Posts Tagged ‘California’

Roundup-Ready Grapes of Wrath

August 1, 2009

“The tractors came over the roads and into the fields, great crawlers moving like insects, having the incredible strength of insects…Snub-nosed monsters, raising the dust and sticking their snouts into it, straight down the country, across the country, through fences, through dooryards, in and out of gullies in straight lines. They did not run on the ground, but on their own roadbeds. They ignored hills and gulches, water courses, fences, houses.

That man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was a part of the monster, a robot in the seat…The driver could not control it – straight across country it went, cutting through a dozen farms and straight back. A twitch at the controls could swerve the ‘cat, but the driver’s hands could not twitch because the monster that built the tractor, the monster that sent the tractor out, had somehow gotten into the driver’s hands, into his brain and muscle, had goggled him and muzzled him – goggled his mind, muzzled his speech, goggled his perception, muzzled his protest. He could not see the land as it was, he could not smell the land as it smelled; his feet did not stamp the clods or feel the warmth and power of the earth. He sat in an iron seat and stepped on iron pedals. He could not cheer or beat or curse or encourage the extension of his power, and because of this he could not cheer or whip or curse or encourage himself. He did not know or own or trust or beseech the land. If a seed dropped did not germinate, it was no skin off his ass. If the young thrusting plant withered in drought or drowned in a flood of rain, it was no more to the driver than to the tractor.

He loved the land no more than the bank loved the land. He could admire the tractor – its machined surfaces, its surge of power, the roar of its detonating cylinders; but it was not his tractor. Behind the tractor rolled the shining disks, cutting the earth with blades – not plowing but surgery…The driver sat in his iron seat and he was proud of the straight lines he did not will, proud of the tractor he did not own or love, proud of the power he could not control. And when that crop grew, and was harvested, no man had crumbled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips. No man had touched the seed, or lusted for the growth. Men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had no prayers or curses.” (Steinbeck, John. Grapes of Wrath, 35-36)

In the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, it is only fitting that I am reading Steinbeck’s great novel while working with migrant farmworkers in southeastern Minnesota this summer.  In that book, as in that time, farmers and families were displaced by the dust storms, drought, banks, and mechanization.  The Okies migrated to California and Washington, seeking a decent day’s wage to feed their roving families.  The poignant scene above describes what replaced the tenant-farming Okies from the Great Plains – tractors, mass production, industrial-sized operations.

This summer, we have seen 2/3 less migrant farmworkers in southeastern Minnesota than usual. This is not because they have found alternate work in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, but rather because the economy is so bad that the farmers and canning companies in Minnesota recruited very little this year.  For pea-pack and corn-pack (when the canning companies pack the various vegetables into tin cans), the numbers of migrant families driving to Minnesota in their overloaded trucks fueled with tax-return dollars has dwindled.  Some came without contracts, hoping beyond hope that somehow there would be jobs for them here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, jobs that didn’t exist in the 115 degree drought of southern Texas.  (Benning, Tom. Wall Street Journal) Some found odd jobs; others made the long lonely trip back to Texas, poorer than when they arrived.

Because budgets are tight in 2009, farmers are hiring fewer workers and trying to mechanize as much as possible, to cut costs and widen any sort of profit margin.  Years ago, migrant farmworkers from Texas picked rocks during the month of May; now, farmers have machines that do almost as good a job and for cheaper.  Many vegetables that were once hand-picked through back-breaking manual labor now are harvested with a tractor-pulled reaper.  Farmers also shied away from planting more labor-intensive crops. Additionally, migrant farmworkers in some places are now competing with recently laid-off local workers who were hired months before the migrant season began in May.  In a nation experiencing 9.5% unemployment (the highest since just before I was born in 1983), there is no such thing as plenty, particularly in the margins of society.  (http://www.tradingeconomics.com/Economics/Unemployment-rate.aspx?Symbol=USD)

Weeding, once a mainstay of migrant farmworkers’ summer jobs, has been reduced through modern technology.  Controversial genetically modified crops are cropping up in more and more Midwestern fields.  Rather than using this technology to increase the yield for mainstay crops in third-world countries and combating worldwide famine, GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are predominantly being created to reduce the amount of manual labor per crop in first-world countries.  In Minnesota, for example, “Roundup Ready” beets are planted throughout the state. Rather than being larger, or sweeter, or more nutritious, or better for the land, these beets have only one advantage over regular sugar beets – they do not shrivel up and die when exposed to high levels of herbicides or pesticides.  From 1994 to 2005, the United States saw 15-fold increase in the direct application of glyphosate to our major field crops. (Sourcewatch)  Hundreds and thousands of jobs for migrant farmworkers across the United States have been eliminated through the creation of such GMO crops. Whereas in the past humans weeded the rows and tended the plants, now a single sprayer or a lone airplane can douse an entire field with herbicides, leaving only the hardy genetically-modified food crops behind.

