Posts Tagged ‘Rio Grande Valley’

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.

Brownsville in Washington

November 7, 2008

Despite legislation like the 2006 Secure Fence Act, the Rio Grande Valley might now have a voice in Washington.  Dr. Juliet Garcia, the first Latino president of a four-year university, was just tapped as one of the key members in Obama’s Presidential transition team. (http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/news/garcia_91496___article.html/obama_president.html)

Prior to November 5, University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) President Garcia had been in the headlines for resisting the federal government. For months, Juliet Garcia had refused to compromise with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), who wanted to survey and conduct pre-construction practices for a border wall on UTB property.  Reports from the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) stated that the wall could be 18-feet high and consist of two thick concrete barriers. Unlike public institutions like Hidalgo County, which compromised with a levee-wall arrangement with DHS this past spring, (http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/news/border_85925___article.html/fence_security.html) Garcia refused even to allow government agents entrance to the university property.  By July 31, 2008, Garcia and DHS agreed to a compromise, wherein UTB would repair a chain-link fence on its property while DHS would bypass UTB property along the Rio Grande.  Garcia envisioned the fence with, “bougainvillea and vine growing all over it” (http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/news/utb_88804___article.html/fence_tsc.html). Either way, it was a partial victory for the entire border region in that at least one party successfully resisted the U.S. government’s efforts to forcefully acquire land and construct a border wall along the Rio Grande.

Obama’s choice of Garcia could suggest a host of possible reasonings. It could have been his successful visit to Brownsville February 29, when he participated in the annual Sombrero Fest during the international twin-sister celebration of Charro Days. (http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/articles/obama_84848___article.html/president_festival.html) Perhaps he got a good taste of the Rio Grande Valley, of this borderland he and McCain and Clinton all voted to build a wall through in 2006.  Perhaps he saw the community, the people, the Tejano music, rancheros, corridos, tamales, elotes, the friendly smiles across the transnational bridges, the grapefruit hanging heavy in the orchards, the happiness and the peaceful coexistence of two countries in a place traditionally framed as a point of friction but in reality is a land of cohesion.  Perhaps he plans to cease the Secure Fence Act of 2006 when he takes office in January, in exchange for true immigration reform which can yield lasting results.  The Valley, the US, and the entire world watching the construction of a border wall between two countries at peace can celebrate Garcia’s appointment to Obama’s transistion team.

$4.8 Million Dollars a Mile

September 23, 2008

The United States government signed contracts to build the border wall in south Texas yesterday, Sept. 22.  DHS negotiated contracts with Clute, MCC, and Keiwit to construct 7.6 miles of barrier for $37 million.  After Congress approved a $400 million appropriations request for the enactment of the Secure Fence Act of 2006, DHS contracts on Monday to spend $4.8 million for land in Los Indios, El Calaboz, La Paloma, and Bluetown, all of which are towns formed by Spanish land grants dating back to the 18th century. (http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/news/construction_90253___article.html/million_contracts.html)

My heart goes out to the families of these border towns who are more afraid of decrepit levees than illegal immigrants.  As the Rio Grande Valley is moved one step closer to having a border wall slice through its communities, one wonders how the United States can justify begininning to spend $400 million on a border wall which is clearly unpopular when our banks are declaring bankruptcy, millions are foreclosing, the War drags on, and the dollar falls in relation to oil prices.  I pray these actions and these contracts are forestalled long enough for a new administration to realize the lack of logic in building a border wall while neglecting immigration reform and for the country to finally hear the cries of these border towns in the way.

Hurricane Ike

September 10, 2008

For some, supporting the construction of a 700-mile border wall on our nation’s southern border is simply a solid political move to show that one is “hard on immigration issues;”  Obama, McCain, & Clinton all supported the Secure Fence Act of 2006 because it represented comprehensive immigration reform to the publich.  Sadly, true comprehensive immigration reform such as Obama’s Dream Act or McCain’s S. 2611 bill named “Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006″ were ignored at the time and have been all but forgotten in the Presidential debate of late.

