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Mexican Report Contradicts Claims That '40s War Workers Weren't Paid

Braceros: The laborers replaced those in U.S. who were drafted during World War II. Some say they are owed as much as $1 billion, but records indicate most of the cash was later refunded.

March 30, 2001|RICH CONNELL and ROBERT J. LOPEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Most of the millions of dollars deducted as savings from the paychecks of Mexican laborers who came to the United States during the 1940s was later repaid, according to Mexican government records that contradict key assertions of a growing reparations movement.

Thousands of surviving migrants on both sides of the border contend they were cheated out of money that they earned toiling in fields and rail yards to replace U.S. workers drafted in World War II. As an incentive for their return to Mexico, under the agreement between the two nations, 10% of each worker's wages was deducted from the migrant's paychecks to be forwarded to a Mexican bank.

Allegations that wages were unpaid have triggered international protests, an upcoming Mexican congressional investigation and legal action in the United States.

Some advocates have said the workers are owed as much as $1 billion, but documents culled from archives in both countries show the actual amount is far less.

About $28 million was paid to workers by 1946, according to records examined by The Times, and about $6 million is unaccounted for.

The analysis of the savings fund was part of a wide-ranging, 120-page government review of the WWII-era guest worker program. Titled "Los Braceros," the study examined salaries and recruitment, and included a survey of returning workers.

The findings present good and bad news for the men, who were among more than 300,000 Mexican railroad and agricultural workers known as braceros.

Given problems acknowledged in the government reports, and the relatively small sums each man was owed at the time, the unaccounted-for funds could bolster assertions that thousands of workers were not repaid their savings. But records also suggest that the total amounts outstanding are not the hundreds of millions of dollars--including interest--that some have said.

Still, many of the men--now in their 70s and 80s--hope to recover something.

"We were fighting in the fields so people could eat. . . . I just want my money," said 76-year-old Manuel Renteria, who came to pick crops in 1943.

Renteria lives on a $500 monthly Social Security check in a tiny downtown Los Angeles apartment furnished only with a bed. He said he was never informed about the payroll deductions--echoing assertions by many other retired workers.

Earlier his month, attorneys representing several of the men filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco seeking the back wages. The suit names the United States and Mexican governments, as well as several banks responsible for transferring and disbursing the funds.

Jonathan Rothstein, a lawyer representing the workers, said he was undeterred by the Mexican reports showing that most of the money had been repaid. He said his clients will demand such detailed documentation as contemporaneous bank records to support the Mexican government's conclusions.

"Until we would receive a full accounting, we are not prepared to accept those numbers as authoritative or accurate," said Rothstein of the Chicago law firm of Gessler, Hughes & Socol. "That's why we filed a lawsuit. We want to get to the bottom line."

He said that if only $10 million of the money had not been returned, it would be worth as much as $200 million in today's dollars.

The lawsuit comes as some U.S. lawmakers push for a new guest worker program. President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox are exploring the idea, among other cross-border initiatives.

In response to protests in Los Angeles, Mexico City and elsewhere, Mexican federal officials are launching a multi-agency commission to find out how much money was owed and how much was repaid. The investigation is expected to begin this spring.

"There are a lot [of workers] who did not receive anything. The commission has to find out how many," said Alberto Leyva, a legislative aide to Michoacan Rep. Sergio Acosta. The congressman from the Democratic Revolution Party is helping to lead the investigation.

The commission, which has been endorsed by Fox, is expected to issue a report later this year.

Any investigation will be hindered by the passage of time and the difficulty of retrieving documents more than 50 years old.

Under agreements adopted after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the braceros came north to work while Americans went off to war.

About $34 million in savings from the braceros was received by Mexican banks through mid-1946, according to an analysis that year by the Mexican secretary of labor's office.

The report, located in agricultural library archives at the University of Wisconsin, appears to be one of the most authoritative available. It shows that savings deductions ceased in January 1946. Other records indicate that the payroll deductions might have continued until as late as 1949.

The newly located Mexican reports appear to support a key assertion by lawyers seeking reparations: that Mexican and U.S. officials ignored warnings that many workers were not getting their money.

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