One has to wonder what good this is doing. While these plants can survive herbicides and insecticides, few long-term studies have been conducted to see if humans can withstand them.  Additionally, the thousands of migrant families that depended on weeding work are now jobless.  And farmers still need to spend a good deal to purchase the premium Roundup Ready seeds and the gallons and gallons of chemicals to keep their fields tidy. When these vegetables finally make it to the plate of the average American, has any positive change taken place?

Family farms are now a thing of the past.  John Steinbeck, in his beautiful novel assigned to most 9th-graders throughout the US, details the dawn of a new age where mass production, tractors, and cash crops replaced family tenants, horse-drawn plows, and subsistence farming.  In 2009, a new book could be penned about the coming age of Roundup-Ready plants, genetically modified crops, and roaming jobless migrant farmworkers.

As my wife and I roved through the Olmsted County Fair last night, we were mesmerized by the draft horses.  Morgans, Blondies, Clydesdales – these beautiful beasts gracefully pawed the dust and pulled carts in synchronized canter.  I was reminded of a writer at the turn of the 19th century who, upon seeing one of the first automobiles driving through an American city, quipped that these machines would replace horses and make urban living quieter (without the hoof beats) and cleaner (without the manure on streets).  While a laughable prophecy in the 20th century, it seems like writers today could tell a similar story about the wonders of modern agriculture in the Breadbasket of the World.  Seeing those beautiful beasts in Rochester, I had to think we’d sold our birthright for a bowl of porridge.  And we’re doing so again.

Fingerprinting, Home Raids, and a Rare Apology to Immigrants

July 27, 2009

The Obama administration this past week opted to vastly expand a George W. Bush program to run fingerprints through immigration scans in Houston, TX.  In the past, only serious criminals were fingerprinted and screened for immigration conflicts.  With this program though, even those accused of misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes are fingerprinted and checked in the USCIS database. (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/26/us/26secure.html?pagewanted=2&tntemail1=y&_r=1&emc=tnt)

Federal officials stated that the automatic fingerprint checks in Harris County resulted in the deportation of 94 people for felonies and 1,624 people accused of misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes. Cesar Espinosa of the immigrant advocacy group America for All said, “People are getting deported for even minor offenses like not having an ID or a driver’s license.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/26/us/26secure.html?pagewanted=2&tntemail1=y&_r=1&emc=tnt)

Another symptom of America’s flawed immigration enforcement was chronicled in a report released by the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law this past week. The Cardozo Justice Law Clinic partnered with several law enforcement experts like Nassau County’s police commissioner, to analyzing 700 arrest reports obtained from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] agency through Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] lawsuits.

In the home raids scrutinized by this report, the ICE agents acting without a search warrant were required to obtain consent. However, 86% of the home raids in Nassau and Suffolk counties, no consent was recorded as required by law. The report condemned the “cowboy mentality” that ran rampant throughout these raids: in Paterson, NJ, a nine-year-old legal citizen of Guatemalan descent was threatened at gunpoint while his legal resident mother was in the shower; in a Staten Island case, an immigration judge ruled that similar agents’ actions were an “egregious violation” of basic fairness; an email message exchanged between an ICE agent in Connecticut and a state trooper invited him to a set of raids scheduled for New Haven, stating, “We have 18 addresses – so it should be a fun time! Let me know if you guys can play!”

