Posts Tagged ‘Minnesota’

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.

The Assets of Immigrants

July 2, 2009

6 people sat around a dinner table in Oronoco township last night discussing the assets of immigrants.  The dialogue was part of the Table Talk series funded by VOICES [Valuing Our Immigrants’ Contributions to Economic Success] and the Rochester Diversity Council.  Rather than delving into the political or the emotionally charged aspects of immigration debate, this discussion centered on the assets immigrants bring to our community.  “Community” was widely defined, as we had participants from Winona, Austin, and Rochester.

Table Talk in Oronoco

Table Talk in Oronoco

Throughout the two-and-a-half hours, we discussed the many seen and unseen ways in which immigrants add value to our community.  We discussed how immigrants’ work ethic has enabled many American businesses to stay here in the U.S. rather than outsource.  We discussed how immigrants bring a world perspective to any community, how international events and comity are much more real when one knows people from that region.  We discussed how immigrants are forcing the United States to adapt and succeed in a globalized economy.  Immigrants also bring globalization to the U.S. in the many different foods, languages, and customs they carry with them.

During the discussion, there were some probing questions about whether these assets actually had negative counterparts to them.  One participant inquired whether immigrants are a drain on our economy, in that they use welfare, social services, and healthcare.  The group addressed this idea, coming to the conclusion that immigrants, and particularly the undocumented immigrants at whom this question was directed, live in the shadows and are the last people to try to use public benefits.  Additionally, since immigration doesn’t occur in a vacuum, it is overly simplistic and intellectually dishonest to conclude that immigrants strain or drain the economy without looking at the money they put back into the community through sales, purchases, work product, taxes, and tithes to the church.

Even in a small group of this size, the personal experiences of each individual with immigrants were extensive.  From social service work with a Sudanese family to a clothing shelf geared to Latinos, from migrant farmworker legal issues to Vietnamese co-workers in a commercial cleaning agency, from ESL students and international college students to the previous VOICES for a where Somali and Hmong communities voiced their ideas about their contribution and integration in Rochester’s community – it was easy to see the multitudinous ways in which we had all been influenced and impacted by immigrants. And while it is a sweeping generalization to even use the word “immigrant,” most of us who had interacted with immigrants, asylum-seekers, refugees, and migrants all knew what amazing people they were and how much we had to learn from them. [For more information, read article by Christina Killion-Valdez in the Rochester Post-Bulletin]

Picture 008

Plainview Migrant Fest

June 16, 2009

In a little Minnesota town of 3,000, more than 100 people gathered on a Friday evening for Migrant Fest.  Hosted by the Incarnation Church, this local festival in Plainview has been running for several years now to welcome the migrant farmworkers back to their summer home.  They come to work for Lakeside Foods, by far the largest employer in this small rural hamlet in southeastern Minnesota.

I had the privilege to man an information booth for legal services, speaking with immigrant families about everything from employment and immigration to domestic violence and housing questions.  Being a legal assistant, I couldn’t give them legal advice, but I was able to chat it up in Spanish, set appointments, and hand out alertas which provided them with more information.  Although it was difficult to keep los ninos from taking all my candy and “colors” (the border word for crayons), it was great to speak with families who had traveled all the way from Mission, Pharr, and Brownsville just this week.

The Plainview Migrant Fest boasted numerous other immigrant agencies.  Some were Migrant Health Services, AAA (Aging), Mayo Clinic Diversity Research Unit, Olmsted County Medical Center, San Joachim Church, MET, Tri-Valley Action Council, and Three Rivers Community Action Center. I learned right alongside the immigrant families, as I hadn’t known about many of these organizations previously.  I look forward to working with them to help aid and protect these migrant farmworkers in their vulnerable position as transient denizens of Minnesota.

While we were disseminating information to the migrant families, Latino reggaeton and rancheros were playing in the background, courtesy of DJ Armando.  It was refreshing to hear the children laughing and running around with musical chairs and sack races.  I even got the chance to run in the sack race, though I lost to Christina Gonzalez, the representative from Mayo Clinic Diversity Research Unit, a program designed to increase minority participation in research so as to increase the data’s accuracy.

At this festival, I learned that many of these families are in a bad way this summer.  A nearby meat processing plant in Chatfield burned down on April 17 (NPR.org), and many of those workers came to Plainview looking for work while the plant rebuilds.  As a result, the migrant farmworkers’ awaited jobs have dwindled, and several of the families don’t have the money to return to Texas, even if there was the promise of work there.  This year particularly, farmworkers are going to struggle to find work for a living wage.

