By Valeria Fernández, FI2W contributor
PHOENIX, Arizona — While thousands across the nation plan to march for immigration reform this Friday, May 1, a handful of former immigrant farmworkers in their seventies are holding a different protest here.
The men still call themselves braceros, the inheritors of a largely criticized guest-worker program agreement between the United States and Mexico to satisfy the need for labor during World War II. Their story offers a cautionary tale about the prospect of future guest-worker programs touted by political leaders such as Arizona Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl as part of the answer to the need for immigration reform.
The braceros’ weeklong rally started on Monday, April 27th, outside the Mexican Consulate in Phoenix to demand that Mexico’s government settle a 40-year-old debt with them. This was money that was taken from their paychecks while they worked in the American countryside. Mexico was supposed to create a fund for the workers with that money, but its government just kept it.
Between 1943 and 1964 about 4 million braceros worked in the fields. About 400 of them now reside in Arizona. After the Bracero Program ended, they stayed and continued to work as undocumented labor. Today, many like Dionisio Garcia, 76, don’t have much to show for it when it comes to retirement.
“We’re here to see if they pay us,” said Garcia, a member of the Frente Bi-Nacional de Ex-Braceros, a retired farmworkers group from Arizona that organized the protest.
On a Wednesday morning, Garcia and his fellow ex-braceros stood outside the consulate holding a large sign demanding payment. For Garcia –now an American citizen–, it’s hard to stand for more than a few minutes ever since a cow broke his back at a cattle ranch four years ago.
“I’d just found out there was some money that they owe us,” said Manuel Coronel, 81. Coronel hides from the Arizona sun under a hat, sitting in his motorized wheelchair as he watches people come and go into the consulate.