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Ex-braceros get 2 months to file claims

Settlement may affect 20,000 who worked in the U.S. during WWII and are still here.

October 16, 2008|Ari B. Bloomekatz | Times Staff Writer

The United States relied on Mexican laborers to bolster its workforce during World War II, but activists and lawyers claimed for years that many of those workers were never fully compensated.

More than six decades later and after a lengthy court battle, thousands of the bracero guest workers may finally get a chance to collect their full pay.

Under a settlement announced this week, braceros living in the United States who worked from Jan. 1, 1942, through Dec. 31, 1946, will be able to file claims for about $3,500 in compensation from the Mexican government.

A U.S. District Court judge gave preliminary approval to the settlement of a class action lawsuit last Friday. Attorneys representing former braceros are now mounting a national campaign to get other laborers to file monetary claims.

Once the claims are filed, a final court ruling will be made.

"For decades in this country, lawyers and others have heard complaints from bracero workers that not only were they treated abysmally but that their wages were never fully paid to them," said Matthew J. Piers, an attorney with Chicago-based Hughes, Socol, Piers, Resnick & Dym, the firm that originated the lawsuit.

His firm spent about two years tracking down ex-bracero workers and "found a few people that claimed that they did get paid," Piers said. "But the overwhelming majority of people said that they had not."

At least 250,000 braceros worked in the United States from 1942 to 1946, Piers said, and a stipulation of their contract with employers was that 10% of their wages would be withheld and paid to them when they returned to Mexico. This would provide the laborers with an incentive to return to Mexico and also prevent exploitation while the workers were in the United States, Piers said.

But Piers said this portion of the braceros' wages was never fully paid.

Three years ago, the Mexican government set up a program that began paying back the money to ex-braceros living in Mexico, but that did not help those living in the United States, he said.

Under last week's settlement, which affects only ex-braceros living in the United States, the former laborers will be able to file for the money at any Mexican consulate in this country.

Part of the filing process is having the original documents that prove work status in the United States during World War II as well as Mexican nationality. Ex-braceros also have only two months to file their claims, from Oct. 23 to Dec. 23.

Leonel Flores, who organizes ex-braceros in Fresno and the Central Valley, said that although the settlement will help some workers, it is only a small step.

"First of all, this is an agreement between the lawyers and the Mexican government, not between the braceros and the Mexican government," Flores said. "This will help some braceros, but not the majority," he said.

Flores estimated that about 20,000 braceros still live in the United States.

He said many braceros are now elderly, and that although many are U.S. residents, many others are undocumented and struggling to survive.

For the former braceros, he said, "$3,500 is not enough."

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ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

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