Posts Tagged ‘new york’

Guilty as Suspected

December 21, 2009

After listing off his numerous legal options over the phone and across the plexiglass, Fidencio looks right at me and says, “Yo quiero salir. Quiero regresar.”  I translate to the Minnesota Detention Project attorney that he simply wants to leave, to return home.  She explains briefly that this will result in a ten-year bar to his re-entry, that it will be very difficult for him to get back in again.  Fidencio shuffles his feet, chains jangle, and he crosses his arms across his orange County prison jumpsuit.  “No importa, I just want to get out. I can’t stay another week at Ramsey. Every day I stay in here I cannot make money for my family.  Just get me out ahora.”

And so another father and husband is deported back to Honduras, his family left here to continue living in the shadows or to return to a country with little opportunity.  About 8,000 people in Minnesota are currently in deportation proceedings, and some 200 to 300 are housed in one of five county jails where Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) rents space.  The Ramsey County Jail in St. Paul typically houses 50-75 detainees, most of whom do not have any criminal conviction and are merely suspected of illegal entry.  They share residence with indicted murderers, rapists, burglars, and drug addicts.  Since most county jails are designed for one-night stays, few have outdoor yards and, as a result, detainees rarely see the light of day.  At Ramsey County, detainees are incarcerated an average of 100 days.  Most immigrants, by the time their day in Immigration Court finally arrives, will argue their case pro se before the Court and simply beg the judge to deport them back to their country of citizenship. [Aslanian, Sasha. MPR]

The number of immigrants detained each night in the United States is roughly 32,000.  Many of that number have not been convicted or even charged with a crime but are, according to ICE, a flight risk.   Immigrants represent the few civil court defendants incarcerated in such a way.  Despite the obvious flight risk of certain delinquent fathers awaiting judgment on child support or traffic offenders awaiting their day in court, few other civil defendants are held in jail at all, let alone for months on end.  Although anklet transponders are used by parole officers in oyhrt areas of law, ICE has so far rarely used such minimal safeguards for supposedly “innocent until proven guilty” immigrants, opting instead to pay $80/night for a total of $1.8 million/year. [Aslanian, Sasha. MPR].

Anklet Transponder

Nationally, the housing and transfer system is so haphazard that some detainees are moved to a new detention facility without ever being served a notice detailing why they are being held.  From 1999 to 2008 some 1.4 million detainee transfers occurred, often moving longtime residents of New York and LA to remote jails in Texas or Louisiana, far away from friends, legal counsel, or evidence for their immigration case.  These detainee transfders typically send immigrants to the Fifth Circuit, the most hostile jurisdiction toward immigrants and the worst ration of immigration lawyers to detainees.  [Bernstein, Nina. “Immigration Detention System Lapses Detailed. NYTimes].

This week, Rep. Gutierrez from Illinois introduced the first of a new wave of comprehensive immigration reform bills, this one entitled C.I.R. A.S.A.P.  As Congress wraps up healthcare debates and begin to take up the issue  Obama shelved until 2010, any comphrensive bill must seek to alleviate and remedy the current system of criminal detention of civil immigrant cases.

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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.

What does May Day mean in 2009?

April 27, 2009

As May Day 2009 fast approaches, it is important to look back at the original celebration and what it did and did not do.  On May 1, 2006, millions of immigrant workers left their jobs for an hour or a whole day to bring home the message that they are an integral part of American society.  In cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Houston, Tucson, and Portland, May 1 was an important day of immigrant empowerment and a powerful symbol of solidarity.  However, that same year, the immigration legislation failed to pass Congress and the Secure Fence Act was enacted.

For nonviolence to be an effective tool, it cannot be only a negative force.  It must be constructive as well. As Dr. King wrote, “True peace is not merely the absence of some negative force — tension, confusion or war; it is the presence of some positive force — justice, good will and brotherhood” (“Nonviolence and Racial Justice“).  For nonviolence to change hearts and minds, it must not only protest injustice but also present solutions.  Unlike the May Day celebrations of 2006, as well as the ones being planned for this year in countless cities across the United States, a much smaller but more determined group of people are actively engaged in a nonviolence which highlights the injustices inherent in our current immigration system but which also positively provide for real needs.

