Posts Tagged ‘Mexico’

“American” Apparel, Kidnappings, and Fines in Depression-era Immigration Enforcement

October 12, 2009

Despite the persistent high rate of unemployment in the United States, the need for comprehensive immigration reform is as urgent today as the first day Obama took office. A recent Pew Research Center poll noted that the United States still has a magnetic pull for Mexican citizens, citing that some 57% still would leave their homes to try to make a better life in the United States [Preston, Julia. “Survey Shows Pull of the U.S. is Still Strong Inside Mexico”].  Although immigration is down currently, the push and pull factors are still there and, without any real change in the immigration laws, the self-same issues will persist long after the Lehman Brothers are forgotten.

With Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano’s “enforcement only” strategy, the flawed laws continue to be administered with the same tragic results.  Two owners of the Yamato plant in Bellingham, the first ICE raid to take place after Obama took office and highlighted as a model of the sort of small-scale raids that this administration prefers instead of massive workplace operations like that in Postville, escaped with fines of $100,000 but no jail time for hiring and exploiting undocumented immigrants [Associated Press, September 22, 2009].  While this workplace raid strategy honorably focuses more on the errant employers than the exploited workers, $100,000 fines without jail time seem an inconsequential deterrent for multi-million-dollar companies.

In another glimpse into the current administration’s immigration tactics, American Apparel was compelled to fire 1800 workers with identification irregularities rather than undergo an ICE raid.  Far from a sweatshop, this factory was praised for paying well above the industry standard, for keeping their clothes “Made in the USA” (albeit by the hands of New Americans), giving health benefits and recently giving $18 million in stock options to employees [Preston, Julia. “Immigration Crackdown with Firings, not Raids”].  While technically illegal, the main rationale for workplace raids, that of depressed wages and exploitative conditions, were not present here. Perhaps a reprioritization of  workplace audits might be in store.

Similarly, although Napolitano and DHS has publicly come out against Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s use of program 287(g) to racially profile and go on immigrant sweeps of Maricopa County, Arizona, still immigrants live in fear of going to the proper authorities after hearing stories like that of Ms. Gurrolla. Last Tuesday she was stabbed and her newborn child kidnapped by a woman posing as an ICE official; Saturday she was reunited with her son Yair Anthony Carillo; shortly thereafter the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services came and took all four of her children away. This story highlights the vulnerability of immigrants, undocumented and longtime, as well as depicting the very real fears they face from exploitative parties and government agencies. [Associated Press, Mother Briefly Loses Baby to Kidnapper, then All Her Children to the Authorities”]

As Napolitano finishes her first year as Secretary of Homeland Security, may we all urge her to aim for integration rather than reprisal, safety over fear, a real balance of workplace power rather than fines and deportations, real change instead of a façade of “fixing” the symptoms.

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Poetry of the Fields

August 16, 2009

They were both Guadalupe,

Named for the virgin of Mexico,

With 9 children,

One a citizen,

The other 80 and finally ready

To vote after 40 years

on the Seneca Canning line

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

I water this garden in the coolness

The dew heavy on vines and stems


Martha also walks outside in the coolness,

Though she trudges after ten hours

Inside the canning plant

Turning green silky stalks into tin cans

Bearing full-color portraits

Of green silky stalks.

Monitoring daily the progress of each,

This one throwing out seeds – cut it back

This one thriving – thin out around it

Here’s one shriveling – water it and mound the soil

There a runt – rip it out by the roots and replant something


Tasting the air, noting the dew

On her walk home to her cramped mobile home

Here in Plainview

Hoping beyond hope that the cold northern wind

Will blow late this year,

Will hold its frost until mid-October

So she can buy new clothes for her kids

Coming into the classroom a month late

A flock of turkeys flew in last night,

And as if clipping their beards,

Each one snipped the tops of our green bean plants

Taking fruit and plant alike


But when it comes, as frost always will,

Martha gathers her things

Works the last shift until the corn

Coming in is mealy, not for resale.

Her eyes turn south, steeling up

For the long stretch until the sun awakens

This land once again

Calling her back to its lakes and its plenty

In the morning, expecting growth and green

And finding toppled stalks, knocked-down vines,

Ruined work –

What is there to do but shore up what is left

Of roots, stems, sprouts, shoots,

And tie white plastic bags on string

to keep out the turkeys next time?

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

In Brownsville, hurricanes;

In Owatonna, tornadoes.

This year droughts in south Texas,

Floods in Fargo.

