By Valeria Fernández, FI2W contributor
PHOENIX, Arizona — While thousands across the nation plan to march for immigration reform this Friday, May 1, a handful of former immigrant farmworkers in their seventies are holding a different protest here.
The men still call themselves braceros, the inheritors of a largely criticized guest-worker program agreement between the United States and Mexico to satisfy the need for labor during World War II. Their story offers a cautionary tale about the prospect of future guest-worker programs touted by political leaders such as Arizona Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl as part of the answer to the need for immigration reform.
The braceros’ weeklong rally started on Monday, April 27th, outside the Mexican Consulate in Phoenix to demand that Mexico’s government settle a 40-year-old debt with them. This was money that was taken from their paychecks while they worked in the American countryside. Mexico was supposed to create a fund for the workers with that money, but its government just kept it.
Between 1943 and 1964 about 4 million braceros worked in the fields. About 400 of them now reside in Arizona. After the Bracero Program ended, they stayed and continued to work as undocumented labor. Today, many like Dionisio Garcia, 76, don’t have much to show for it when it comes to retirement.
“We’re here to see if they pay us,” said Garcia, a member of the Frente Bi-Nacional de Ex-Braceros, a retired farmworkers group from Arizona that organized the protest.
On a Wednesday morning, Garcia and his fellow ex-braceros stood outside the consulate holding a large sign demanding payment. For Garcia –now an American citizen–, it’s hard to stand for more than a few minutes ever since a cow broke his back at a cattle ranch four years ago.
“I’d just found out there was some money that they owe us,” said Manuel Coronel, 81. Coronel hides from the Arizona sun under a hat, sitting in his motorized wheelchair as he watches people come and go into the consulate.
The Mexican government has been paying a one-time lump sum of about $3,000 to braceros who can prove their claim. Since 2005, some 42,000 have received the payment. Yet it was not until last year that those who reside in the U.S. were allowed to demand the money, after a class-action lawsuit against the Mexican state ended in a victory for the former workers in a California court.
Carlos Flores-Vizcarra, the Mexican general consul in Phoenix, said the federal government in Mexico is processing the braceros’ claims. About 350 braceros were registered in Phoenix to recover their money.
Celestino Arguello, another ex bracero, describes the money the Mexican government is giving to some of these workers as a pittance.
“Both governments are to blame for this situation,” said Arguello, who drove one hour from the city of Casa Grande just to be at the protest. “Mexico took the money from us, then the U.S. exploited us in the countryside.”
Arguello remembers he used to work up to 10 hours picking cotton in the fields for 80 cents an hour. Now all he has to prove it are his memories.
One of the biggest obstacles for these braceros to recover the money they’re owed is to present documents that now are 30 years old and that many have lost. To make matters more complicated, many of them are undocumented.
Filomeno Pacheco, 77, is one of these workers.
“I never tried to get papers, it was a matter of pride. I used to come back and forth with my bracero card,” said Pacheco, who recently married a U.S. citizen and is waiting to legalize his status. He now makes extra money picking up metal on the streets of Phoenix.
The aging braceros also sympathize with the national movement on May Day to call for comprehensive immigration reform. But their group strongly opposes the creation of a new guest-worker program that doesn’t ensure the protection of workers’ rights.
“We ask president Barack Obama that he consider those undocumented workers who have been in the U.S. working for years,” said Gregorio Leon, 51, organizer of the protest and the son of an ex bracero.
Leon said they fear a new guest-worker program could easily displace undocumented workers who have contributed for years to Arizona’s economy.
“I don’t want another bracero (program),” said Arguello. Yet, he admits people who are coming across the desert, some dying along the way, urgently need a legal path to migrate to the U.S.
“When you’re in need its not like you get to pick, you take what comes,” Arguello said. And that’s just what he did when he joined the Bracero Program 40 years ago.
“This money would be quite helpful,” said Dionisio Garcia, who laments he can’t work because of his back injury.
But their fight is not so much about the money. It’s about dignity.
“The Mexican government is taking too much time to respond –Leon said-, as if they knew that many of these men are sick and aging and they may not have enough time to continue waiting.”Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist in Phoenix.