For others the wall means a radical change in life.  For some, it means their ancestral homes will be lost.  For others, it means their downtown will be gutted by an unsightly, environmentally destructive barrier.  For others, it means that some of our nation’s most endangered and rare species will no longer have a home.  Others will lose access to the few wildlife refuges and parkland that they currently have along the Rio Grande corridor.  Still others look at an 18-foot high barrier lacking sufficient environmental impact studies and see a natural disaster waiting to happen.

As Hurricane Ike takes aim at the Rio Grande Valley, my prayers are with the good people of South Texas.  I pray that the hurricane will spare the lives and livelihoods of my good friends in Brownsville and Donna, Mission and Pharr, McAllen and Rio Grande City, Harlingen and Port Isabel, Weslaco and Alamo.  I also pray that our entire nation would look at this area long enough to see the people on both sides of the river who will live in fear every year they lack levees but get walls.

For up-to-date information on the hurricane’s progress and trajectory, please visit: http://www.badchili.blogspot.com/ http://current.pic.tv/2008/09/10/hurricane-ike-paints-bullseye-on-texas/ , or the Brownsville Herald website at: http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/

Grijalva’s Visit to the Proposed Border Wall Site

August 21, 2008

Nat Stone recently published a short documentary detailing Representative Grijalva’s visit to Eloisa Tamez, one of the many private landowners in the line of the proposed border wall.  While Grijalva’s visit is meaningful and important, it is sad that it should be unique and noteworthy.  The majority of those who voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006 which called for a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico and then for the REAL ID Act which undoes our nation’s checks and balances by allowing the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security the authority to waive any and all laws obstructing immediate construction of a border wall – sadly, few of those lawmakers ever made the trip to the border region to see the impact it would have on these communities and, since we are all “tied up in an inescapable network of mutuality,” our entire nation. 

Please research this pressing issue.  Please contact those in the position to immediately change this sad comment on our nation.

NEA Today Article: Border Crossing

August 19, 2008

BORDER CROSSING

NEA Today

By John Rosales

Throughout the year, Rivera High School custodian Ramón Tamayo fires up his grill to celebrate his children’s birthdays. In addition to standards like hot dogs and chicken, his inventive Tex-Mex menu might feature cabrito (roasted goat), menudo (tripe soup), and ceviche (marinated shrimp).

In 2006, when Tamayo’s friend from work, second-year teacher and native New Yorker Matthew Webster, attended the birthday party of Tamayo’s 12-year-old daughter, he learned a classic Brownsville, Texas, tradition.

“They grill on the front lawn here,” says Webster, 24. “In New York, we grill in back.”

Grilling traditions are just one of many differences between these unlikely pals: a teacher and a custodian from separate generations, with diverse backgrounds and a different first language. Yet, their friendship developed around what they have in common: a passion for soccer and a commitment to helping students deal with cultural barriers.

Webster would seek out Tamayo, 54, after school as Tamayo cleaned classrooms during his evening work shift.

“It was our time to talk,” says Webster. “After I found out that he played and coached soccer in Mexico, I asked for his help with the team.”

In addition to teaching English and ESL, Webster also coaches a speech club and the junior varsity boys soccer team.

“¿Cómo se dice esta palabra (How do you say this word)?” Webster says he would ask in one breath, then in the next, “Which is the best soccer team in Mexico?” Tamayo always took the time to answer.

“He took me under his wing,” Webster says. And that’s exactly what Webster needed. The lifelong East Coaster had signed up with Teach for America after his 2006 graduation from Penn State. Traveling down to the Rio Grande Valley, Webster imagined “tumbleweed and cowboy country.” In reality, he says, he found “America’s Mexico.”

He recalls the first time he came to the security checkpoint about 50 miles north of where he would be living. “I wondered what kind of place I was going to…a no-man’s land where they stop motorists and inspect their cars.”

The high school honors graduate and marathon runner who studied in Ireland found himself more than a little disoriented among the farms, fields, and sweat of Texas’ southernmost city.

