Posts Tagged ‘San Francisco’

El Paso del Mundo

January 6, 2009
Las Americas Asylum Law Project

Las Americas Asylum Law Project

El Paso is closer to Los Angeles than Houston, closer to three other state capitals than its own, 12 hours from Brownsville, Texas.  It is part New Mexico, part Tejano, part Mexico, part Wild West, all frontera.  With a population of 700,000 and separated from a 1.5 million city by a tiny rivulet called the Rio Grande, El Paso melds with Juarez in culture, language, music, food, and la gente.

11 University of Minnesota Law School students arrived in El Paso, Texas, on Sunday, January 4. We came as part of the Asylum Law Project to volunteer with nonprofit groups such as Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project, and Las Americas Advocacy Center.  We came to volunteer, but as always, we assuredly will gain more than we give.

Our first day in El Paso, we attended immigration court and saw the inside of a client interview room.  The immigration court was informal, the judge joking about Burn after Reading and giving informal history lessons about Ellis Island.  The hardest cases were the pro-se ones, where we had to watch a 19-year-old boy with oversized clothes sit silently in front of the judge as he was told he had to wait for the LA judge to reopen his case.  Beside him, a Korean man was whispering prayer upon prayer, eyes closed.  Inside the interview room, the circle chairs and the square table were stainless steel.  A woman from El Salvador had been transported from San Francisco to Los Angeles to Arizona to Houston to El Paso.  Her son was watching her younger children and attending Stanford, and this meeting was to gather some last-minute details so that she could apply for a change of venue.  The steel room was empty and echoed, her small voice enunciated each word of Spanish thoughtfully and deliberately.

That same day, we were told by numerous attorneys and well-meaning citizens not to venture across the bridge to Juarez.  Granted there were more than 1,600 murders in Juarez in 2008 and a group of hueros would generally attract a lot of attention; however, it is that same sort of terror that has depressed the economy on both sides of the river and has lent credence to the drug dealers and thugs like the Zetas.  It is that same fear that led Congress to pass the Secure Fence Act of 2006, the same fear that drives Bill O’Reilly’s ratings, the same fear that enables shows like ABC’s “Homeland Security USA” to exist.  As we crossed the El Paso del Norte Bridge and were greeted by the smell of tacos al pastor and the sight of cheap meds and fast surgeries, none of us felt threatened.  Even as we walked by the federales with their automatic rifles and teenage faces, it was impossible to see much of a difference between one side of the river and the other.  We watched Texas beat Ohio State for the Fiesta Bowl as we sat in the Yankees bar, across the centro from the Kentucky Bar where Marilyn Monroe bought drinks for everyone the day she divorced Arthur Miller.  Both sides of this river are hopelessly interconnected.

We are staying in the Gardner Hotel/El Paso International Hostel, a hotel from the 1920s that has hosted John Dillinger and Cormac McCarthy. An old PacBell phone booth stands sentry at the doorway, and an old-time telephone switchboard stands next to the check-in booth.  With its high ceilings and transoms, old charm and new faces daily, many languages and few rules, this hostel is as good a metaphor for El Paso and Juarez as one can imagine.

Tonight we visited Casa Anunciacion, an immigrant safe house.  Dreamed up by 5 Christian men more than 30 years ago, this organization operates in the historically most impoverished portion of El Paso.  It serves as a home for immigrants, whether for one night or for 8 months.  Families, abused women, single teens, mothers and babies, fathers – the house is full to the brim with immigrants seeking shelter and a change.  This particular night Juan Carlos cooked dinner for all 55 tenants and all 11 of us.  We sat next to immigrants from Guatemala and Sinaloa, El Salvador and Lebanon, Juarez, and Honduras.  After dinner, I washed dishes alongside Federico as everyone worked together to clean the facilities.  Although the house was raided by ICE several years ago, it still continues to offer hope to many seeking a better job and life.

