20080418 mexican laborers 18
Pedro Clemente, 18, and his wife Maria Rafael, 17, undocumented farm laborers from Mexico, work in an artichoke field in Thermal, Calif. - 

Steve Chiotakis: This week, the Mexican government is expected to start compensating workers for money taken from them nearly a half century ago.

Marketplace's Jeff Tyler explains how a U.S. guest-worker program stiffed Mexican laborers.

Jeff Tyler: About a dozen elderly men have gathered in this Los Angeles office for an update. They're fighting to get money taken from them by the Mexican government. Between 1942 and 1964, millions of migrants came to the U.S. to work -- legally -- under the so-called 'bracero' program. The Mexican government collected 10 percent of their wages.

Jose Almaras: They told us that our salary would be reserved for our savings.

That's 73-year-old Jose Almaras. He earned 50 cents an hour to pick cotton in Texas in 1958 and '59.

Almaras: They treated us like -- well, I hate to make the comparison -- but like animals. They put us in a big corral. They collectively washed, disinfected and fumigated us.

When he got back to Mexico, he couldn't find any way to retrieve the money owed to him by the government. He's been working with activist Juan Jose Guitierrez, who directs Vamos Unidos USA, an immigration services company. Guitierrez says the bracero program funneled all the garnished wages to Mexico's Secretary of Agriculture.

Juan Jose Guitierrez: And then, after that, nobody knows what happened to the money. The money was never provided to the rightful owners. The money disappeared. Some would say it got stolen.

Over the subsequent five decades, many ex-braceros have died. Sixty-five-year-old Moises Varajas came on behalf of his deceased father, who worked in the bracero program for about eight years.

Moises Varajas: It's about getting financial compensation. Also, it's about getting justice for all the ex-braceros.

The Mexican government is expected to pay each bracero a little less than $4,000. Jose Almaras has been waiting for more than 50 years. He lives on a small pension, and says the money would be more than symbolic.

Almaras: No, no, no. I need that money.

This month, about 40,000 laborers expect to finally get their checks. But even after that, Guitierrez says there are still another 100,000 former braceros waiting to be paid.

I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

Follow Jeff Tyler at @JeffMarketplace