Founded in 2004 by Catholic bishop Gerald Kikanas, Presbyterian minister John Fife, and several leaders of the local Tucson Jewish community, No More Deaths has been dealing with the negative human effects resulting from Operation Gatekeeper.  The increased militarization of the border through deportation, detention, armed forces, and border wall construction have merely rerouted desperate human migration through the most dangerous portions of the desert.  The Pima County Medical Examiner’s office, for example, has reported 84 deaths annually between 2000 and 2005, up from 14 in the ’90s.  No More Deaths attempts to save border-crossing families by leaving out water in the desert and tending to the medical needs of injured crossers. [Wikipedia] According to their website, 50 individuals have died  attempting to enter Arizona.

No More Deaths operates under some basic faith-based principles:

  • Recognize that the current Militarized Border Enforcement Strategy is a failed policy
  • Address the status of undocumented persons currently living in the US
  • Make family unity and reunification the cornerstone of the US immigration system
  • Allow workers and their families to enter the US to live and work in a safe, legal, orderly, and humane manner through an Employment-Focused immigration program
  • Recognize that root causes of migration lie in environmental, economic, and trade inequities[4]

While No More Deaths meets the needs of immgirants, they are forbidden to aid them in crossing, but in times of dire emergency they are instructed to call an on-call medical expert and, if need be, transport the seriously injured immigrant to the local hospital.  On July 9, 2005, however, two No More Deaths volunteers were arrested by the Border Patrol for transporting three border-crossers to a nearby hospital.  Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz were accused transporting and conspiring to transport undocumented immigrants, both felonies under US law. If convicted, they would have faced 15 years in prison and/or $500,000 in fines.  After more than a year, Judge Collins dismissed the charges in September 2006, stating that these two volunteers had followed pre-approved protocol and that further litigation would violate their Due Process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. [Wikipedia]


Currently, Dan Millis is appealing to the 9th Circuit to contest the Arizona ruling that he and other volunteers had littered by placing water jugs for migrants in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.  Despite the five milk crates of trash the volunteers had picked up, they were issued citations by the US Fish & Wildlife Service officers.  Two days before, Millis had found the body of a 14-year-old girl who had died of exposure. As Dan Millis has said, ““We pick up trash, distribute food and water, and administer first aid to people who desperately need it. We are not criminals.” [Guntzel, Jeff Severens. Utne Reader]

As communities prepare for May Day 2009, it is important to stress real issues and practical solutions.  Obama has pledged that comprehensive immigration reform is on the table for 2009.  The DREAM Act is still a potentiality, as is the Border Security and Responsbility Act [HR 2076] sponsored by Rep. Grijalva last week.  Immigrants from Rochester to Brownsville need more than a token march or a one-day protest – campaign for real change by advocating locally and nationally for meaningful reform for immigrants.

Fear: The Bane of the Beloved Community

April 4, 2009

“There is another element that must be present in our struggle that then makes our resistance and nonviolence truly meaningful. That element is reconciliation. Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.” (Martin Luther King, 4/15/1960, Raleigh, NC)

41 years after his assassination, Martin Luther King’s dream of a fully integrated and reconciled society, his Beloved Community, still remains largely unfulfilled for the marginalized in America. Specifically, fear seems to reign in the lives of our nation’s most vulnerable group – immigrants are afraid to go to school, go to work, report crimes, visit anything but an Emergency Room. Immigrants, to a large extent, have been the object of laws designed to keep them segregated and silent and invisible.

Thursday’s joint subcommittee hearings brought national attention to the injustices inherent in the United State’s 287(g) program which deputizes local cops to become federal immigration enforcers. Sheriff Joe Arpaio from Maricopa County, Arizona, is a prime example of how certain jurisdictions are using this federal program to strike fear into the hearts of all immigrants. With his inhumane treatment of prisoners, his nativist focus on immigration enforcement over his other law enforcement duties, and his sensationalism and victimization of the immigrant community, both legal and not, Arpaio has succeeded in creating in Maricopa County (the fourth largest county in the U.S., with 4 million inhabitants) a community of distrust and fear. Maryland community advocate Antonio Ramirez, seconded by Rep. Conyers and others, testified at the subcommittee hearings on April 2, 2009, that the policies born of 287(g) lead to a drastic loss of trust and cooperation with authorities.  (Staff, Greg and Jackie Mahendra. America’s Voice)