“I didn’t know who to go to with language and cultural issues,” says Webster.

He felt fortunate that Tamayo was willing to help him navigate his new home, a place of many intersections, between First and Third Worlds, wealth and poverty, English and Spanish.

Tamayo has worked at Rivera for three years but he’s lived in the city for almost 20. He knows many of the school’s 2,000 students and most of the neighborhoods in Brownsville and its sister city of Matamoros, Mexico. Reflective and reserved but not without a sense of humor, Tamayo speaks little English and is known as an excellent cook and athlete who once coached soccer in Mexico.

“He is very important to me,” says Tamayo, in Spanish, of Webster. “We have different backgrounds, but once we got to know each other we found out we have a lot in common.”

It’s not unusual for a new teacher to find a friend or mentor who is an education support professional (ESP), says Laura Montgomery, president of the NEA National Council for ESPs.

“When new teachers arrive at school, there’s always an ESP around to help them get oriented,” Montgomery says. “Teachers and ESPs might have different roles [at school], but they have the same mission to serve students.”

In addition to classroom issues, Webster and Tamayo also enjoy talking about Brownsville’s border culture.

“I taught him to eat Mexican food with lots of chili,” Tamayo says.

Homeland Security

July 11, 2008

When we speak of homeland security, it is vital we define our terms. “Homeland security” must not mean defending the buildings and properties of the United States, or else the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would be busy repairing bridges, condemning buildings, and fireproofing houses. It is impossible for “homeland security” to mean protecting the American people, because what we mean by the “American people” will have grown and changed by the time you finish reading this article. “Homeland security” cannot even mean preserving our nation’s heritage and culture, or else its name would be homeland taxidermy instead.

No, “homeland security” rightly understood must mean the protection of our nation’s laws. If society is a social contract, then people come to the United States and remain in the U.S. because they agree to live by the law in a land where others do the same, thus gaining civil rights while submitting to the authority elected to enforce those laws. Defined as such, the biggest threat to homeland security today could very well be the Department of Homeland Security.

Since the 1990s, and more aggressively since 2006, DHS has been militarizing the border. Having lived in the border town of Brownsville, Texas, I can personally attest to the effects this militarization has had on local residents from California and Arizona to Texas. I have had a gun pulled on me by a Border Patrol agent as I ran on a dirt trail along the border, not unlike so many cross-country trails here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Countless friends of mine have faced aggravation and humiliation as they crossed the secure border checkpoint more than 30 miles north of the Rio Grande. Third and fourth-generation Americans have been followed and questioned by police in every one of these border towns, simply because of the color of their skin or their fluency in Spanish.

With the Secure Fence Act of 2006, the law which mandates nearly 700 miles of border wall for our nation’s southern border, these dehumanizing factors were magnified in border communities. The Department of Homeland Security has used the REAL-ID Act to waive 11 laws in Arizona and more than 30 environmental and local laws in the Rio Grande Valley in order to expedite the construction of an eighteen-foot wall between the U.S. and Latin America. With the REAL ID Act, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, an unelected official, has been granted the unconditional power to waive any and all laws “necessary to ensure expeditious construction of the barriers and roads under this section;” in effect, this gives Chertoff the power to undo countless laws voted on by elected officials in our nation’s Legislative Branch, thereby undermining the very “homeland security” it purports to protect, not to mention our system of checks and balances.

Despite the dour state of affairs in our nation’s handling of the border region and immigration, we have all seen real homeland security take place in our communities. Leaders like Father Paul Oderkirk in towns like Pottsville, Iowa, have offered support and banded together with immigrants after the terror of an ICE raid on their Agriprocessors Inc. kosher slaughterhouse in May. Organizations like the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, the University of Texas at Brownsville, and the Texas Border Coalition of mayors have all sought to defend homeland security by opposing the Secure Fence Act which divides rather than cooperates with our neighbors and the REAL ID Act which negates our nation’s checks and balances. We have seen homeland security in the integration of our community sports teams, English-as-a-Second-Language classes, hospitals, and churches. Every time a recent immigrant is welcomed, each instant someone takes the time to help another get involved, there is homeland security. Please show your solidarity by supporting immigrant resource centers like Rochester’s Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement and the Advocates for Human Rights, as well as writing your encouragement to beleaguered Americans on our southern border. Additionally, a letter to our senators Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar could go a long way to encouraging real “homeland security” instead of distracting and costly excuses for real immigration reform.