Leaving Plainview with the taste of a taco still in my mouth and Latino pop songs ringing in my ears, the Lakeside Foods plant stands just a hundred yards from the road, a beacon which has drawn whole families more than 1000 miles north for a four-month stint.  Though it doesn’t look like much, some of these families’ savings from their work this summer will have to last them until the next.

The State of the State of Minnesota, Re. Immigration

June 13, 2009

While the 2009 spring session for the Minnesota Legislature just ended amidst a controversial decision by Governor Pawlenty to balance the budget by himself, many important immigration bills were debated in this past session. Admirably, the Land of 10,000 Lakes voted to prohibit state compliance with the Real ID Act, a catch-all piece of 2006 federal legislation which enabled the Department of Homeland Security to waive any and all laws in the construction of our border wall and would have required a national id card to be carried by everyone in the U.S., a thinly cloaked anti-immigrant measure. This bill, HF 988, will protect Minnesota’s growing immigrant community in this particularly vulnerable time of economic turmoil from an intrusive federal law.

SF 1514 was also passed  on May 21 by the Minnesota legislature, recognizing the crime of sex trafficking for the first time with harsh penalties of up to 25 years in jail while also granting victims a means of legal recourse regardless of their citizenship status.

Also important were the bills rejected by Minnesota’s lawmakers, many of which were targeted specifically at the immigrant community.  SF 505, which would have required the removal of all head coverings in order to procure state ids, was defeated, along with SF 144, which would have made government employees liable if they knew of an undocumented immigrant and failed to report it.  SF 577 was also defeated in its efforts to make English the official language (interestingly enough, just before the turn of the 20th century the same debates were being had about making Norwegian the official state language).

A couple of important federal bills might also impact Minnesota.  AgJOBS, reintroduced in the Senate by Senator Diane Feinstein (S. 1038) and in the House by Representatives Howard Berman and Adam Putnam (H.R. 2414), would allow immigrant farm workers the opportunity to earn the legal right to permanently stay in this country through continuing work in agriculture while also amending the current H2A guest worker program to grant growers a safer and more stable workforce. (Souza, Christine. California Farm Bureau Federation).  Similarly, the Visa Recapture Bill (or the “Reuniting Families Act”) introduced by Senators Robert Menendez and Charles Schumer would go a long way in reforming the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act. First, Visas unused due to lack of governmnet action dating back to 1992 would be added to the current year limits, and prospectively any surplus would added to the new year’s allowable visa limits. Second, spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents would be able to obtain visas (whereas now only citizens can really petition for immediate relatives), and it changes the age of minor children from 18 to 21.  Third, the overally level of family-sponsored immigrant visas would be expanded to 480,000/year, along with raising the number of employment-based visas to 140,000/year.

Advocates with the project Familias Unidas, along with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, have worked to include Minneapolis on this collaborative’s national tour to 20 cities.  In its attempt to encourage support for comprehensive immigration reform this year, Representatives Luis Gutierrez and Keith Ellison will hold a community forum at the Incarnation Church in Minneapolis on June 14 at 2:30.  This multi-faith, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual event is aimed at getting Obama to follow through on his promise earlier this year to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2009.  The petition they will be signing at this event is as follows – feel free to print it off and send it to our President yourself:

The Honorable Barack Obama

President of the United States

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Obama,

My name is _____________________________________, and I am petitioning on behalf of my

______________________ who has no realistic options to gain legal status under our current

immigration laws.

President Obama, as a result of our broken immigration system, my loved one is at risk of being

deported/ has been deported:  causing the destruction and separation of our family.

This has caused us all to live with constant anxiety and fear about the future of our family.

As you eloquently stated in your inauguration speech,

“The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation:

the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their

full measure of happiness.”

On behalf of my family and the millions of other families like mine, I urge you to stop the

misguided raids and deportations that are tearing our marriages, our childrens’ lives, and

our communities apart.

We are hopeful that you will indeed fulfill your campaign promise to work with Congress to move quickly to enact just and humane comprehensive immigration reform that includes

family reunification, faster due process, a reasonable path to citizenship, and workers’ protection.

We are hopeful that you will indeed fulfill your campaign promise to work tirelessly to bring forth the change necessary to ensure that all people have an opportunity to dream, to live, and to pursue their full measure of happiness.