Furthermore, Police Foundation President Hubert Williams stated that funding for this program takes away from money for smart community policing initiatives which are far more successful in preventing crime. In Sheriff Joe’s Maricopa County, for instance, Arpaio’ tactics seem to have backfired, with violent crime skyrocketing over 69% from 204-2007 (a statistic not echoed in nearby Phoenix or Mesa). When a large population of immigrants live in fear and are excluded from the Beloved Community, crime goes unreported and unchecked. (Bolick, Clint. “Mission Unaccomplished: The Misplaced Priorities of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office”)

The subcommittee hearings also brought to light the rampant racial profiling that has accompanied 287(g) programs across the country. UNC Chapel Hill Law School Professor Deborah Weissman highlighted the lack of sufficient training and the resulting civil rights abuses. Her recent report, “The Politics and Policies of Local Immigration Enforcement Laws,” illustrates that most “unwelcome” immigrants are stopped under the pretense of traffic violations; in Gaston County, NC, 83% of immigrants arrested by ICE had been cited first under a petty traffic violation.

Sadly, certain members of the subcommittee were insistent that 287(g) was marginally successful in the less than 5% of counties in which it is currently employed. It is hard to ascribe any motivation more flattering than unfettered xenophobia to such committee members. Rep. Steve King, a ranking member on the Immigration Subcommittee, questioned 19-year-old Julio Mora repeatedly about whether his father had taught him about rule of law (a.k.a. reporting undocumented immigrants). Mora, who had been detained and harassed because he’s Latino, responded eloquently, “My father taught me to respect everyone.” Rep. King and others seemed to intimate that racial profiling of American citizens was little more than an inconvenience or a slight embarrassment.

These joint subcommittee hearings’ decision on 287(g) is vitally important for creating a Beloved Community in the United States. Programs like 287(g) encourage fear, silence, and marginalization. The effects of this are chilling. Yesterday, a shooter opened fire on immigrants taking citizenship and language classes at an immigrant center in Binghamton, NY. 14 were found dead in the American Civic Association (an immigrant organization founded in 1939 and with support from United Way). The shooter, Jiverly Wong, is believed to have been a naturalized citizen who attended classes at ACA years before. While there are no clear answers and no explanations for such a tragedy, the fear 287(g) generates discourages crime reporting; we are left to speculate if this would have happened had Wong’s immigrant community felt empowered, rather than marginalized, by our nation’s laws.(CNN)

Similarly, Father Paul Ouderkirk gave a presentation at Pax Christi Church in Rochester, MN, on April 2. Much of his presentation focused on the fears in his community of Postville (where an ICE raid in May arrested 289 immigrants, closed the town’s largest employer, and crippled the town of 2400). Ouderkirk spoke of the psychological trauma felt by families after fathers were deported to Guatemala. He disparaged the fact that many women are still required to wear ankle bracelets. He discussed the fear of the citizen children, many of whom were terrified to return to school for fear that they would be arrested or they’d come home to find the rest of their family gone. (Valdez, Christina Killion. “Priests say Immigration Laws Need Reform.”)

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The ICE raid at Postville and 287(g) both serve to strike fear into our nation’s 12 million undocumented immigrants. Far from creating a Beloved Community, fear breeds distrust, un-cooperation, division, and hate. Additionally, this terror is not limited to extralegals in America; rather, it extends to most minorities. When Latinos are followed by police officers simply for looking Latino, fear reigns. When Somalis are interrogated at bus stops simply for being Muslim, fear reigns. When jaywalking Hmong citizens are detained because of their ethnicity, fear reigns. Our nation, our Beloved Community, demands comprehensive immigration reform to end the fear and begin an era of trust.

Please consider adding your name and voice to the letter going out to Chairman Conyers of the joint subcommittee. You can do so here.