Such an abuse of power stems from having a system which criminalizes individuals merely suspected by their ethnicity of being guilty of a civil violation.  The Cardozo report suggests that these ICE home raids should be “a tactic of last resort, reserved for high-priority targets,” and accompanied with a search warrant.  The report also recommends that supervisors be on site and home raids videotaped. Lastly, the report states that agents should have to note why the initially seized or questioned any person, rather than merely waiting for the results afterwards [i.e. in law, “the end should not justify the means”].  Hopefully DHS Secretary Napolitano reads this insightful report and begins to deescalate the fear and violence perpetrated against our nation’s immigrant population through such negative programs. (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/22/nyregion/22raids.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1=y)

As California worked around the clock to vote on a budget that would alleviate its 26 billion dollar deficit, they also passed an important public apology a long time coming.  The California Legislature apologized for its states’ past persecution of Chinese immigrants who worked on the state’s railroads, farms, and gold mines.  On Friday, the State Secretary released this public apology for the 19th and 20th century wrongs done to Chinese Americans.  If only the United States as a whole would apologize for the xenophobic, nativist legislation it passed in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which banned all Chinese-Americans, and later all Asian-Americans, from legally immigrating to the United States for some 60 years. (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/23/us/23brfs-APOLOGYTOIMM_BRF.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1=y)

It is entirely possible that in 70 years, the United States will be uttering its own apologies to third and fourth-generation immigrants for the inhumane home raids and invasive fingerprint checks we are conducting now.

Immigrants’ Letter to Janet Napolitano

March 4, 2009

The National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC), the Korean American Resource & Cultural Center (Chicago, IL), and the Korean Resource Center (Los Angeles, CA) is compiling a letter to send to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.  The letter urges Napolitano to lower the filing fees for naturalization – consider adding your name to their letter by writing them by March 9, 5 p.m. at soh@nakasec.org or fax to 323.937.3753:

“Dear Secretary Napolitano:

The undersigned organizations write in support of the letter from US Rep. Jan Schakowsky and her Congressional colleagues urging you to act now to reduce citizenship fees.  The Bush Administration’s decision to increase fees from $400 to $675 in July 2007 has put citizenship further out-of-reach for thousands of hardworking, patriotic immigrants who want to fully participate in our democracy.  We urge you to reduce the citizenship fee back to $400, and make the American dream of citizenship attainable again.  Thank you for your consideration.”

Earlier this year, local and national immigrant rights groups came together to deliver a letter with 1,200 organizational endorsements to President Barack Obama on the urgent need to enact immigration reform. With you, altogether we gathered 97 endorsements primarily from the Korean American and Asian American & Pacific Islander communities.

If you would like to endorse, please send the following information to 

Organization: _____________________________________________

Contact Person/Title:________________________________________

Address:_________________________________________________________

Email:_______________________________ Phone Number: (_____)__________________

Thank you for your thoughtful consideration. If you should have any questions, any of the following individuals would be happy to hear from you: Sookyung Oh at NAKASEC (323.937.3703, ext. 206, soh@nakasec.org), JungHee Lee at KRC (323.937.3718, junghee@krcla.org), and/or Sik Sohn at KRCC (773.588.9158, sohnsik@chicagokrcc.org). Together, We Build America’s Future.

Silence of Good People

February 18, 2009

In the nation’s fifth-largest city, more than 200 men were humiliatingly marched past video cameras to a tent-city where they will await deportation. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, “star” of a Fox reality television show, was simply continuing his long abuse of power in cruelly and unusually punishing prisoners in his jail system. While he makes convicted offenders wear pink underwear and has been cited as serving green bologna to prisoners, he has particularly situated himself as “hard on immigration,” teaming up with the federal policing program 287(g) which partners the U.S. government with local law enforcement. (Garcia, Carlos)

In theory, federal-state cooperation makes the whole system work better. However, local law enforcement officials in 287(g) are given little guidance and engage primarily in basic racial profiling, which results in a myriad of pretextual traffic stops, “jaywalking” violations, and general harassment of Latinos in Phoenix and other like communities throughout the United States. (New York Times)

As new Secretary of Homeland Security (and former Arizona governor) Janet Napolitano seeks to reform the broken Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Department, surely Arpaio should be high on her list. Napolitano’s investigations into the 287(g) should probe into the abuses, both local and federal, and seek to craft an alternative which doesn’t criminalize people based on race or appearance.