The border towns of El Paso and Juarez serve as a microcosm of worldwide immigration patterns.  When goods are freely transportable in a globalizing world, it only stands to reason that people will desire to move freely legally or not.  Border lines are human conventions, and as one looks at the picnic cloth of stars between the Sierra Madre and Rocky Mountains that is El Paso/Juarez at night, it is impossible to see where one ends and the other begins.  Perhaps that would just be a perfunctory exercise anyway.

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When the Many Find they are One

October 22, 2008

During the WWII era of 1942-46, between 200,000 and 300,000 manual laborers or braceros worked in the United States as farmhands and railroad workers standing in for the masses of young men sent overseas. When this Bracero Program ended and many returned to their homes in Mexico, few received the 10% of their wages deducted by the Mexican government, if they even knew about the deduction at all.

While this lawsuit faltered twice, both for whether it had exceeded the statute of limitations and whether a case against Mexico could be brought in the United States, it received preliminary approval to be heard before the Federal District Court in San Francisco this past Wednesday. The proposed settlement would grant each bracer with sufficient proof a $3500 check. Fewer than 50,000 will collect those checks, due to the anonymous, undocumented nature of much of this work, but for those few braceros nearing their ends, this money is more moral victory than subsistence. The New York Times article quotes Mr. Ibarra, a bracero currently living in Chicago, saying, this was a “victory of principles that allows me to be positive about continuing to live a little longer.” The United States has much cause to thank these willing workers who came and worked and went with little recognition and even less pay. Justice can be a long time coming. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/16/us/16settle.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1=y

Reportedly, Tom Brockaw regretted not asking candidates John McCain and Barack Obama not what they would do for the middle class, but what they would provide for the poor. In this season of grandstanding and lampooning for votes, it is easy to forget about the voiceless among us. Sometime between the immigration legislation discussions of 2006, both McCain and Obama have forgotten the 12 million extralegal immigrants awaiting some legislative opportunity or the countless millions lost in the lottery of our antiquated quota system.

As we speak, needless hostilities are burning between new Somali immigrants and “old” Latino immigrants in meatpacking and factory towns. When our nation focuses on the issues of the middle and upper class, the poor are left to bicker over crumbs of opportunity. Due to the nine raids in as many places since 2006 which have detained and/or deported some 2,000 immigrant workers, legal Somali refugees are being recruited and relocated to fill those positions. When they band together to campaign for 15-minute lenience to observe their Muslim prayer time, the oft-slighted other immigrant groups take offense. Mayor Ms. Hornady intimates that the Muslim hijabs suggest terrorism to her and the community of Grand Island, Nebraska. The immigrant groups in this town, the Mexican and South American, the Laotian and Sudanese and original German immigrants, all live in the constant fear that December of 2006 will strike again, that ICE will raid their meatpacking plant and freeze their small town for good. http://mail.google.com/mail/?ui=2&view=js&name=js&ver=KUM7s5FPF9I&am=X_E4pcT3aCGBXoYK6A

Although the New York Times article focuses on the differences and supposed animosities between these two immigrant groups, whose arrivals are separated by but a few years, what strikes me most is how similar these workers are. If only they could join together as one, in that Poor People’s March Dr. King envisioned, and say, “We will not live in fear anymore. What is good for one of us is good for us all. We are many, we are one.” I wish we all could say the same, that we would recognize the simple truth of Martin Luther King’s words, ““Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

The First of May – the International Day of Workers for Everywhere but the U.S.

May 2, 2008

Yesterday was the first of May.  In the United States, the day would have passed like any other Thursday.  I would have gone to school, taught my immigrant students English as a second language, and would have returned to my house to lesson plan and prepare for another day´s work.  Here in Santiago, however, May 1 is an important holiday.  Not only does it mark the Ascension of Christ – it also is the day to celebrate workers all around the world.  All across Europe, this day is remembered, but here in Galicia El Dia de los Trabajadores is an important festival, all the more important now that immigrants have internationalized the Spanish workforce. 

