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In 1951, my grandfather Salvador Herrera, 81, left his hometown in rural Durango, Mexico, to work as a migrant worker in the United States as part of the Bracero Program – the United State’s first large-scale attempt to use guest workers. He was young, single and eager to work. Employment opportunities in his hometown were scarce, and whatever earnings he did make, he was forced to relinquish to his parents. He saw the Bracero Program as an opportunity to become financially independent.
Before heading off to pick crops in California’s Central Valley, however, he first had to travel to Empalme, Sonora, to obtain a contract. He says that he was required to work for 15 days before he was eligible. The conditions were dire – the work was arduous, and he was sometimes forced to sleep on the wet ground.
From Empalme, he had to pay for his travel by train to Central California, where he picked grapes, lettuce and other crops. Though the living conditions improved once he was in the United States, the work itself was still grueling. “Those who couldn’t pick fast enough didn’t even earn enough money to eat,” he says.
Years later, after my grandfather was married and had a family, he returned to the United States two more times – in 1964 and 1967 – to work as a bracero. Each contract this time was six months long. Like most other braceros, 10 percent of his earnings were taken from his checks. He said that he was never informed why this amount was being retained or told where the money could be claimed.
After several lawsuits throughout the years and a settlement in 2008, Mexico was forced give each bracero, or a surviving heir, $3,500 if they provided proper documentation. Their pay had been deducted and transferred to the Mexican government to be given to the workers when they returned to Mexico, but most braceros never saw that money.
So in 2008, at the age of 75, my grandfather finally received the 38,000 pesos ($2,903 today) that were owed to him. “I probably broke even with all the trips I took to Durango (the city) to look for the money,” my grandfather says.
His story is typical. Between 1942 and 1964, thousands of Mexicans from impoverished areas were recruited to come to the United States as farm workers, and many never received the back pay that was owed them.
Like my grandfather, Durango native Lorenzo Cano, 88, didn’t receive his 10 percent until 2008. Cano had worked as a bracero in the 1940s for a total of about 10 years. He was only 16 when he left home to pick cotton in Texas. According to Cano, the work was backbreaking, and those who were slower didn’t earn enough to feed themselves. Some men were forced to sleep on the floor.
During that time, Cano says, no one ever explained to him and his fellow workers why 10 percent of their earnings were being taken from them. It wasn’t until the late 2000s, when his son saw coverage of the Bracero settlement on TV, that he decided to pursue recovering his back pay.
“The 10 percent was taken from workers so they wouldn’t walk away from their contracts and to guarantee that they would leave the country,” says David Bacon, author of Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants. While this practice was clearly unjust, Bacon believes the whole program needs to be examined, not just that piece of it. “We have to look at the impact on the braceros themselves and other workers in the communities around them. The exploitation was in the whole system and how the whole system operated,” he says.
One of the ways in which the program was exploitative, he says, was that it required many of the workers to get into debt before coming here. Many men had to pay for their visas and travel to the United States. “In these countries, you very often have an abusive and corrupt system to bring people here.” Bacon says.
Rubén Ochoa Barajas, 67, who worked as a bracero for two months in 1963 and three months in 1964, says that not only did he have to pay 1,000 pesos for the contract, he also had to pay his travel expenses. Though the requirements seemed unfair, the promise of financial prosperity was alluring for a working-class, 17-year-old in Mexico. “There were rumors that people swept money in the United States,” he jokes.
While portions of workers’ wages are no longer withheld from them, and employers must meet many federal requirements now, not much else has changed since then. Bacon says that even when there are minimal standards for pay, overtime, housing and other requirements, employers violate them without any consequences.
The United States currently has two guest worker programs for temporary work lasting less than a year: the H-2A program, for temporary agricultural work, and the H-2B program, for temporary nonagricultural work. Many businesses and legislators are in favor of these kinds of programs, but as the Bracero Program has shown, those who hold restricted status in the United States are vulnerable to extreme discrimination and workplace abuses.
Bacon says that the new guest worker programs are very similar to the Bracero Program in the recruitment by employers and the fact that workers’ stay in the country is completely contingent on their work. “The basic economic reality has not changed at all,” he says.
In a Fusion article about guest worker programs, Sarah Rempel from El Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a migrant advocacy group, said that many times recruiters charge high fees to get the visa, which causes worker indebtedness, and in some cases, worker trafficking. Workers are not only tied to their employers and unable to work elsewhere, they also make well below poverty wages – between $15,000 and $20,000 per year.
“The whole purpose is to supply employers at the price they want to pay. Bills in Congress very overtly intended to supply cheap labor to employers. Once they are in the country, their situation is very close to slavery,” says Bacon. He points out that workers are subjected to many illegal practices, such as getting charged for tools, being cheated by piece rate and being exposed to chemicals. Workers must also live in very small and cramped quarters.
“Guest workers can’t even get into a US court and sue their employers,” Bacon says. “Even if you fix it on paper, paper rights are exactly that – ‘paper rights.’ ” The power relationship is stacked against them.
Bacon says that not only does this allow the abuse of guest workers, it makes it difficult for migrant workers to organize unions and raise wages.
As immigration reform hangs in the balance, Bacon believes guest worker programs should be scrutinized, and Family Preference Systems should be given precedence. “We need an immigration system that gives people rights and permanent immigration status.”