On March 7, the 44th anniversary of the famous Bloody Sunday March from Selma to Montgomery which so galvanized the civil rights movement, a march will be held in Phoenix to protest the civil rights abuses perpetrated by Joe Arpaio. While this march’s purpose states it wants Arpaio sent to jail, more generally it will be a march against 287(g) and all the abuses it has invited. Dr. King had Bull Connor; America’s immigrants have Sheriff Arpaio. (Garrido, Jon. Hispanic News)

This past week, as California Border Patrol officers accused their superiors of setting quotas for apprehended immigrants, we must all question our current immigration system which permits and perpetuates such abuses. The Migration Institute recently revealed a chilling report that ICE shifted its goals from apprehending “the most dangerous” undocumented immigrants to deporting anyone – women, children, factory workers – anyone to highlight the agency’s success (Garcia, Carlos). In changing their role from Homeland Security to Heartland Insecurity, our immigration system has struck fear in the hearts of families and terrorized immigrants both legal and otherwise. It is vital we note that America’s immigration issues are bigger than Sheriff Joe Arpaio, larger than ICE, and deeper than the flawed quota system – at its heart, our current immigration system reflects the complicit silence of America. As Dr. King wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail, We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” He goes on to write, though, that “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God.” This chance is there for all of us in this 21st century civil rights issue in the United States.

VOICES

February 3, 2009

At a time when immigrants are being scapegoated by some as a partial reason for the economic crisis, this Thursday, immigrants are being given a voice in Rochester, Minnesota. VOICES (Valuing Our Immigrants Contributions to Economic Success) is a community-wide initiative to open dialogue in the community. Started by the Diversity Council through a Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation grant, VOICES began by posing questions to focus groups through 10 of the most common languages here: Khmer, Spanish, Bosnian, Vietnamese, the languages of India, Somalia, Arabic, Lao, Hmong and English.(Valdez, Christina. The Post-Bulletin)

This Thursday from 6-8:30 at the Heintz Center the community will come together to discuss the contributions immigrants have on the local economy and community. Often talked about in a passive voice, this VOICES town hall meeting is a unique opportunity for immigrants to tell their side of the story. I hope all of Rochester is listening Thursday evening. ((Valdez, Christina. The Post-Bulletin)

Another intriguing initiative to give publicity to a seldom-explored area of the country is the International League of Conservation Photographers’ Borderlands RAVE Blog. This project’s purpose is to compile photos of the precious yet fragile border environment which is being profoundly impacted by our lack of comprehensive immigration reform and our construction of a devastating border wall. One look at a close-up of an ocelot or a panoramic of the desert sands instantly brings the inefficacy of a border wall into painful focus.

However, while a border wall continues solidifying a divide through El Paso and Juarez and other similar sister cities along our 2,000 mile southern border, some faith-based organizations are seeking to bridge the divide and speak to the real underlying issues. The Kino Initiative is a collaboration of six Roman Catholic organizations from Mexico and the United States providing aid and other services to deported immigrants. In Nogales, Mexico, the Kino Initiative has made a start by providing deported people with food, clothing, shelter, and health care. Having seen firsthand the bottleneck effect of immigrants in border towns such as Nogales, the Kino Initiative is speaking to a deep need. As Mexican nationals are often merely dropped across the border, regardless of where their home state may be, towns along la frontera become Casablanca to so many, places where they are extremely vulnerable, without community, and largely without hope. The Diocese of Tucson and Archdiocese of Hermosillo in the Mexican state of Sonora; Jesuit organizations from California and Mexico; Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, a religious congregation in Colima, Mexico, and the Jesuit Refugee Service U.S.A. are all seeking to affect these immediate needs, while bearing daily witness to the necessity for comprehensive immigration reform and across-the-aisle, across-the-river negotiations that engage both sending and receiving countries in real migration solutions that stress human dignity.(Associated Press)

While the border wall continues marring our southern border for want of real change, programs like the Kino Initiative and VOICES are engaging Americans in the pressing civil rights issue of this century. May this only be the beginning.

El Paso del Mundo

January 6, 2009
Las Americas Asylum Law Project

Las Americas Asylum Law Project

El Paso is closer to Los Angeles than Houston, closer to three other state capitals than its own, 12 hours from Brownsville, Texas.  It is part New Mexico, part Tejano, part Mexico, part Wild West, all frontera.  With a population of 700,000 and separated from a 1.5 million city by a tiny rivulet called the Rio Grande, El Paso melds with Juarez in culture, language, music, food, and la gente.

