someone's money without paying interest.
"Besides, they owe the interest because that's what's called for when
a contract is broken," Mr. Rothstein said. "This contract was
No bank accounts
Before lawyers instructed Mexican officials not to discuss the bracero
lawsuit, government officials said after an exhaustive search
that they found no records supporting the workers' claims.
Bracero advocates have rejected that assertion, insisting that the money
traveled via a clear paper trail between American farms and
The process broke down from the start, it appears.
Archival documents in the United States and Mexico show that American
diplomats monitoring the treaty in the 1940s warned
superiors in Washington that misconduct in Mexico was resulting in the cheating of braceros.
Former bracero Reyes Piñón complained in a 1948 letter
to President Miguel Aleman that a member of Mexico's Secret Service
illegally withdrew all the money in his savings account. Even after filing a police report, the money was not returned, Mr. Piñón said.
Complicating the fate of the bracero savings fund were plans by the
Mexican government to use the money to buy farm implements
and fund irrigation projects in rural communities, an apparent violation of the contract with braceros.
"Fifty years later, we have neither the money, irrigation projects nor
the farm implements," said Mexican Congressman Sergio
Acosta, a member of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, who heads the Mexican congressional investigation into the
bracero issue. "The money could not have just gone up in smoke. There must be an explanation. We owe the braceros that much."
The money trail
The idea for the savings accounts apparently came from a desire to help
braceros and to encourage their return to Mexico when the
work was done.
During Mr. Ibarra's Idaho stint, for example, 10 percent of his weekly
pay was withheld by his employers. The money was sent to
regional offices of the federal government's wartime manpower agencies, which forwarded the cash to Washington. From there the
money went to Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco, where the Mexican government maintained accounts.
Afterward, Mexico's central bank issued credits to Banco Agrícola
and Banco Nacional del Ahorro – the national savings bank that
was supposed to redistribute the funds.
Most former braceros interviewed by The News either say they simply
forgot about the money, thought it was some kind of
nonrecoverable tax or were put off by Mexican government red tape.
Mr. Ibarra has been on the family farm ever since he returned from his
stint in the United States. Unlike many other braceros who
stayed in the United States, Mr. Ibarra said he sought only to help his northern neighbors win the war. "I would have picked up a
rifle and marched to the battlefield if they had asked."
Mr. Ibarra is 86 but belies his age with smooth skin and the sinewy
arms of a working farmer. He feels physically fit enough for one
more fight, he says.
He agrees with other ex-braceros that they deserve official recognition
for their wartime contributions and preference in obtaining
visas for visits to families in the United States. For now, though, he just wants an answer to the 50-year-old mystery of the money.
"At first, my bosses [in Idaho] told me I'd get the money when I left
to come home," Mr. Ibarra recalled recently, sitting in the
sun-bathed plaza of Tepezala.
"I was then told the money would come to me in Mexico. They said to
be patient and wait a bit. But it's been more than 50 years now,
and I wonder how much they owe me today."