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Initially, it was set up as protection — a mandatory savings program to ensure that Mexican farm and railroad workers laboring in the United States during the 1940s would not go home penniless. At the insistence of the Mexican government, the U.S. government deducted 10 percent of Mexican workers’ wages to be transferred to Mexican banks where laborers would be able to withdraw their money. Half a century later, Mexican workers, known as braceros, say they never knew about the program and were never paid back the money withheld from their paychecks. Flanked by five prominent plaintiffs’ firms in the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago and New York, retired workers have filed a multimillion-dollar class action against the U.S and Mexican governments, Wells Fargo Bank and three Mexican banks to recover an estimated $70 million in lost wages, plus interest, damages and attorneys’ fees. Attorneys working the case say interest and damages could propel the case into the hundreds of millions. The Department of Justice refused to comment on the case, but McCutchen Doyle Brown & Enersen, which is representing Wells Fargo, denies any wrongdoing on the part of its client. “There have been no mistakes and no wrongdoing on the part of Wells Fargo,” said McCutchen partner Raymond Marshall. “Everything we know of to date in the case is that Wells Fargo has met all of its obligations under the braceros program. We are looking to see what is said in the amended complaint.” The class for Seniorino Ramirez Cruz v. United States of America et al. 01-0892-CRB could include as many as half a million braceros who worked in the United States from 1942 to 1949 and their heirs, attorneys say. Lawyers representing the braceros are drawing parallels between Holocaust and Japanese internment reparations suits that have demanded governments and companies pay for alleged crimes committed more than a half century ago. “The United States government was very supportive of the claims of the [Holocaust] plaintiffs,” said Jonathan Rothstein, a partner with Chicago’s Gessler Hughes & Socol. “Now the shoe is on the other foot. It will be interesting to see if they are prepared to do for the braceros what they urged the German government and German and U.S. corporations do to in Holocaust cases.” Gessler Hughes got involved after winning a $400 million settlement with money wire services, including Western Union, which were accused of hiding fees from customers transferring money from the United States to Mexico. Others say the braceros case is even more clear-cut because it centers around earned wages that were withheld. “A difference between this and the Holocaust cases and the Japanese internment cases is that this is money our clients actually earned for work. It was withheld from them and never paid to them,” said Morris Baller, a partner with Saperstein Goldstein Demchak & Baller. “It’s money taken out of our clients’ pockets.” Two suits in Fresno and one suit in San Francisco have been consolidated into one action in San Francisco’s U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Attorneys say San Francisco was a logical choice because Wells Fargo is based out of San Francisco and as many as half of the 500,000 braceros who came to the United States worked in California. Other firms working on the consolidated case are Chicago-based Miner Barnhill & Galland, New York’s Kirby McInerney & Squire and San Francisco’s Lieff, Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, which sued Swiss banks for Holocaust survivors and their heirs. The case has been assigned to Judge Charles Breyer. No lead counsel has been assigned, and attorneys say it’s unlikely because the five firms are cooperating rather than competing. “We have been working very well as a group,” Rothstein said. Attorneys say the case, which stretches across the border and back 60 years, could pose discovery and statute of limitation challenges, but they say they’ve spent a year researching and preparing the case. “I think predictably [statute of limitations] will be a defense in the case,” Baller said. “We have solid legal and equitable grounds. One of our arguments is that the plaintiffs are unaware of the claim because of the concealment by the defendant.” Just serving a foreign country and foreign companies is a lengthy process, which has yet to be completed. Discovery also promises to be more onerous. “It’s a more cumbersome process,” Baller said. “It will make it more difficult in the sense of time and expense. But discovery will be had.”

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