A Last Stand on the Border

July 2, 2008

Gaining momentum from the Supreme Court’s refusal to examine their waiving of more than thirty laws in the construction of a border wall, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is continuing to up its efforts in an attempt to build the hotly contested border wall in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas within the month.

On Monday evening, the Brownsville City Commission met for more than three hours to discuss the DHS Secure Border Initiative, a plan to build 10 acres of “removable wall” until the city reinforces 2.4 miles of levees to DHS satisfaction. This comes two years after the Secure Fence Act of 2006 was initially passed and more than a decade after the first wall was constructed in California.

The plan proposed by DHS would have the poorest city in the United States hand over 10 acres of taxpayers’ land, at an estimated $95,800, for free. While the City Commissioners were seriously weighing the decision of whether or not to surrender this land, the public made its voice known for more than three hours in the public comment session. Police officers made protesters leave “No Border Wall” signs outside the City Hall, signs which were carried 126 miles from Roma to Brownsville in this past March’s No Border Wall Walk. Still, the sentiments of Brownsville residents were made abundantly clear – No Deal. Texas Border Coalition (TBC) chair Monica Weisberg-Stewart advised caution and encouraged the public with the hopes of a successful suit recently filed by TBC. (http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/news/city_88091___article.html/fence_border.html)

John Moore, representing the Border Ambassadors, showed 123 signed testimonies from landowners opposing the border fence. Having personally accompanied him through many of these small, tight-knit communities, I can attest to the fact that this number is only a glimpse of the real opposition to this wall and the DHS strongarm tactics which have terrified so many border residents into acquiescence. John Moore and Kiel Harell and I have personally talked with border residents who were asked to sign blank documents, or were given waivers in English when they are pure Spanish-speakers. We have sat and spoken with women who were intimidated by the federal agents asking permission to survey and then buy their land. We have talked with several border residents who sold their homes and multi-generational lands for a measly couple thousand dollars.

Commissioner Troiani ended the meeting by trying to get Brownsville residents to focus on their immediate interests. He said, “It comes to this…either you’re going to try to solve the problems of the city or the problems of the world.” Troiani’s comment belies the underlying reason a border wall is being discussed and supported at all. The very idea that the issues of a city are not hopelessly caught up in the problems of the world belies one of life’s basic tenets, that in the words of Dr. King we are all “caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” A wall, removable or otherwise, in Brownsville, Texas, sends a signal not just to Matamoros on the other side of the Rio Grande. No, any wall sends a signal to the entire world, to the hundreds of thousands of immigrants waiting to legally migrate to our nation. Any wall whatsoever sends a signal to the 4 million displaced Iraqis that we do not want their problems to set foot in our nation. A wall or fence broadcasts to the European Union, China, India, Japan, and England our “Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them.” Any wall, fence, or border barrier which neglects to realistically solve the issues of globalization and movement of peoples inherently affects Minnesota, New York, and Pennsylvania just as much as it does the Rio Grande Valley or Tamaulipas Mexico. If you are reading this, you are affected by the decisions being made right now in this city of 140,000. Please write your senators, legislators, or add your name to the growing list compiled by No Texas Border Wall. If a wall is built in Texas, it will be to the shame of our entire country and, in fact, our globalized world.