Life’s margins shaving closer and closer

So that weeds won’t even grow anymore,

The rocks are all picked,

The machines are faster and better and smarter,

The vegetables ripen faster and are done in a week,

Always our work in our second home shrinking

like the Life-giving Rio Grande in our other

Postville: The Difference a Year Makes

May 13, 2009

Yesterday, immigrant rights advocates marched down the tiny streets of Postville, IA. They marched to remind the nation that workplace raids cause ongoing devastation, that immigrants deserve basic human rights, and that Obama must live up to his promise to tackle immigration reform in the next year. [Martin, Liz. “Postville story, a year later, told in photos”]

Local businessman Gabay Menahem joined the march and commented on the economic difference a year makes.  “A year ago it was impossible to buy a house in Postville. Now there are 228 houses for sale out of 700 total.”  More than 30% of the Jewish community left after the raid, and much of the Latino community was either deported after entering guilty pleas or fled in fear.  [Love, Orlan] Some still remain, wearing transponders on their ankles more than a year later.  Children still remain [local school attendance has only dropped about 3%], but they are in increasing need of mental health services, and many of them are missing at least one parent.

Father Ouderkirk and St. Bridget’s Church continue to minister to the Latino community of Postville.  They currently care for 30 affected families, aiding them with housing and food and counseling as they seek to be reunited with their family members or as they wait for their day in court.

Most of the 389 workers arrested pled guilty last May.  They were housed in a cattle-barn, expedited through a trailer-home courthouse ten at a time, and threatened with years in prison unless they pled guilty on the spot.  Many of them were from Guatemala, and few of them spoke English.  The majority of them had no idea what a Social Security number was, or why the leading prosecutor Stephanie Rose thought that they had used fake ones.  Many of them had received fake numbers from their employer, Agriprocessor’s Inc., the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the nation.

Last week, the Supreme Court issued its ruling on Flores-Figueroa, ruling that to be convicted of aggravated identity theft, the person must know they are using another person’s identification.  While this ruling does little for the 389 workers, most of whom pled guilty and have since been deported, but it is resulting in dropped charges against some of Agriprocessor’s administration.  Last Tuesday, federal prosecutors dropped aggravated identity theft charges [a mandatory 2 years imprisonment] against human resources manager Laura Althouse, who was allowed to rescind a guilty plea she entered last year. [Preston, Julia. “Dismissal of Guilty Pleas is Sought for Immigrants”]

As the Supreme Court’s decision affects the sentencing of this dubious employer’s administrative staff, many are calling upon Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. to order a case-by-case investigation into the almost 300 guilty pleas entered last May in Postville. “The federal prosecutors used the law as a hammer to coerce the workers,” said David Leopold, vice president of American Immigration Lawyers Association.  Others went farther, including Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-California), chairwoman of the House immigration subcommittee.  She is calling on the Justice Department to start over, since these cases didn’t comport with the law. [Preston, Julia. “Dismissal of Guilty Pleas is Sought for Immigrants”]

Today marks the day after Postville’s raid last year.  Postville no longer represents the largest ICE raid [Laurel, MS, now holds that dubious title].  This tiny town in northern Iowa has largely been forgotten by politicians and lawmakers, if not the general public.  As life goes on and our courts begin to follow the new Flores-Figueroa ruling, it is vital that we make sure it is evenly applied.  There is an unpleasant aroma of injustice when the immigrants who worked in subhuman conditions were imprisoned five months and deported, while the employers were never made to stand accountable for their numerous employment violations [child labor laws, safety protocols, and pay] and look to walk on some of the harsher sanctions of identity theft and employing undocumented workers.

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.

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.

Students Experience Flawed Immigration System

January 25, 2009

On Friday, the Minnesota Daily ran an article about America’s flawed immigration system.  While it uses words like “illegal alien,” the thrust of the article is focused on the harsh realities of an immigration system which criminalizes children and families and which detains men and women for extended periods of time.  It was truly an honor to partner with groups like Las Americas and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services and Texas Civil Rights Project; please support them in their ongoing efforts to represent our nation’s most vulnerable community.

U students experience flawed immigration system


BY Alex Robinson
PUBLISHED: 01/22/2009

As immigration issues continue to frequent court rooms, political speeches and circles of public debate, about 70 first-year law students helped illegal immigrants work their way through the legal process during their winter break.

The law students, who were all members of the Asylum Law Project spent about a week scattered across the country volunteering with nonprofit legal aid organizations that specialize in assisting illegal immigrants.

