Posts Tagged ‘Owatonna’

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

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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.

Pulitzers & Unlikely Cooperation

April 21, 2009

Colbert Report with Sheriff Joe Arpaio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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