11 University of Minnesota Law School students arrived in El Paso, Texas, on Sunday, January 4. We came as part of the Asylum Law Project to volunteer with nonprofit groups such as Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project, and Las Americas Advocacy Center.  We came to volunteer, but as always, we assuredly will gain more than we give.

Our first day in El Paso, we attended immigration court and saw the inside of a client interview room.  The immigration court was informal, the judge joking about Burn after Reading and giving informal history lessons about Ellis Island.  The hardest cases were the pro-se ones, where we had to watch a 19-year-old boy with oversized clothes sit silently in front of the judge as he was told he had to wait for the LA judge to reopen his case.  Beside him, a Korean man was whispering prayer upon prayer, eyes closed.  Inside the interview room, the circle chairs and the square table were stainless steel.  A woman from El Salvador had been transported from San Francisco to Los Angeles to Arizona to Houston to El Paso.  Her son was watching her younger children and attending Stanford, and this meeting was to gather some last-minute details so that she could apply for a change of venue.  The steel room was empty and echoed, her small voice enunciated each word of Spanish thoughtfully and deliberately.

That same day, we were told by numerous attorneys and well-meaning citizens not to venture across the bridge to Juarez.  Granted there were more than 1,600 murders in Juarez in 2008 and a group of hueros would generally attract a lot of attention; however, it is that same sort of terror that has depressed the economy on both sides of the river and has lent credence to the drug dealers and thugs like the Zetas.  It is that same fear that led Congress to pass the Secure Fence Act of 2006, the same fear that drives Bill O’Reilly’s ratings, the same fear that enables shows like ABC’s “Homeland Security USA” to exist.  As we crossed the El Paso del Norte Bridge and were greeted by the smell of tacos al pastor and the sight of cheap meds and fast surgeries, none of us felt threatened.  Even as we walked by the federales with their automatic rifles and teenage faces, it was impossible to see much of a difference between one side of the river and the other.  We watched Texas beat Ohio State for the Fiesta Bowl as we sat in the Yankees bar, across the centro from the Kentucky Bar where Marilyn Monroe bought drinks for everyone the day she divorced Arthur Miller.  Both sides of this river are hopelessly interconnected.

We are staying in the Gardner Hotel/El Paso International Hostel, a hotel from the 1920s that has hosted John Dillinger and Cormac McCarthy. An old PacBell phone booth stands sentry at the doorway, and an old-time telephone switchboard stands next to the check-in booth.  With its high ceilings and transoms, old charm and new faces daily, many languages and few rules, this hostel is as good a metaphor for El Paso and Juarez as one can imagine.

Tonight we visited Casa Anunciacion, an immigrant safe house.  Dreamed up by 5 Christian men more than 30 years ago, this organization operates in the historically most impoverished portion of El Paso.  It serves as a home for immigrants, whether for one night or for 8 months.  Families, abused women, single teens, mothers and babies, fathers – the house is full to the brim with immigrants seeking shelter and a change.  This particular night Juan Carlos cooked dinner for all 55 tenants and all 11 of us.  We sat next to immigrants from Guatemala and Sinaloa, El Salvador and Lebanon, Juarez, and Honduras.  After dinner, I washed dishes alongside Federico as everyone worked together to clean the facilities.  Although the house was raided by ICE several years ago, it still continues to offer hope to many seeking a better job and life.

The border towns of El Paso and Juarez serve as a microcosm of worldwide immigration patterns.  When goods are freely transportable in a globalizing world, it only stands to reason that people will desire to move freely legally or not.  Border lines are human conventions, and as one looks at the picnic cloth of stars between the Sierra Madre and Rocky Mountains that is El Paso/Juarez at night, it is impossible to see where one ends and the other begins.  Perhaps that would just be a perfunctory exercise anyway.

