With the government shutdown—that black hole-like presence in political news—now behind Washington, other formerly pressing issues are getting attention once again. In a speech yesterday morning, as the gears of the government were starting back up, President Barack Obama highlighted three issues that needed to addressed immediately.
One of them was immigration reform.
It’s harvest season in much of the country right now, and with reports of fields going unpicked as a result of labor shortages, the matter does seem pressing indeed. But as Congress wades back into debates about border security and quotas for W-Visas, the temporary papers that will allow foreign agriculture laborers to legally work in American fields, its important to remember that one of the biggest such programs the U.S. has ever had, one that ended in 1964, remains broken and unjust.
The bracero program was, at its peak in the late 1950s, legally bringing more that 400,000 Mexican laborers to work on farms throughout the U.S. every year. Between 1942 and 1964, 4.5 million Mexican workers took part in the program.
Part of the agreement involved laborers giving 10 percent of their already paltry earnings to the Mexican government as a sort of anti-defection insurance bond; both countries wanted to emphasize the temporary nature of the program, and holding that 10 percent was Mexico’s way of making sure the braceros came back.
Problem is, millions of workers who did return were never paid back.
As Adam Goodman and Verónica Zapata Rivera write for the leftist journal Jacobian, aging braceros and their descendents are gathering daily in Mexico City to demand reparations from the government.
The vast majority are in their 70s or 80s. Some live in Mexico City, but others travel hours from other states to get there. Wearing sombreros to protect themselves from the sun, the braceros hang a large banner on the fence in front of the House that reads, “EPN [Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto] Pay Us or Kill Us!” According to their organization, the Binational Bracero Proa Alliance, an average of 14 braceros die each day. Their cause is urgent.
In 2004, then-President Vicente Fox responded to protests, which have been on-going since the 1980s, and media pressure, giving former braceros one-time payments of 38,000 pesos, or just under $3,000—a figure that, in many cases, comes up short of the 10 percent owed.
“Although it is unclear whether Congress will reach an agreement on current immigration reform, both the Senate and House plans would increase the number of guestworkers,” Goodman and Zapata Rivera note. The new program as outlined in the immigration bill that’s already passed the Senate has been criticized for being unfair to guestworkers.
If Congress does manage to pass comprehensive immigration reform, we can only hope that it doesn’t result in a decades-long legacy of injustice.