The Mexican government has paid thousands of people a stipend from a special fund set up for former braceros who worked on U.S. farms and ranches and lost their savings because of government negligence.
Officials said Tuesday that between 2005 and 2011, at least 166,840 former migrant workers or their relatives have each received $2,771 from the special fund for a total of $462.3 million.
By the end of October, at the end of President Felipe Calderon's term, Mexico's interior ministry expects to have paid the stipend to an additional 26,732 ex-braceros or their relatives for a grand total of $510.5 million.
"Braceros" refers to guest workers who were recruited by U.S. businesses to work in the United States between 1942
and 1964 under short-term labor contracts. As many as 250,000 Mexican citizens might have participated in the U.S. bracero program.
Most of them worked in agriculture during manpower shortages.
Carlos Marentes, director of the Border Farmworkers Center in South El Paso, said about 5,000 ex-braceros in the El Paso border region have benefited from the special fund.
"It's been an uphill battle, but something was achieved for the workers whose savings fund was apparently stolen in the past," Marentes said. "It's only a grain of justice considering the fact that many of them were excluded from eligibility. Others did not live long enough to realize this benefit."
At the center in South El Paso, Benjamin Martinez Marentes,
74, said he had worked for 45 days harvesting tomatoes and peaches near Sacramento, Calif. He was able to collect a total of $3,500 after a former governor of Zacatecas state authorized additional money for workers from that state.
"I am a native of San Carlos de Arteaga, Zacatecas, and in 1962 my employer encouraged me to take part in the bracero program," Martinez said. "The contract was for 45 days and because they helped me to obtain my documents for legal residency, I continued working for other businesses but no longer as part of the bracero program."
To qualify for the special ex-bracero fund, Martinez said, he was required to present documents that verified he was a former Mexican migrant worker during the eligible period.
"The process was easy because I was already on the list of registered workers," Martinez said. "I gave the money to my wife and six children, the oldest being 18 years old and the youngest 8."
Under the former saving program, U.S. employers deducted 10 percent of the braceros' pay, which Wells Fargo received and then transferred to Mexico's former Banco de Credito Agricola, a government bank. The workers were supposed to get their money back when they returned to Mexico.
Mexican officials, who at first refused to acknowledge that such a fund had existed, later claimed that all records related to the accounts were lost during a major 1985 earthquake in Mexico City.
However, many former braceros saved their U.S. pay stubs that show the deductions.
After a long legal battle, Mexico's federal congress eventually voted that money be set aside to pay the ex-braceros and that the federal interior ministry administer the special fund.
Antonio Gonzalez, 82, worked in the fields of Montana, Wyoming and Texas under the bracero program of 1942.
He has yet to see any of the money that the Mexican government owes him.
"It is been a long road," said Gonzalez, who is originally from Lazaro Cardenas, Chihuahua.
"They told me I am not on the list. I worked from 1955 to 1963, but so far, nothing," said Gonzalez, who added that Marentes is trying to help him with his petition.
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