Christmas in a Divided Bethlehem

December 29, 2008

On Monday, December 15, Palestinian children gathered around a Christmas tree next to the Church of the Nativity.  Just days before Christmas, these men, women, and children gathered in Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  Though the Christmas tree was a 32-foot high cypress rather than a pine, and though the carols were in another tongue, surely few other Christmas celebrations were as authentic and true to the source on that Monday evening. (Israel News Agency)

Wall in Jesus Hometown

Wall in Jesus' Hometown

This little town of Bethlehem is as divided now as it was some 2000 years ago when Jesus was born in a manger bed.  Back then there were zealots and Samaritans, Pharisees and Sadducees, Romans and Greeks; today there are Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Sunnis and Shiites and Christians.  Mayor Victor Batarseh spoke at the lighting of the Bethlehem Christmas tree, hoping that “…the star that led the three wise men to Bethlehem will lead the great powers and brighten their way toward genuine peace.” Closer to home, a wall is being built between North and Mesoamerica as I write this, cutting through the heart of El Paso, Brownsville, and San Diego.  Around the world, walls are being built between nations even as globalization frees up fungible goods.  We are fast approaching a time when goods can travel across national boundaries but people cannot leave their homes, when products possess more rights than people and exports are more respected than immigrants. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw it coming when he said our science “…made of this world a neighborhood and yet…we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood.

It is abundantly clear this Christmas that the modern concept of nation-states, barely more than a hundred years old, creates refugees, suppresses the movement of people, and too often aids in genocide.  From the 1915 Armenian genocide in Turkey to the Holocaust in Europe to the more recent massacres in Darfur and Somalia, nation states have served as walls insulating totalitarian governments and stifling the cries of suffering people.  Refugees, once able to flee persecution by simple migration, now must jump through elaborate hoops and campaign their merits to successfully emigrate to a safe country where they are too frequently welcomed with xenophobia and nativism, even in this Nativity season.

While it is fruitless and perhaps not even desirable to speak of abolishing nation-states, this holiday season must remind us that division, wherever it occurs, makes us somehow less than we truly are. As Dr. King believed “…whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”

On December 27, Israel bombed the Gaza strip, killing at least 205 Palestinians.  In protest of the air strike, the Christmas tree in Bethlehem was doused, though it normally remains lit until the Orthodox Nativity celebrations in January. (Middle East Times)

In this holiday season of Ramadan, Hannukah, Christmas, and the Chinese New Year, Colossians 3:11 rings truer than ever -
Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” May we realize the truth in Dr. King’s words, that we are all “tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”  A wall, be it in Bethlehem or Brownsville or in human hearts, denies that very unity all children of God share, the same unity Christ came to preach 2000 years ago.  Let us not forget.

Dia de los Muertos, Dia de los Vivos

November 12, 2008

On the Dia de los Muertos, just days before the Day of the Living (November 4th), students from the University of Minnesota, Augsburg College, and Minneapolis Community & Technology College marched to remember the 1,954 border-crossing deaths the Border Patrol estimates occurred between 1998-2004. Those numbers continue to rise every year, with increased militarization and border barriers redirecting immigrants to more dangerous regions. (http://www.mndaily.com/2008/11/01/d%C3%AD-de-los-muertos-procession-honors-immigrant-deaths)

500 students marched in South Minneapolis as part of this event by Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Coalition. Beginning at the Holy Rosary/Santo Rosario Catholic Church and finishing at El Milagro: The Miracle Lutheran Church, these protestors tried to publicize the fact that annual border crossing deaths have doubled in the ten years since 2005. As the participants read these names aloud, the air grew chill with the realization that our country’s policies are directly causing deaths.

Our new President-elect is inheriting an office faced with a teeming host of problems. American policies are causing deaths, both American and global, in far-reaching places like Iraq and Afghanistan and Somalia, but our legislation is also leading to deaths as close as Arizona, California, and Texas. Immigrants lured by employers and kept in a dependent work-relationship die every year, failing to get the health benefits and insurance they need. Hospitals like Saint Joseph’s in Phoenix repatriate about eight uninsured patients a month. While Vice-President Sister Margaret McBride said this is just a part of them trying to “be good stewards of the resources we have,” hospital El Centro Regional Medical Center in California refuses to forcefully deport immigrant patients. CEO David Green of that hospital said, “We don’t export patients. I can understand the frustrations of other hospitals, but the flip side is the human being element.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/09/us/09deport.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=immigrant%20hospital&st=cse&oref=slogin)