We are hopeful that you will indeed fulfill your campaign promise of Si Se Puede; Yes We Can!

Sincerely,

________________________________________    ________________________________

Signature                                                                      Date

__________________________________________________________ (Address)

__________________________________________________________ (City, State, Zip Code)

__________________________________________________________ (Phone)

__________________________________________________________ (E-Mail)

Migrant Farmworker Blog Status

June 13, 2009

Regretfully, I have had to pull my postings regarding my summer work as a migrant farmworker advocate here in Minnesota due to questions of conflict of interest.   I plan on re-posting all of my summer journaling regarding this unique experience at the end of my work in August. Please check back then for a full account of what looks to be a great summer working with migrant farmworkers here in southeastern Minnesota.  Thanks for reading!

Migrant Families Make their Way to Midwest Once More

May 30, 2009

Every year for decades, migrant families have boarded up their houses, told friends to check their mail, taken final exams a few weeks early, packed up their cars, and headed north to weed, tend, harvest, and process the foods we buy in the produce section of our local grocery stores.  Many families pay for the journey with their income tax return, arriving with scant assets and little more than a hope of a good growing season.  Migrant workers fall into one of three categories.  Some are recruited by a corporate employer, such as a processing or canning company.  They receive written contracts, sometimes are granted free housing in a labor camp, and are guaranteed work.  Others have a longstanding relationship with a particular farmer.  While the agreement might not be oral, some of these relationships extend back to a handshake between grandfathers.  This form of migrant work is more tenuous, however, than the corporate employer, as it hinges on good weather – if a drought or infestation should occur, the migrants could be 2000 miles from home with no money and no work.  Finally, some migrant families head North with only a hope of work – no contract, no contact, no housing, no plan other than to find a farm and pitch their services.

Migrant farmworkers are not immigrants; instead, they are either legal visitors with temporary work permits, legal permanent residents or citizens migrating internally within the United States.

This summer looks to be a difficult one for migrant families. Fargo remains inundated after the Red River flooding, and is months behind its agricultural calendar.  Other areas of the country are struggling with drought or other natural difficulties.  More importantly, however, is the economic depression. Farmers that once employed workers are either hiring less or none at all, in hopes of saving even just a few dollars.  Some farmers are using more pesticides or herbicides this year, in order to save money on paying migrant workers to weed or tend the rows.  Other farms have filed bankruptcy. Many farmers that have hired migrant workers for decades have called to tell them they will not be needing their services this year.

While the migrant families working for corporate employers or specific farmers will surely find this year a difficult one, the workers who just leave their hometowns in the Rio Grand Valley for the possibility of work in the Midwest could face a devastating summer.  Unable to find work and with little resources to return home, they will be easy prey for less-than-ethical employers. (Druley, Laurel. “Life on the Bottom Rung: No Place for Migrants”)

This summer, I will be working with the Migrant Farmworkers unit of Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, Inc. Under my supervisor Ana Maria Gomez-Gomez, I will primarily be working in Rochester, Owatonna, Plainview, and Elysian, though I will be covering cases in Dakota, Steele, Olmsted, Le Seur, and Waseca counties.  My work will focus on assisting migrant farmworkers with their adjustment to life in Minnesota, with any housing claims, employment wage claims, immigration questions, and any other legal questions that come up in the course of the summer.

I so look forward to working with migrant families from the Rio Grande Valley as they make their temporary homes here in southeastern Minnesota.  Having made that same journey myself, from Brownsville, TX, to Rochester, MN, I hope to be able to offer them some meaningful support and aid.  I wonder if any of the students to whom I gave early exams will be coming up with their families this season… Regardless, I hope to be able to help them get at least a minimum wage, secure decent housing, receive their security deposits at the end of the summer (something I have yet to ever receive myself), work in safe conditions, receive any public benefits to which they are entitled and require, renew or apply for new immigration status, and generally become adjusted to a new community.  It’s going to be a busy summer, but certainly one filled with meaning.

