Former braceros fight for wage compensation

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image Miguel Bermudez, who is in his 70s, is one of hundreds of thousands of people who were part of the Bracero Program that allowed Mexicans to work in the United States. As part of that arrangement, a portion of the pay was withheld and was to be returned later.

That didn’t happen for all braceros.

Workers are supposed to return to Mexico to get their earnings. But many of the former braceros or their descendants can’t make the trip.

Juan Jose Gutierrez, president of the immigration group Vamos Unidos, says it is up to the Mexican government to make good on their promise.

“I mean, if someone takes your money, they have to give it back,” Gutierrez said. “That’s just the right thing to do. This was outrageous theft.”

But things are finally beginning to change.

Now, Mexican consulates all over America will be able to pass out $3,500 to braceros or their families because of a decision made earlier this month by the Mexican government. Bermudez was the first in line to get his check at the Los Angeles Mexican Consulate Monday, clutching the paperwork he filled out all of those years ago close to his chest.

He was able to get his check because he had registered during a now closed registration period.

But there are many more braceros or descendants all over America who aren’t yet registered to collect their checks in the United States. So immigration activists met with members of the Mexican consulate, urging them to allow another registration period. They also hope to use the American media to get the word out about the decision.

“We have asked members of the media to publish this phone number that ex-braceros can call to get assistance, and that [number] is (213) 746-6264,” Gutierrez said.

But Sergio Bermudez, Miguel’s son, says that this check doesn’t make up for the years of neglect from the Mexican government.

“Being his son, there is a lot of frustration after years of empty promises and watching him get the run around,” Sergio said.

Both he and Miguel hope all the former braceros and their families will finally get the retribution they deserve.

Becoming an American Citizen

When Carmit Katey is sworn in as an American citizen, she thinks she will look and feel like a new person, despite having lived in the United States already for eight years.

“I have to take pictures because my family is waiting to see me before and after,” Katey said. “For me, inside it is [different] and I think it will show outside.”

And Katey will not be alone in her excitement. The 36-year-old Venice woman from Israel will be one of 5,862 taking the Oath of Allegiance at the citizenship ceremony.

For most, it is the end of a year’s long process from arrival to permanent resident status to citizenship.

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Local immigration attorney Eric Azarian explained that the application for citizenship usually only takes six months, but just the path to become a permanent resident, either through employment or marriage, can take decades.

He believes current citizens should witness the citizenship ceremony to see how happy the newest Americans are when they finally become naturalized and to understand what we take for granted.

“You see people from all over the world,” said Azarian. “It’s a moving experience for most of them.”

The naturalization process was originally set down in the Immigration and Nationality acts of 1952 and 1965.

It typically takes about six months and $675 in government fees for people with green cards, meaning immigrants with permanent residence status, to go from submitting the application to taking the oath.

To qualify, most applicants must have been a permanent resident for five years and meet other eligibility requirements. Residents married to citizens can qualify after three years.

imageCarlos Garcia of West Covina became a citizen in 2008 right before the presidential elections. He believes voting is the most important privilege new citizens receive.

“Now I’m working for this country,” said Garcia. “I pay my taxes. I’m doing my best to better myself and better the country because I’m part of this country now,” Garcia said. “[Without citizenship] you don’t get to complain. You don’t get to vote is the main thing.”

Other citizen benefits include being able to help bring family members into the country, traveling with a U.S. passport, and becoming eligible for federal jobs or elected offices, most of which require citizenship.

Garcia says he knows too many residents who haven’t become citizens and should be taking advantage of the benefits.

“Anybody can take their residence away, but citizenship is hard to take away from you,” added Garcia.

Those who are applying must take a civics test covering the history and government of the U.S. and also an English language exam. (Try out a short self-test here).

Applicants are also required to show they have “good moral character.” They must demonstrate this by proving they have not committed the following examples of crimes: crime against a person with intent to harm, habitual drunkenness, illegal gambling, polygamy, terrorist acts or persecution because of race, religion or national origin.

After submitting the required documents and passing their exams and interviews, candidates must be willing to state they will “support and defend the United States and our Constitution” by taking the Oath of Allegiance. The moment the Oath is taken marks the time when a person becomes a citizen.

An interesting factoid about the Oath is that candidates can take a modified oath, if they can prove in writing that their objections to the current oath are valid. Also, if applicants hold any hereditary titles or positions of nobility, they must renounce them at the oath ceremony.

Azarian has been working in immigration for 37 years and has never heard of someone requesting a modified oath. He jokingly added most people will say anything because they are just happy to get their citizenship finally.

The attorney said that it’s been satisfying helping people through the long process to gain permanent residence and ultimately through the final step of gaining citizenship.

“It’s very gratifying,” said Azarian. “Every day you meet new people from all over the world. You’re helping them out and advancing their lives.”

For Katey, the ceremony will be about finding a sense of belonging in a place where she has already lived for years.

“It’s almost like a new page in my life even though I’ve lived here for all this time,” said Katey. “This is going to be a new life — a new me — because I am new. I’m American.”