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…

Immigrants did not cause the Economic Crisis, but they can help us rebuild

December 14, 2008

The Anti-Defamation League recently published a thoughtful article warning all of us to be careful in assigning blame to any one group of people (Nathan, Martin. Houston Chronicle)  The ADL’s article focused on Susan Carroll’s Houston Chronicle series which highlighted problems in our criminal system.  While study after study like that of Harvard Sociology Professor Robert Sampson has shown that recent immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes (45% less likely than 3rd generation Americans in his study), xenophobic rhetoric abounds on blogs, comments, and media posts concerning immigrants.

What’s more alarming, yet inextricably linked to such polarizing rhetoric of hate and “otherness,” are the increasing hate crimes against Latinos and other immigrant groups. The Houston Chronicle article highlighted FBI statistics that show from 2005-2007 hate crimes against Latinos grew from 475 to 595.  Indeed, several high-profile hate crimes against immigrants have occurred in New York City alone, that emblematic heart of the American melting pot.  Ecuadorean brothers Jose and Romel Sucuzhanay were brutally beaten in Bushwick, Brooklyn, on Sunday, December 7, by three men shouting obsenities which were “ugly, anti-gay and anti-Latino” (McFadden, Robert. New York Times).  On November 7 in Patchogue, NY, seven teenagers fatally stabbed 37-year-old Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean returning from his late shift (Finn, Robin. New York Times).

And so, as the economy continues its downspin and people, unable to wreak justice on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, scan the nation for a proper scapegoat, preferrably one without a voice and lacking human rights.  It is this nativism fueled by the economic crisis which propels hate speech and hate crimes, as well as xenophobic legislation like New IDEA (Immigrant Deduction Enforcement Act), an attempt to massively expand the role of the IRS in aiding the Department of Homeland Security to crack down not on employers but primarily on unauthorized immigrants. Iowa Congressman Steven King, seemingly unfazed by the destruction the Postville ICE raid has caused his own small-town constituents, touts this bill he introduced as a means of wresting jobs from the immigrants holding 7 million jobs (as per the PEW Hispanic Research Center) and distributing them to the 9.5 million jobless Americans. While his Robin-Hood techniques may sound appealing in a time of economic depression, we cannot forget that immigrants are people too; this is not merely redistributing wealth or opportunity – this is redistributing people.

As we head into the New Year, looking back on our mistakes of 2008 and crafting new resolutions to see us through 2009, blame-shifting will help none of us.  No, we must turn from this simple scapegoating and look at real solutions which can help us all rather than profiting some at the expense of the most vulnerable (isn’t this the sort of predatory business model that caused the economic crisis in the first place?).  Immigrants didn’t cause the economic crisis, but they can sure help us rebuild.  Why? Because they are us and we are them; we are all in this thing together.

Nativist Fears Subsiding: 9/11 and the LPGA

September 7, 2008

A week after announcing its proposed policy to require golfers to pass an oral English test, the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) officially rescinded this past Saturday, September 6. Since first proclaimed, the English-only requirement slated for 2009 drew criticism from many civil rights groups such as the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and lawmakers like California State Senator Leeland Yee. Yee planned to explore legal options to oppose the policy, stating that it would have violated workplace discrimination laws. Yee also pointed out that the stipulation could also affect blind or hearing-impaired athletes.

This proposed nativist requirement follows a year which saw two of the 145 international players on the tour win this year’s Majors. Lorena Ochoa of Mexico and Yani Tseng of Taiwan both impressed the world of golf with their performance on the women’s circuit this year.

The LPGA justified its new proposal by stating that several sponsors had voiced concern because they could not communicate with golfers during and after the tournament. Although the Tour withdrew its proposal to suspend players who did not demonstrate proficiency in English, it still hopes to strongly encourage English fluency among its athletes through the use of tutors and computer software. (http://washingtontimes.com/news/2008/sep/06/lpga-scraps-its-english-policy/)

Also this week, extralegal immigrant families who lost a family member on 9/11 were granted temporary legal status by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Friday, Sept. 5. The wives, husbands and children of the victims had been able to receive payments from the Victim Compensation Fund, but they were fearful to invest or share their stories because of their immigration status.

Last year two Congressmen from New York, Peter King (Rep) and Carolyn Maloney (Dem) introduced a bill to expedite the process toward permanent residency for these family members. The immigrants themselves, however, were wary of providing personal information to public officials for fear of deportation or detention. Now that DHS has granted them one-year temporary visas, at least some of that fear is gone. (http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/15/911-immigrant-survivors-move-toward-legal-status/)

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.