Although healthcare is distant fourth on the upcoming President’s agenda and immigration a distant fifth or sixth, our lack of universal healthcare and lack of immigration reform creates a “perfect storm” which establishes bizarre incentives for hospitals to rid themselves of uninsured patients. Illegal immigrants are only partially covered by emergency Medicaid or, for the last few years at least, through the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 (expired in October). Infants, even legal citizens like Elliott Bustamente who was born at University Medical Center in Tucson, are often ordered to be transferred to a Mexican hospital regardless of his heart defect or Down Syndrome. Dr. Stephen Larson, migrant health expert at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, states that, “You’re given an out by there not being formal regulations. The question is whether or not litigation, or prosecution, catches up and hospitals start to be held liable.” Dr. Robert Margolin of the California Medical Association, confessed that, ““While we empathize with hospitals that must provide uncompensated care to undocumented immigrants, we overwhelmingly oppose the practice of repatriating patients without their consent.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/09/us/09deport.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=immigrant%20hospital&st=cse&oref=slogin ). For hospitals that refuse to repatriate patients without their consent, though, this incurs prohibitive costs which are only partially covered by the State.

Hospitals are put between a rock and a hard place, when 12 million extralegal immigrants are not allowed to acquire employer-based or private insurance and our current healthcare system doesn’t pick up the costs. Being married to a hospital administrator and being the son of a healthcare executive, I uniquely understand the plight of hospitals as it gets harder and harder for them to survive financially. However, the forced repatriation of people based on racial profiling and lack of insurance certainly does not solve immigration issues nor does it adequately address the needs of hospitals. As President-elect Obama prepares to take the Oval Office, it is our duty as citizens to keep these issues in the forefront of his mind.

Barriers to Integration

October 26, 2008

Friendship Park in Imperial Beach, California, has long stood as a symbol of Amistad and brotherhood between the United States and Mexico. 160 years after the border was established at this point, people now speak and kiss and sing through the wire fence. At times it is eerily reminiscent of prison visitations, with legal immigrants like Manuel Meza sharing coffee through the fence with his wife who was deported several years ago (Archibold, Randal). If they concentrate on each other’s faces, the fence almost seems to disappear as it moves out of focus…

The Department of Homeland Security, however, is repartitioning this monument to international goodwill. New fencing will create a no-man’s land barrier, ending Meza’s routine coffee hour with his wife, interrupting the yoga sessions that occur on both sides of the border concurrently, solidifying a distance which doesn’t exist between the Mexicans and Americans of San Diego. Another part of this new DHS plan is to fill in Smuggler’s Gulch with tons of dirt, yet one more sacrifice of beauty in exchange for control. Years ago, Pat Nixon came to this place and said, “I hate to see a fence anywhere.” Representative Bob Filner is opposing DHS’s plans to destroy this park & the cooperation it represents, while chief patrol officer Michael Fisher says, “It’s a real shame…[b]ut unfortunately, any time you have an area that is open, the criminal organizations are going to exploit that.” One might say it is akin to permanently shutting down the airports to prevent another 9/11, opting for maximum security at the sake of freedom.

But for now, San Diego and Tijuana are still united, if only here at Friendship Park. Rev. John Fanestil, a United Methodist minister, still conducts communion through the fence to people like Juventino Martin Gonzalez who was deported last month after 20 years working and raising a family on the other side of that fence. It is easy to understand the real reason why a wire fence will no longer do – one look across that fence, north or south, can only remind the viewer that we are all united, all the same, all one. (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/22/us/22border.html?_r=1&emc=tnt&tntemail1=y&oref=slogin)

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Another barrier to immigration is the employers who would just as soon see extralegal immigrants remain illegal and undocumented. As long as our laws allow economy to trump dignity, this abuse of power will continue. This past week, though, Knickerbocker Avenue in Brooklyn saw a victory for immigrant workers. After years of hard work, Andrew Friedman and the Make the Road New York organization have successfully brought civil suits against employers who extorted and took advantage of immigrant workers. The courts ruled that a local fruit stand owed $28,000 in back pay, a dollar store owed $70,000, a sneaker chain $400,000. Yet for every one of these employers, hundreds more continue to profit from the inability of their workers to achieve full citizenship status. (Clines, Francis)

If citizenship is the first step, education is the next on the path to integration. A Migration Policy Institute survey just found that 1/5 immigrants with college degrees are unemployed or working in unskilled labor fields. (Aizenman, N.C.) These 1.3 million legal and extralegal immigrants could be vital contributors to our economy, yet their lack of English fluency and nativist feelings keep them from using their valuable skills. More than half of Latin-American college graduates are working unskilled jobs, and that number only falls to 1/3 for those living here 10 years or more. African immigrants have the highest unemployed rates of all immigrant groups in the U.S.

