Posts Tagged ‘MN’

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.

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.

Migrants, Minors, and the Many Unintended Consequenses of Militarized Immigration Enforcement

April 10, 2009

A new Urban Institute report prepared by Minneapolis-based firm Dorsey & Whitney reported on America’s immigration policy’s effect on children. Entitled “Severing a Lifeline: The Neglect of Citizen Children in America’s Immigration Enforcement Policy,” this comprehensive publication released last week highlights the 3.1 million American citizen children who are adversely affected by the increasingly militarized form of American immigration enforcement. Of the 900 immigrants arrested by 2008 ICE raids in Worthington (a December 2006 workplace raid of the Swift plant), Willmar and Austin, MN (sites of several home raids), for example, more than 500 children were affected, 2/3 of whom were legal American citizens.(“Severing a Lifeline: The Neglect of Citizen Children in America’s Immigration Enforcement Policy”)

Estimates from the Urban Institute suggest that for every 2 adult immigrants detained 1 citizen child is affected. More than 1.9 million immigrants have been deported this decade, likely affecting almost 1 million citizen children in our nation’s Boys and Girls Clubs, high schools, soccer teams, cross-country meets, honor rolls, Dairy Queens, debate tournaments.

Despite the insatiable demand for lower-skilled immigrant workers, currently only 5,000 permanent visas are offered for lawful entry each year. Temporary work permits are similarly limited. Under current immigration law, moreover, citizen children under the age of 21 cannot petition for the lawful re-entry of a deported parent or the naturalization of their parents. Those parents will often be barred from any type of legal re-entry for 10 years (often longer than their children have been alive). Although nativist rhetoric often cries that these immigrants should wait in line, currently the line winds ‘round the world for a mere 5,000 spots.((“Severing a Lifeline: The Neglect of Citizen Children in America’s Immigration Enforcement Policy”)

Furthermore, the Dorsey & Whitney report documents that ICE’s “knock and talk” searches are particularly harmful for children. Under pretextual excuses, ICE agents are permitted to enter the homes of suspected extralegals without a search warrant if the scared, often-confused, immigrant opens the door. In these raids, children have seen their parents harassed, racially profiled, interrogated on the living room couch, and sometimes led away in handcuffs. Or, worse yet, sometimes children have come home from school expecting an afternoon snack only to find their home abandoned in the wake of a raid.((“Severing a Lifeline: The Neglect of Citizen Children in America’s Immigration Enforcement Policy”)

The report also touches on other questionable detention techniques, such as the practice of forum shopping (whereby an immigrant detained in the generally lenient 9th Circuit might be moved the next day to the immigrant-hostile 5th Circuit) or isolation (typically, detention centers are isolated with little contact from the outside world). Such techniques employed by ICE hamstring immigrants’ efforts to get effective legal representation, contact their distraught family members, or gather evidence of their legality or asylum claims. When immigrants under these conditions sign “voluntary removal” orders in hopes of seeing their families sooner, the legality of our immigration system is seriously called into question. (“Severing a Lifeline: The Neglect of Citizen Children in America’s Immigration Enforcement Policy”)

Pointedly, the report makes several laudable recommendations including:

• Changing legislation to allow citizen children younger than 21 to petition for lawful re-entry of deported parents.

• That Congress grant immigration judges the discretion to consider the “best interests” of the citizen child in deportation and removal proceedings.

• The appointment of a guardian ad litem to protect and advocate for the interests of the child in all immigration proceedings.

• U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement develop guidelines for conducting home raids to ensure that enforcement actions are truly “targeted” and minimize the prospect of harm to children.

