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Former Braceros Leery of Guest Worker Plan

Picking beets, cherries and cotton and shoveling manure on farms across the United States as a Mexican guest worker in the 1940s and 1950s, Cecilio Santillana was glad to earn a few dollars a day.

He didn't complain about living in horse stalls without bathrooms or doing stoop work for 12 hours a day without breaks for fear he would be sent back to Chihuahua and lose the steady work that allowed him to support his family in Mexico.

But the 78-year-old San Jose man opposes a temporary worker proposal in the immigration bill the Senate passed last week.

Some immigrant advocates say the new plan remedies shortcomings of the old Bracero Program, through which the United States recruited Mexican workers to toil at 4.5 million mostly agricultural jobs from 1942 to 1964. And they say it's a crucial alternative to the current state of affairs where migrant workers risk their lives crossing the border illegally.

But others say the new arrangement probably will replicate the pitfalls of the Bracero Program and two present-day guest worker programs. They also fear new worker protections in the Senate bill will vanish when lawmakers seek to reconcile the legislation with the enforcement-only bill the House passed in December.


In the early years of the Bracero Program, 10 percent of workers' wages was withheld to be deposited in savings accounts they could claim when they returned to Mexico.

Somewhere between the payroll deductions and bank transfers, the money vanished. In the United States, a class-action lawsuit filed four years ago on behalf of defrauded braceros is inching through the federal courts; last year, the Mexican government announced it would pay roughly $3,800 to former braceros who could prove their claim to the deducted pay. Former braceros dismiss the one-time payments as inadequate.

The braceros
From 1942 to 1964, Mexicans filled 4.5 million mostly agricultural U.S. jobs in exchange for food, housing, transportation and the prevailing wage. About 10 percent of the wages of these workers were withheld as an incentive for them to return home, but most of the money was never repaid. A similar program for British West Indians ran from 1943 to 1952.

Source: Migration Policy Institute