Iraqi refugees are given three-month stipends when they come here. Pressed to find a job and integrate rapidly, many highly-skilled professionals are scrambling for a minimum-wage job. My friend and ESL conversation partner starts his job at a furniture factory tomorrow, despite the fact that he ran two such factories in Iraq. His friend, a nationally renowned sculptor, hopes to get a job laying bathroom tile.

Because few foreign credentials transfer to the United States and few immigrants are given the language education they need, we miss out on the contributions of so many. Surely we can do better.

(http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2008/10/23/ST2008102300319.html)

Castle Clinton, Then and Now

October 13, 2008

Last week, I heard the best compliment about the United States. Two LLM international law students from Ghana were talking about their lasting impressions of the United States and the University of Minnesota Law School, respectively. Unlike Europe, they both said, no one in the U.S. has ever asked them when they were going to leave.

This could be written off as merely overblown American pride. But it could also be the expression of something much deeper, much more important. Perhaps Brihan and Peter have never been asked about their exit because it is assumed they are here to stay and succeed, like so many other immigrants before them. And although the melting pot is a flawed metaphor, the beauty is that everyone is accepted because everyone is assumed to be striving for the same acceptance, same success, the same happiness.

Yesterday I found myself at Castle Clinton in Battery Park of New York City. Standing inside the circular battlements first designed to ward of the British in the War of 1812, I thought of the new welcome people receive coming to our shores. Since the World Trade Center towers fell just a few blocks from here, America has doubled its Border Patrol agents, tripled its budget, and is spending millions deporting some 250,000 extralegal immigrants every year (http://visalawcanada.blogspot.com/2008/10/interesting-perspective-on-canada-us.html). Lines lengthen on our northern border and nativism heightens on our southern boundary in the form of a border wall. Gone are the orange cones between Vermont and Canada which once designated the border and represented our mutual trust.

In 2001, Tom Ridge was instrumental in passing the Smart Accords, border security measures which simultaneously attempted to curb criminal activity on the border while expediting legitimate economic activity. The idea was to “manage risk” by submitting questionable vehicles to lengthy inspection while speeding daily commuters through on their weekday drive from Detroit to Windsor. Canada even went so far as offering the United States a section of Canadian ground for pre-clearance facilities, to cut down on border wait times. The U.S. government, however, pushed for full sovereignty on Canadian soil, and so this Smart Accords measure has stalled.

Our nation’s economic recession changes nothing in the way of its pull for immigrants. While Americans may feel that the “economic crisis” is being borne hardest by us, this is simply not the truth. Any look at international exchange rates or foreign papers will show the fear and downward plunge of foreign markets. No, this change in economy will not solve our immigration problems any more than a wall will. As Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles has stated, our country has posted both “Help Wanted” and “No Trespassing” signs – only one of which it is possible for us to change immediately (Heyer, Kristin http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=11117). With hate crimes against Hispanics on the rise 25% since 2004, it is clear that the xenophobia behind the protectionist anti-immigrant sentiments is alive and well. May we learn to welcome the stranger among us.

It is clear that our current frenzy of border security measures has only rerouted undocumented immigration into more dangerous, tougher-to-enforce areas. While apprehensions in San Diego dropped by two-thirds from 1994-2000, the deaths have skied to more than 1,000 since the turn of the century(in contrast, 300 people died attempting to cross the Berlin Wall throughout its entire 28 years of operation). http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=12332971)

As I turn around, taking in Castle Clinton and the unique view of Ellis Island from its stone archway, I think of the 8 million immigrants who came here before it closed its doors in 1890. My ancestors received basic healthcare exams and a brief orientation within these walls before they were set loose on the Pennsylvania coal mines.

New York is a microcosm of American immigration. Walking its streets once again, I am struck by how seamlessly ambassadors from a veritable league of nations pass each other on the busy avenues. In a quiet Midtown café this morning, the barista saw pesos in my hand as I scrambled to make change. “Could I have that to add to my collection?” And in a simple transaction at a café counter between a Minnesota law student and a Kansas-New Yorker, I am reminded how welcoming and curious we Americans truly are. Hopefully our immigrant policies will reflect that in the next presidency.


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