My work with SMRLS this summer comes at a dynamic time in immigration law, with Obama pledging to make progress towards comprehensive immigration reform in his first year of presidency. It comes less than a month after the first anniversary of the first large-scale ICE raid in Postville, IA, just a few hours south of here.  The work begins in a time when local law enforcement officers through 287(g) are attempting to enforce federal immigration laws in many of our nation’s cities and towns, resulting in racial profiling, arbitrary searches and arrests, and a terrified immigrant community unwilling to cooperate with the law enforcement they need and that needs them. (Moffett, Dan. “Cops aren’t Border Patrol”).  My role as Summer Advocate with SMRLS also comes at a time when Ms. Sonia Sotomayor, a Latina woman from the Bronx, has been put forth as Obama’s candidate to replace Justice Souter on the Supreme Court.  It also comes at a time that xenophobic individuals are seeking to place the blame of Wall Street on immigrants who don’t even own a bank account, when states and municipalities are balancing their budgets by cutting public welfare and other services to the indigent (in New York state, for example, elderly, disabled and blind legal residents will now get half of what they had previously received after the ruling in Khrapunskiy v. Robert Doar). But, my summer advocate role also coincides with bipartisan legislation like AgJobs, a bill supported by both the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Farmworker Justice which seeks to relieve labor shortages while securing rights for migrant workers and discouraging agriculture’s exploitation of unauthorized workers (purportedly some 75% of the workforce by some estimates). (“Farms and Immigrants.” New York Times).

As I scan the cucumbers, corn, sugar, beets, potatoes, onions, asparagus, garlic, peppers, and tomatoes, I think of the migrant families making the drive to Minnesota and other states in the Midwest right now.  I look forward to learning from them and advocating for them, starting next week.

Rochester Day of Prayer

May 7, 2009

This evening, the Rochester Assembly of God Church held a local observance of the National Day of Prayer.  While meditative groups around the nation are gathered today to lift up peace, our nation’s economy, worldwide health, and the needy wherever they are, the celebration here in Rochester, MN, had a slightly different feel.  Among the normal reverends, pastors, and churchgoes, the Ghareeb family prayed alongside Scott Zaskey.  Zaskey is a Mayo One pilot who’s led medical flights and just completed a tour of duty in Iraq. (Christina Killion Valdez) The Ghareebs are a family from Baghdad whom my father-in-law Pat has been helping adjust to America.  They came last summer, after the father was kidnapped by al-Qaeda and freed.  Since arriving, they’ve been learning about American indoor shopping malls, driving big automobiles, English-as-a-Second-Language classes, and how to find a job in an awful recession. More Iraqi refugees are expected this year, and some have already arrived to this small Minnesota city.

I would like to add my voice to their prayer.  Knowing several refugee families from Somalia, Sudan, and Iraq, I would pray that we would come to realize that war can never create peace.  Recognizing conflict throughout the world, I pray that refugees from Haiti might be recognized in the United States, at least with Temporary Protected Status, until their country comes out of 70% unemployment and hurricane wreckage.  I pray that Liberians might not have to wait with bated breath every year to see if their TPS will be renewed or if they will be forced to return to a country in shambles (and as Charles Taylor still awaits his day in court).  I pray that we would all recognize in the words of Dr. King that we are all “caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied up in a single garment of destiny.”

Do something.

The Pulse of The United States – May 2009

May 2, 2009

Last night, I spent almost half an hour filling out the 2009 American Community Survey, part of the 2010 census.  As my wife and I filled it out, I wondered what the census would show this year.  Many predict that Minnesota will lose a seat in the House, that some serious redistricting will go on, and that the answers from the census will be analyzed and implemented in everything from political campaigns to television commercials.

Although the American public won’t get the results from the 2010 census for a while now, and when it does immigrants and minorities will still probably be underrepresented, this past week saw some encouraging polls released from the New York Times, CBS, ABC, and the Washington Post, just in time for the initiation of immigration reform discussion before the Senate Immigration Subcommittee on Thursday, April 30. (Belanger, Maurice). The New York Times and CBS polls asked:

Which comes closest to your view about illegal immigrants who are currently working in the U.S.: 1. They should be allowed to stay in their jobs, and to eventually apply for U.S. citizenship; OR 2. They should be allowed to stay in their jobs only as temporary guest workers, but NOT to apply for U.S. citizenship; OR 3. They should be required to leave their jobs and leave the U.S. [NYTimes]

44% said they favored allowing immigrants to stay and eventually apply for citizenship, while 21% said they should be allowed to stay in their jobs as temporary guest workers.  Refreshingly contrary to national pundits who typically pit African Americans against recent immigrants, 55% of African Americans favored allowing undocumented workers to stay and work, with only 19% stating they should be required to leave their jobs and the U.S. (Belanger, Maurice)