The students filed briefs, met with clients and helped lawyers fight through their heavy caseloads.

Asylum Law Project President Jordan Shepherd volunteered in border town El Paso, Texas and said it was an invaluable experience.

“I was finally able to get my hands dirty in law,” Shepherd said. “It was a lot of people’s first opportunity to get actual legal experience.”

While the students enjoyed their first taste of legal work, they also witnessed glaring problems with the current immigration system.

“There are difficult things that lie ahead for [immigrants],” Shepherd said. “Immigration courts have their hands full.”

Problems in border town

First-year law student Matthew Webster also volunteered in El Paso and said that he met with many detainees who were being held in detention for unreasonably long time periods.

Webster said he met a man from Mexico who had been held at the immigration detention center for about 14 months and the man still did not know where he was going to be sent. He also said there were children detained in El Paso; the youngest he saw was only six months old.

“Most of the rhetoric focuses on crimes or laws but too often we forget these are people,” Webster said.

There are three centers that detain children in El Paso, and combined they can hold about 160 children, said Adriana Salcedo , a lawyer who worked with the law students in El Paso. In the summer they’re completely full.

Salcedo’s organization, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, located in El Paso, turns away clients every week because case loads are too heavy.

Illegal immigrants are not appointed an attorney because they are not U.S. citizens, Salcedo said.

If they cannot afford a lawyer and they are not lucky enough to get representation from a nonprofit organization, they are forced to explore their legal options on their own.

Salcedo said some detained illegal immigrants simply choose deportation instead trying to work through the legal system.

“They do not know what their legal rights are and they don’t recognize they have some sort of immigration relief,” Salcedo said.

Border fence controversy

University student Webster marched 125 miles along the Texas border last March to protest the 670-mile border fence which is currently under construction and is projected to cost about $1.6 billion.

Only days after Webster returned from his volunteer trip with the Asylum Law Project this January, the Texas Border Coalition asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its case, which claims the fence violates a variety of state and local laws.

Proponents of the border fence argue that it will reduce crime and drug trafficking by illegal immigrants, and many politicians voted in favor of it in the Senate in 2006, including President Barack Obama, Sen. John McCain and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

However, Chad Foster , chairman of TBC and mayor of Eagle Pass, Texas — another border town — said the fence is a waste of resources and will only slow much needed immigration reform. The fence is currently under construction in Eagle Pass.

According to Foster, border security and illegal immigration are not a border town problem, but rather a national problem.

“If you want to clean up undocumented immigrants you have to start within the Beltway because they are serving the Department of Homeland Security coffee,” Foster said.

Increasing the amount of border patrol and implementing more new technology to guard the border would be far more effective than a border fence, Foster said.

Foster said he has good relationships with some politicians in Mexico, and working with his neighbors to the south is far more productive than trying to fence them off and lock them out.

But proponents of the fence have given Foster plenty of heat for his stance on border security.

“I’ve been called a narcotraficante ,” he said. “People ask me if I’m an American.”

Children caught up in an Unresponsive Laws

January 12, 2009

Stepping through the door of this nondescript building which houses young immigrant children awaiting their court dates, I am struck by its diametrically different feel. Whereas the purpose of adult detention centers (euphemistically called “processing centers”) is to keep those inside from getting out, the intent of these children’s homes is to protect children and keep people from getting in. Some of these children are government informants against human traffickers, and others owe thousands of dollars to smugglers who exploited them and their families. Additionally, these children are the most vulnerable people within our borders today – it is good to see the government realize that and do their best to ensure their safety.

Only 5 children were present at the Lutheran Social Services (LSS) children’s home when we arrived at 10:00. These children were going through picture dictionaries, the staff offering them one-on-one assistance as they try to teach some basic literacy during their short stays (averaging 36 days). The other children were on a tour of the Immigration Court in the El Paso Federal Building downtown. LSS makes it a point to introduce the kids to the court room and Judge Hough, so they’re not terrified when they are called to respond to the government’s pleadings against them.

Most of these 5-12 year-old kids leave LSS after 36 days, usually because they are reunified with some family or sponsor. Some are deported prior to that, however. All these kids are placed in temporary foster homes, where they are welcomed into loving Spanish-speaking homes. The foster parents even go so far as to stop serving the traditional Chihuahua fare of tortillas de harina for corn tortillas.

Even after kids are reunified, however, they can still be deported. It is hard to think of children like this being sent back to Guatemala or El Salvador. It is even harder to think of them coming up by themselves, with an aunt, with a younger brother.