The State of Immigration

June 23, 2008

            Around the world, the state of immigration is in a period of flux.  As most countries today have set boundaries and centralized governments, and as technology has facilitated easy communications and travel between once-distant societies, immigration is on the rise and with it, a rise in both pro-migrant and in anti-immigrant sentiments.  The state of immigrants globally ranges from the welcoming economy of Spain and the closed-fist stance of neighboring Italy to the construction of a border wall on America’s southern border and the 11.4 million refugees currently awaiting any country to allow them entry. (New York Times)

            More than 2 million Iraqi refugees have already fled to neighboring countries since the United States led the invasion of their nation in the spring of 2003, while another 2 million have been displaced within their war-torn country (New York Times).  Currently, the State Department is struggling to keep its promise of admitting 12,000 Iraqi refugees by this September 30, allow that would mean more than 6,000 refugees finding homes in the next 3.5 months.  Towns like Rochester, MN, with a population of only 100,000, have been waiting and preparing for months to receive the 60-70 Iraqi refugees which they have been gratefully assigned.  In speaking with a representative of Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement, it struck me just how enthusiastic she was to be able to extend a warm welcome to these Iraqi refugees, whose homeland is being destroyed by her own home country. 

            Beyond these self-produced immigration patterns caused by our nation’s myriad “conflicts” (read invasions) over the past 40 years including Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Somalia, our nation is simultaneously attempting to address the ongoing issue of illegal migration by erecting a $30-billion border wall.  This Secure Fence was the focus of Time’s most recent cover story, and while the Department of Homeland Security is still attempting to overturn public opposition in Texas in order to complete construction by the end of the year, Time highlighted the fact that the wall is not stopping immigration – it simply changes its form and direction.  While the Border Coalition in the Rio Grande Valley is suing DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff for seizing land unjustly, Stanford historian David Kennedy notes “the difference in per capita income between the U.S. and Mexico is among the greatest cross-border contrasts in the world,” and therefore the push factor of immigration will only be bottled up by a wall rather than stopped.  As residents of on the Texas border currently try to oppose the construction of this last portion of the fence, we as taxpayers and voting citizens must clamor for real immigration reform that addresses the deeper issues of skewed quota systems, the lack of legal paths to earned citizenship, and lopsided international relations.

            In other parts of the world, this same closing of borders is taking place as well, albeit not in the monstrosity of a physical wall.  In Italy, for example, a law was proposed recently by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to make it a felony to enter Italy illegally.  This would jeopardize the thousands of extralegal immigrants currently employed in burgeoning markets such as home health-care for Italy’s aging population.  Berlusconi has not yet heeded the advice of Welfare Minister Maurizio Sacconi who campaigned to legalize some of the 405,000 extralegal residents who filed for adjustment of status last December (New York Times)

            Far from being a lone actor on the global stage, Berlusconi is taking his cues from the E.U.’s shocking new legislation passed last week which would allow extralegals to be detained for as long as 18 months pending deportation.  This shift in philosophy for the European Union is one step closer to dehumanizing immigrants, and paves the way for even more uncompassionate and unjust legislation such as Berlusconi’s recipe for mass arrests.  In the United States, whose extralegal domestic population equals the number of worldwide refugees under the care of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (New York Times), the Supreme Court just ruled that it was illegal for the United States to continue holding detainees as “enemy combatants,” without rights or appeals, as it has done since 9/11 (New York Times).  Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Guantanamo Bay detainee Huzaifa Parhat, hopefully bringing an end to the more than six years he has spent in this prison camp without hope of appeal or habeus corpus.  While it has taken more than six years for the U.S. government to finally amend its unjust policy of detaining individuals without appeals in places like Guantanamo Bay, this has not yet been extended to the dozens of immigrant detention centers cropping up in places like Hutto, Raymondville, Port Isabel, or the Ramsey County Center.  Though Europe’s move to detain immigrants is surely a sad shift, this shift happened years ago in the United States and more centers are being built every year to capitalize on the multi-million dollar industry. 

            Immigration has been occurring ever since Adam and Eve emigrated from that Garden so long ago.  How we choose to integrate our fellow man into our own home bespeaks much about ourselves and the future of our society.  Let us pray the future is not one of walls and prisons, detentions and displaced persons.


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