The Washington Post/ABC poll released on Thursday was similarly encouraging news.  The survey asked,

Would you support or oppose a program giving ILLEGAL immigrants now living in the United States the right to live here LEGALLY if they pay a fine and meet other requirements? [ABC]

61% said they favored allowing undocumented immigrants to continue to live here and have a viable path to citizenship.  Liberals supported this (70%), Democrats supported it (68%), Republicans and Independents supported it (59%), and moderates (63%) and conservatives supported it (56%). (Belanger, Maurice) Despite the repeated statements from nativists that this is a partisan issue and that humane immigration reform is contrary to rule of law in the United States, the poll speaks loudly that the majority of Americans are in favor of treating these new Americans humanely and reasonably.

With 73% of Americans under 30 supporting such legislation (compared to 42% of seniors), this comprehensive immigration reform seems to be the mandate of the future. As the Senate debates the finer points of specific immigration bills, it is highly encouraging to know that the American people have not caved in to nativist and xenophobic fears during this time of economic depression, but instead have chosen to recognize that as Dr. King said, we are all “inextricably linked in the garment of destiny.”

Pulitzers & Unlikely Cooperation

April 21, 2009

Colbert Report with Sheriff Joe Arpaio

Yesterday, a Pulitzer Prize went to a team of largely unknown reporters Ryan Gabrielson and Paul Giblin of the East Valley Tribune based in Mesa, AZ.  The prize was for their unflinching coverage of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s local immigration law enforcement under 287(g), its “successes” and its hefty costs for Maricopa County and the nation.  Their reporting uncovered the fact that Arpaio’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants sacrificed his unit’s response to emergency calls, contributed to an overtime pay increase which forced the department to close several other sites around the county, and uselessly focused on low-level immigrants who had merely broken a border-crossing law rather than felony or human smuggling charges.  Additionally, the five-piece set of articles entitled “Reasonable Doubt” highlighted the racial profiling inherent in Arpaio’s 287(g) campaign.  The most common pretext for arresting undocumented immigrants were traffic violations, ranging from speeding (and in some cases “poking” along too slowly), obscured license plates, “unsafe” lane changes, and broken lights.

The key findings of the East Valley Tribune’s report were:

“Deputies are failing to meet the county’s standard for response times on life-threatening emergencies. In 2006 and 2007, patrol cars arrived late two-thirds of the time on more than 6,000 of the most serious calls for service.

MCSO’s arrest rate has plunged the past two years even as the number of criminal investigations has soared.

The sheriff’s “saturation” patrols and “crime suppression/anti-illegal immigration” sweeps in Hispanic neighborhoods are done without any evidence of criminal activity, violating federal regulations intended to prevent racial profiling.

Rampant overtime spending on immigration operations drove the agency into financial crisis and forced it to close facilities across the county. Although MCSO officials have said state and federal grants covered all the expense, illegal immigration arrests actually are costing county taxpayers millions of dollars.

Despite the money and manpower expended, the sheriff’s office has arrested only low-level participants in human smuggling rings: drop house guards, drivers and the immigrants they ferry.

Deputies regularly make traffic stops based only on their suspicion that illegal immigrants are inside vehicles. They figure out probable cause after deciding whom to pull over. (“Reasonable Doubt”)

This Pulitzer is priceless, in that Gabrielson and Giblin reported on the extent to which immigrants are human beings and “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  As the Department of Justice and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano look into Arpaio’s doings and the general concept of 287(g) [the program which charges local law enforcement officials with enforcing federal laws], this Pulitzer and the ideas it has spurred will undoubtedly play a part in ending these tactics of discrimination and terror.

In another victory for the civil rights of immigrants and anyone yearning for comprehensive immigration reform, last week saw the rival labor federations AFL-CIO and Change to Win go public with a cooperative immigration reform statement. The new accord advocates legalization of some of the nation’s 12 million undocumented individuals and the near abolition of the ad hoc temporary guest-worker programs.  Instead, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Change to Win President Joe Hansen have proposed a national commission charged with determining the number of temporary and permanent visas which should be offered annually based on the current American labor markets.  Surely, the current temp worker program needs significant overhaul (along with the rest of America’s immigration legislation), in that immigrants sponsored through these programs cannot change jobs, are tied to one employer, and can be refused future labor opportunities for criticizing their sponsoring employer. (Preston, Julia and Steven Greenhouse. “Immigration Accord by Labor Boosts Obama Effort.”)