LSS does a good job by these kids, and they are excitedly awaiting the time in a few weeks when they can finally move into a bigger facility. There are no signs on the outside of this small building, but they do manage to evaluate children’s academic levels and send progress reports home. The children don’t seem to mind the cramped quarters at all. When we say Adios to the children at LSS, all of us wish them this in its truest sense.

Since children were banned from being detained with adults and their care was transferred from DHS (which contains ICE, the department which has enthusiastically raided workplaces, patrolled streets, and hunted immigrants down the last few years) to human services, these children’s care has improved tremendously. Rather than the drab walls of a prison cell, they are allowed to decorate the walls with their schoolwork and drawings. Instead of waiting impatiently, educational services have been provided to these children so that their detainment time isn’t totally wasted.

After visiting LSS on Friday, Sister Phyllis then took us to Canutillo to visit the Southwest Key children’s home there. This facility got its name because it attempts to be a key in the Southwest to a better life for immigrant children. The Canutillo establishment is much bigger, with capacity for 94, and their children are from 13-17. One of the saddest days in the home is an 18th birthday; on that day, the child is transferred from this warm welcoming environment to the adult detention center down the road.

Since Reno v. Flores established some basic guidelines for the detainment of children (such as their right not just to liberty but also custody), facilities like Southwest Keys have risen to the challenge to nurture the lives of these children for as long as they’re in the United States. The site offers English literacy and math classes, but it also offers some highly-popular vocational classes. I have never seen a cake decorated as nice as the penguin cake the kids decorated just last month, and the murals on every wall in the building showcase that these kids have true talent.

Additionally, this facility has on-site counselors and social workers, to ensure that all their needs are met. Some children come in with chemical dependency, or horror stories from their home country or their long journey north. The staff was incredible at welcoming the children and helping them begin to heal. Looking at them, I am reminded of my own high-school students. Only a paper distinguishes these kids from any others.

Louie, the executive director, finished our tour by reminding us that with the increased militarization of the US border policy, along with the violence of the escalating drug wars in Latin America, more and more kids are stranded in Juarez without access to such facilities as LSS and Southwest Keys. My heart goes out, realizing that a half-mile away kids are wandering the streets wondering about their family back home (if they have any) and hoping for a new life just on the other side of the river. I pray they may find a home somewhere.

How do you Communicate your Love for a Foreign Land?

January 7, 2009

This past Monday was the deadline for braceros to file for money owed them from the government of Mexico. During the Bracero Program, Mexico was given money for each bracero, but few received this money when they repatriated.  Between 1942-46, 250,000 braceros invested money into this automatic deduction program.  The Border Farmworkers Center/Centro de Trabajadores Fronterizos in El Paso participated in the Bracero Program, helping to register some 100,000 Mexican farmworkers eligible for the program. Eight years ago, six migrant farmworkers sued Wells Fargo, the US and Mexican government in a US federal district court.  While not admitting they did anything wrong, the Mexican government set up a $14.5 million fund to reimbures qualified braceros with up to $3,500. (El Paso Times)

As evidenced by El Paso’s commitment to registering braceros, they are a largely an immigrant-friendly city.  The Mexican Consulate in El Paso vaccinated over 600 Mexican immigrants in 2008.  Additionally, the Consulate has offered a free clinic to many immigrants afraid to go hospitals for fear of being reported.

Other groups in El Paso also reach out to a community too often voiceless and without rights.  Casa Anunciacion, an immigrant safe house which houses and feeds immigrants as they seek to integrate into American life, look for a job, try to relocate a spouse, or any other host of reasons that causes someone to endure hardships in order to migrate to a new land.  The house is a haven for women affected by spousal abuse, who have to wait upwards of a year before receiving relief thru VAWA (Violence Against Women Act).  It’s also a haven for teen mothers, or unacompanied children, or new arrivals, or recently jobless immigrants.  (Latin American Herald Tribune)

It is strange for me to live on the border again.  It feels like home in some ways, full of the life generated by so much diversity and interchange between such large nations.  It feels like a return to form to be working with immigrants one step over the Rio Grande and one step towards citizenship. I’m flooded with memories of  Brownsville, of the tight-knit immigrant communities all along la frontera, of the machismo but also the deep faith, of the fascination with futbol and the foreignness of the downtown markets.