The narrow cobbled streets here in Santiago are teeming with people, but it is hard to pay them mind.  Vendors are standing in their doorways, offering passersby free samples of the traditionaly Galician almond cookie.  Gaelic bagpipe bands march through the streets, their beautiful music reverberating off the ancient facades of Santiago´s downtown.  I am fortunate enough to witness a traditional Gallegos dance, where the men jig around women who balance a giant loaf of bread upon their heads.  The symbolism for the working class is clearcut, yet hauntingly beautiful – it would do the United States well to have a dance on MTV celebrating life´s simple gifts of our daily bread and friendship.

Above the plaza, the park is full of people.  Pulperias sell grilled octopus, churrerias hawk tasty churros in chocolate, and gitanos advertise their carnival rides to anyone who will listen. It is a veritable sea of people, a river of workers celebrating their collective productivity and diversity as they chomp on cotton candy and ride kiddie rides.  Atop the ferris wheel, I view the entire 100,000 people of Santiago from a vantage point on par with the highest peak of the Saint James Cathedral.  It is easy to be filled with awe when one stops to think about the magnitude of so many life-works going on right now, and I rededicate myself to advocating for the migrant workers who hope to contribute their life´s work to a new country.

The mass at La Cathedral de Apostolo Santiago de Compostelo is stunning.  It is part holy, part bazaar.  Hundreds and hundreds of people mill around the main wings of the church as the various priests conduct the mass.  Dozens of confessional booths are set up for busy workers to confess on this rare weekday holiday.  A red light above the booth intimates that a priest is ready and waiting to listen.  The interior of the church is amazing.  Gold, which must have taken thousands and thousands of workers´tithes to purchase, is shaped into the most impressive angels and saints and Saviors.  Granite walls echo the message of the Father, and the massive double-breasted organ takes up two entire walls.  When those pipes are filled with the liturgy, it is impossible to ignore the Spirit. 

During the service, I meander behind the cantors.  In the background of the priests, there is a passageway which crosses behind a figure of Jesus.  In keeping with tradition, I give him a quick abrazo like so many millions before me. After this warm hug, I pass beneath the cathedral into the crypt where James the Apostle is believed to be buried.  It is cold, stony, and I pray quickly before leaving. 

For the communion prayer, the ancient priest invites several other priests to say prayers in their language.  It is beautiful to hear bequests to God in Spanish, Gallegos, Italian, German, and French.  The priest closes these prayers by stating that God knows the language of our hearts; every worker in the crowd nods with understanding at this.  Watching the people take communion, I see pilgrims who have walked over 100 miles to finish here at the cathedral in Santiago. I see persons who are obviously staying in the finest hotels, and local workers who have not had a holiday in ages.  I see devout women who remind me of my grandmothers, and proud fathers similar to my own. 

The service finishes with a trademark tradition.  As a traditional zither plays music, 5 priests maneuver a long rope which runs up to the very top of the cathedral´s spire.  A holy incense box swings back and forth, gaining momentum like a kid arcing heavenward at the schoolyard.  The aroma of prayer wafts over the crowd, all of whom snap pictures as if the incense container were a death-defying trapeze artist.  Incense everywhere, all the workers looking up, music harmonizing to the sounds of people praying – every one of us is overwhelmed.  Whether this is the last thing a peregrino pilgrim will see on their Camino de Santiago, or this is merely the capstone of the International Day of Workers, it is a memory which will always mark the first of May for me.  How overwhelming, to think of workers the world over clinging to faith in order to derive meaning from each day´s labor.  From Santiago to San Francisco, from the twin cities of Brownsville and Matamoros to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, my heart goes out to immigrants working thanklessly, yearning for recognition of their work and their lives, longing for basic rights and hope of citizenship.  When next I celebrate the International Day of Workers, I pray that we all will have done something more for the voiceless workers of our world.