This past week, President Obama revealed that he plans to begin addressing our nation’s inadequate immigration system, including solutions for extralegal immigrant workers to become legal. While his statements were met by the usual tumult from NumbersUSA and FAIR (organizations identified as “hate groups” by the Southern Poverty Law Center but curiously referred to as “group[s] that favor[] reduced immigration” in the New York Times article). As Obama looks to make some positive changes in immigration laws which could have positive ramifications on our nation’s workforce and economy by legitimizing millions of people already working, his Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano must also seek to make some serious changes in the way undocumented immigrants and their legal children are treated. One great start to meeting both the needs of citizen children of immigrants and the international community would be to sign on to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  This 1989 UN treaty has been signed on to by every country in the world but two – Somalia and the United States.  Article 10 of that convention has been a sticking point for the US in the past, but it would help solve the problems highlighted by the Dorsey & Whitney report.  It reads: “applications by a child or his or her parents to enter or leave a State Party for the purpose of family reunification shall be dealt with by States Parties in a positive, humane and expeditious manner.”  Hopefully in the not-too-distant future, we can join the rest of the world in protecting the rights of all children, immigrant and citizen.

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.

Moving Toward the One

September 7, 2008

Always, we begin again toward the One…

At this morning’s Friends Meeting in Rochester, MN, one woman felt inspired to share these words. Its truth could not have more evident after a week which saw Minnesota sadly moving toward division and disunity.

The Republican National Convention was held in St. Paul this past week. George Bush, leader of the GOP and the nation, was noticeably absent from the Xcel Center, the first time in 40 years that the incumbent President was not present at his party’s convention (Von Drehle, David). An entire country looked to the capital of Minnesota to witness the celebration and inauguration of the Presidential race in earnest. After a graceful Democratic convention the previous week, everyone’s eyes were tuned to see how newly chosen Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin would compare to Obama’s running mate Joe Biden. The United States looked calculatingly toward St. Paul to see how the Republicans would celebrate their past successes, apologize for their past missteps, and prepare for a hotly contested Presidential campaign.

What the nation got was the worst kind of rhetoric. To watch Palin’s first speech as a Vice-Presidential running mate was to watch a vicious personal attack (New York Times). In a night that should have been full of celebrating, Wednesday’s speeches were concerned primarily with jabs and uppercuts. Rather than tout her party’s successes or laud John McCain’s many admirable qualities, she instead focused on demonizing Obama and Biden and the entire Democratic party. Her speech was less about accepting her nomination and more about rejecting commonality and unity. It saddened Republicans and Democrats and Independents alike to see an entire speech devoid of civil discourse, brimming with violence and overflowing with disunity.

While John McCain’s speech was graceful and stately, it was overshadowed for many by the speech Palin gave the night before. In stark contrast to the Democratic Convention the week before, the Republican speakers rarely used the words proud, together, thanks, and grateful. Whereas Hillary Clinton used her speech to bridge gaps and convert opposition into unity, Palin’s speech, and Giuliani’s before hers, widened differences, infused hate into the rhetoric, and filled the public sphere with negativity. It was sad to see a race which had been surprisingly cordial and civil take a decided turn for the worse.

Always we begin again toward the One…

Sadly, the protests of the Republican National Convention ended little better. While most demonstrators were peaceful, the presence of many physically and verbally violent protestors drained its potentially positive impact. Nonviolence is not simply the absence of violence but rather the presence of something positive. These protests, then, failed to live up to the high standard of nonviolence. Few were edified by the anarchists’ riots of Monday, and Martin Luther King, Jr. would not have recognized the Poor People’s March on Wednesday. Signs reading “Eat the Rich, Feed the Poor” and chants calling for the National Guard troops on downtown buildings to “Jump, Jump, Jump” would have horrified Gandhi or John Lewis (Minnesota Independent).

As Dr. King and all nonviolence philosophy holds, we are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality. Therefore, violence towards some is violence towards all. And as Gandhi reiterated throughout his life’s work, the end is necessarily preexistent in the means. If we strive for peace, we must do it in peaceful ways. If we yearn for unity, we must seek reconciliation with those who oppose us. The protests of this past week were ineffective toward that end. When anti-war protests are verbally abusive or physically violent, then they can only help to create a more disunified world of violence.

So begins a new week. Hopefully this week Minnesota and the entire nation can begin to move away from the “us versus them” mentality. Perhaps we can abandon the idea of the “other,” a philosophy which has produced slavery, imperialism, colonialism, nativism, xenophobia, and war in all its guises. Always we begin again Toward the One…


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