As I work with migrant farmworkers in Rochester, Plainview, and Owatonna, Minnesota, this summer, I am heartened that these two rival labor federations are articulately and bipartisanly advocating for comprehensive immigration reform in year which the Obama administration promises will see some immigration legislation.  Between this unlikely labor collaborative and the expert reporting from Pulitzer Prize winners Gabrielson and Giblin, hopefully compassionate and comprehensive immigration reform got one day closer to realization.

* To protest Arpaio’s tactics and 287(g), please fill out this petition.

Citizenship Day 2009

April 19, 2009

Yesterday, April 18, was National Citizenship Day.  This yearly event is sponsored by the Minnesota/Dakotas Chapter of AILA (American Immigration Lawyer’s Association). Though there are few immigration attorneys in my home of Rochester, MN, three years ago Rochester was the first city to host Citizenship Day. The veterans of this event recounted to me the lines on that day in 2007, how they snaked out the door of the Hawthorne Education Center and down the street.  Over a hundred people went through the naturalization process that day, with a steady line of people from 9:30 to 4:00.

That year was special, because in 2007 the rates for N-400 forms (the forms for Legal Permanent Residents to naturalize into Citizens) jumped from under $300 to their current price of $675.  While the Citizenship Day charges a meager $20 processing fee for the immigrants to complete their forms and snap a passport photo, this hike in fees was and still is prohibitive for many individuals, so in 2007 whole families rushed to naturalize en masse.

This year about 50 immigrants came through Hawthorne Education Center.  Many of them were shocked at the $675 government processing fee, but they still wanted to pursue citizenship so they could vote, or bring a loved on to the United States faster (6-8 months, rather than 8-10 years), or get a government job, or travel frequently out of the United States. (Odrcic, Davorin. “When a Lawful Permanent Resident Should Consider Naturalizing: The Benefits to U.S. Citizenship“)  It was delightful to work in the Form Preparation room, where I had the unique opportunity to speak with so many immigrants from countries as diverse as Laos, Bosnia, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Mexico, and Colombia.  They came by themselves, clutching all their forms in one hand, or they came as a family, proud to be taking this final step to full participation in American civics.  Little children, themselves citizens, proudly watched their parents filling out the forms to finally be able to vote (so many were frustrated they couldn’t participate in 2008’s electoral process).  Some high-school children came in to fill out the forms for their parents who were at work this Saturday.  Russian, Arabic, Spanish, Somali, and Hmong were all spoken in this tiny room. It hit me that this is America, this is citizenship.

Throughout the day, I had the privilege to work alongside many volunteers, including several local attorneys such as Chris Wendt and JoMarie Morris, paralegal students from Winona State University, and nuns from Assisi Heights.  It was refreshing to see such a diverse group interacting with immigrants and the complicated American immigration system.  Whatever their first preconceptions, by the end of the day everyone was impressed by just how complicated the naturalization process was and how prohibitively expensive it was going to be for these families.  The Assisi Sisters were amazing and uniquely equipped for legal work, simply because of their profound gift for listening.  I saw several tears throughout the day as immigrants told their stories and as families realized it might be a few more years before they could become citizens.  It meant so much to the immigrants and volunteers when Mayor Brede visited and made a public proclamation in support of Citizenship Day.  Whereas so many immigrants are made to live in the shadows of society, how freeing and empowering it must for these individuals to finally be filling out that final form and here, with the blessing of the local mayor.

Throughout Minnesota this same process was underway all day.  AILA Citizenship Day has now spread to St. Paul, Bloomington, Fargo, and St. Cloud.   Though I cannot speak for the rest of the sites, in Rochester the food was amazing.  Local businesses like Daube’s Bakery and Great Harvest Bread Co. baked breads and doughnuts for breakfast, while local Somali and Iraqi refugee families cooked up some delicious ethnic foods.  It was an honor to have the chance to work with Mary Alessio, the head of Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement here in the Winona diocese, and I look forward to Citizenship Day next year.

A highlight of the day was speaking with Graciela, who had gained citizenship through this process last year and was now back as a volunteer translator.  She was overjoyed to be a citizen, and she felt it was her duty to help others do the same.  Similarly, the Sisters of Assisi were amazed by all the bureaucracy immigrants needed to undergo just to gain something we had all been granted simply through happenstance of where we were born.  At the end of this Citizenship Day, everyone emerged with a greater appreciation of what it means to be a citizen.


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