Former braceros say guest workers abused
SAN LUIS, Ariz. - Decades ago, if a Mexican wanted to go to work in the United States, there were no long treks beneath the desert sun, no "coyotes" to smuggle people across the border and no immigrants dying along the way.
All they had to do was jump on the next train headed north, register with a contractor, be sprayed with pesticides, and they were in.
That's what Miguel Sander did.
"Nobody had to cross the desert in my time," he said.
Now retired and living in San Luis, Sander was one of about five million guest workers who came from Mexico to work in the United States under the bracero program.
The program began in 1942, to help ease a wartime labor shortage in the U.S.
It ended in 1964 because of scrutiny from critics who said the program was plagued with widespread abuses against workers.
Nearly a half-century later, President Bush is calling for a new guest worker program to help ease perceived labor shortages as well as to help reduce the number of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. The issue is one of many that has divided Congress as it tries to overhaul the country's immigration system.
In Yuma, agricultural industry leaders have said they need a guest worker program because of a growing labor shortage in the agricultural industry.
On a recent afternoon, Sander and two other ex-braceros, all now San Luis residents, met at Friendship Park with other retired farm workers as they do almost every day.
The three ex-braceros say they were consistently abused by their employers, and that they were subject to inhumane conditions. They all said they would discourage another guest worker program if it would be the same as the bracero program.
Marc Grossman, spokesman for United Farm Workers of America - a farm worker advocacy group - compared the program to indentured servitude.
He said not only did workers work in bad conditions and face routine abuse, but he said bracero workers were often given priority to jobs over domestic workers and that the program depressed wages for domestic workers as well.
"It was a mockery of the law itself," Grossman said.
Cesar Chavez, an influential farm labor advocate who died in San Luis 13 years ago today, was an opponent of the bracero program, Grossman said.
Conservative critics, such as the Center for Immigration Studies - a Washington D.C. think tank that favors tighter immigration controls - say the bracero program didn't stem illegal immigration, but instead encouraged it.
"It was a mistake, it was never actually even needed," said Mark Krikorian, the center's executive director. He added that if a guest worker program is implemented today, it would increase illegal immigration.
Agreeing with Grossman, he called the bracero program an effort by growers keep workers' wages down.
Sander called himself a "campesino since birth," campesino being Spanish for farm worker.
He said being a bracero was hard: "Sunup-to-sundown" days, sleeping in barracks, bathing in irrigation ditches and eating eggs and beans for every meal for years all came with the territory.
Sander said after his employer took money out of his check for food and housing, he was left with scarcely any income.
"Thank God I didn't have any kids and didn't smoke," he said, laughing.
But what really got him, he said, was the abuse and maltreatment of employers who verbally and physically abused workers, unreasonably deducted wages or extorted money from workers.
"And if you complain or denounce anything they do, they would fire you," he said.
Another ex-bracero, Miguel Sanchez, said things improved as Chavez led the labor movement.
"There was a time when the union was so strong that (my employer) paid me $15 for the bus ride (to work)," Sanchez said, "now, workers pay $7 for the ride."
A few times a week, a group of ex-braceros meet here in the park to plan out their next move. Having picketed in protests led by Chavez decades ago, they now picket in Mexico, where they say the government owes them money.
As part of the bracero program, Jose Valenzuela said, 10 percent of the wages earned by many braceros was supposed to be put into savings accounts to ensure the workers would have money upon returning to Mexico.
Though the money was originally kept in American banks, it was later transferred to a Mexican bank, he said. These ex-braceros say they haven't seen any of it.
They meet here in San Luis to plan protests. Today, they'll be picketing in San Luis Rio Colorado, Son., at the Benito Juarez Park.
But now, all of them are U.S. citizens, receiving Social Security.
Despite all of the hardships, they all say they would do it over again.
"It was worth it," Valenzuela said. "I'm a U.S. citizen now."
Blake Schmidt can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6852.