It is also weird for me to return with people unacquainted with la vida en la frontera.  I vaguely remember when my ears perked up at hearing Spanish in the grocery store or when Mexican license plates were second nature. I recall when I thought border life was boring, that nothing was going on because I couldn’t read about much of it in the paper or online. Still, it frustrates me that I cannot fluently communicate my appreciation for the border to a group of Minnesota students, many of whom have traveled the world and are surely bound for great things.  I feel an ambassador of the border, and perhaps I am, but I don’t know if I have been able to make them passionate for it as I am.

Maybe it is a slow process.  Maybe my law-school friends see it in the faces of detained children anxiously awaiting the outcome of their asylum application. Maybe they recognize the grave injustice in a quota system that makes immigrants wait a decade to come legally to the United States.  Perhaps they see the dusty mesquite mountains in a new light after working with an asylum applicant who has been moved from New York to Houston, from Minnesota to El Paso, from Arizona to Harlingen.  Maybe they will read stories about immigrants differently now that they can associate names with faces instead of numbers.  Maybe…

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.

A Vote for Un-Americans

November 4, 2008


Standing in line at the tiny Oronoco City Hall, many locals had stickers or buttons representing a veteran for whom they were voting. Coming on the heels of the Day of the Dead, perhaps this is fitting top honor those who have died fighting for a cause they believed to be just.

Today, however, I voted for the un-American among us. Since Michelle Bachman uttered her inflammatory statement last month, I have been fixated on her classification of Obama and others as “un-American.” Smacking of McCarthyism, it is a bald assertion of nativism and xenophobia. When Bachman says she would like to form a committee to examine the un-American tendencies of elected officials, this is born of a deep-rooted belief that life is dualistic, that “they are either fer or agin’ us,” that people are either full-blooded “American” or outsiders merely positioned within our arbitrary geographic borders.

I voted for all those un-Americans, like my carpool mate who listens constantly to politics on the radio and knows more about the electoral college than most citizens, but is still unable to vote because the process of naturalization takes so long. I waited an hour to vote today for all those un-American high-school students of mine down in Brownsville, Texas, who are studying hard and hoping they win the lottery of the quota system before they graduate so they can attend the college they deserve. I wore my “I voted “ sticker all day for those 23 un-Americans from India who were arrested this past week in North Dakota after walking off their jobs with Signal International who they claim is human trafficking (Preston, Julia). I got my free “voter appreciation” Starbucks coffee for those Americans who were made to feel un-American, to fear the ballot boxes 40 years ago in the South and 40 minutes ago when an immigrant made the decision to stay away from the booth because of nativism.

According to a recent AP article, Barack Obama’s Aunt Zeituni Onyango was instructed to leave the country in 2004. In response to concerns that she was living in subsidized Boston housing, Massachusetts Republican Senator Robert L. Hedlund Jr. stated that he has tried to close this “massive, absurd loophole” which enables noncitizens or “un-Americans” the right to subsidized housing. (Boston Herald). Mudslinging Republican campaigns have seized on this chance to tarnish Obama’s image just before Election Day, implying that un-Americans are criminals deserving of deportation, ostracization, and that all people related to them are guilty of wrongdoing.

Un-Americans were often barred from education in Texas prior to the landmark Peter Schey case allowing all children to attend schools regardless of citizenship status. Un-Americans were brought to our country during WWII through the Bracero Program, kept un-American as they worked, and then “repatriated” willingly or not back to Mexico. Un-Americans sit in “processing centers” right now, waiting to hear the charges brought against them, wondering when they can get out and begin to earn a wage for their hungry families once more. Nearly 4 million un-Americans became Americans after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, thought it would be another 102 years before the 1965 Voting Rights Act would ensure literacy, citizenship, or poll-taxes would not keep them un-American on November 4.

A vote is never enough. If democracy is nothing more than a vote, then we are only a democratic nation but once a year. No, being a voice for the voiceless is democracy. Living and working for mutual benefits and universal principles are democracy. Opposing a wall between two neighbors, be it physical or spiritual, is democracy at its best. Realizing that there is no such thing as un-American, that all of us are only Americalmosts, that we are only as “American” as our actions towards others, that the word American surely was not meant to deny the rights and protections for some 12 million extralegal immigrants within our borders. Thinking back to this morning, as I filled in the bubbles representing people representing people, it is immediately evident that this morning’s action is necessary but wildly insufficient. If all men and women are inherently good, it is not so much the people we vote into office today that matter, but the people who hold these candidates to socially uplifting principles and prohibit them from morally devastating acts that count for the next four years. That is why I voted for the un-Americans.