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 Differences between Irun and I run…

May 16, 2008

The bay is peaceful, calm.  Fishermen troll both sides of it for merluzza and tuna.  Couples old and young walk the banks of the splashing ocean, taking in the beauty of a sunny afternoon in northern Spain.  Buoys bob, boats float, people talk, couples kiss, and life is as it should be despite the fact that Irun is a border town and the other side of this particular bay is France.

 Seeing people running along the jetties and beachfront sidewalks seems as normal as anchoas (anchovies) or vino tinto here in Pais Vasco. That is, until one thinks about the very different connotations of running here in the borderlands between France and Spain and the highly militarized frontera between Mexico and the United States.  Here, running is a great way to work off late-night tapas or to replace a siesta; in the Rio Grande Valley, however, it can imply that one is guilty of illegal immigration, drug smuggling, or a host of other activities prohibited by either nation´s border governances.  One runs on a sidewalks here in Irun, whereas to run on the southern border of the U.S. means to run on Border Patrol trails and run the risk of having a gun drawn on you or having to show some piece of identification, some sort of explanation.

It wasn´t always this way.  But a few years ago, Texas was alternately a sparsely populated state of Mexico, an independent republic, and then an annexed state in the Union.  The Border Patrol didn´t come into existence until the 1920s, and intense militarization of our nation´s southern border wasn´t realized until the 1990s.  Now however, every person crossing the US-Mexico border is filled with some sort of fear.  For regulars, they worry that if they are stopped and asked to have their car searched, they might not make it to that 8:00 a.m. meeting on time.   For winter Texans, they wonder whether it is legal to purchase cheap medications and transport them across the border.  And Latinos, be they recent immigrants or hand-me-down multigenerationals, are filled with a fear of racial profiling, discrimination, and the trepidation that perhaps they forgot their passport this time. 

It wasn´t always this way.  But a few years ago, France and Spain were at odds.  The ever-wealthy France was continually at odds with a Spain struggling to industrialize and modernize after the repressive Franco regime. The franc perpetually trumped the weak lyra, and the French vacationed on the cheap in every city in Spain.  But, with Spain’s economic rise, immigrant surge, and induction into the European Union, the two countries are coming to an equilibrium.  Brders in the European Union are no longer patrolled, no longer militarized, no longer stigmatized.  Crossing is as easy as walking, driving, jumping, swimming, talking.  It is easy to see the outlandishness of borders when people on both side of the imaginary line speak French and Castellano Spanish, eat seafood and drink wine, wake late and eat even later. 

For some Americans, it is easy to write the E.U. off as being very similar to the United States.  To an outside observer, it might at first seem that the countries of Espana, France, and Romania act very much like Pennsylvania and New York.  However, striking similarities bely the stark differences between these two situations.  In the E.U., countries apply for induction.  Nations maintain most of their autonomy, whereas states in the U.S. are mostly subsidiaries of the Federal government.  Additionally, whereas the United States had but a single civil war some 160 years ago, Europe has been torn by civil conflicts, dictators, marauders, raiders, and world wars for centuries.  Therefore, though the borders with the E.U. act very similarly to states in the U.S., it is no small feat.  The E.U.´s continued success speaks to the power of nonviolence over violence – what no war was ever able to accomplish (peace, mutual benefits, prosperity), the E.U. has been able to produce through diplomacy, compromise, and networking.   

The E.U. is far from perfected, but from where I sit on this side of the Atlantic, the United States could do well to model its North American policies after the European model.  Instead of perpetuating an outdated, self-limiting agreement such as NAFTA, we must rethink and reevaluate our relationships with Canada and Mexico.  The very issue of immigration is a symptom of our failure to properly address relations with our neighbors near and far.  And even though Italy´s restrictive immigration policies are cracking down by raiding Romanian ¨gypsy¨camps while Spain´s liberal immigration policies are humanely allowing extranjeros (literally strangers) a chance of earned citizenship, the E.U. at least is attempting to forge a copartnership where borders are less important than relationships and mutually beneficial arrangements trump xenophobic patriotism.