Monday, August 6, 2007


How to sustain the momentum? How to facilitate further dialogue? How to measure the impacts?

These are questions we continue to grapple with at Voces de la Frontera one month post reality tour. Nonetheless local activity statewide implicates that the tour was indeed effective in stimulating action. Some snapshots are provided below.

Northeastern Wisconsin has been busy. One week following the tour members of ESTHER, our Appleton host, assisted the Mexican Consulate in the distribution of over 1000 passports and matriculas over the course of 4 days. Esther also polled 60 attendees on immigration issues and will form a database from these attendees for future initiatives. In the spirit of promoting understanding a small group of organizers in Green Bay have been working on forming a game that would simulate the immigration process and some of the key decisions one faces on all sides of the debate. A game has already been developed and piloted by a law firm in Iowa in July. The Green Bay team is using the Iowa game as template to develop a local simulation game.

Regarding the ordinances, on August 1st the ACLU of Wisconsin submitted a letter to the Green Bay City attorney’s office regarding the Hazelton decision and the relevance of the decision to the municipal code passed in Green Bay. The Hazelton decision was a recent decision by the US District court condemning an anti-immigrant ordinance passed in Hazelton, PA. U.S. District Judge Munley wrote, “We cannot say clearly enough that persons who enter this country without legal authorization are not stripped immediately of all their rights.” Munley declared that 14th amendment extends legal protection to all “persons” not just “citizens.” The ACLU of Wisconsin sent another letter on August 1st to the Brown County Corporation Counsel questioning the legality of a proposed ordinance controlling the employment of immigrants.

Ordinance activity has not been limited to Green Bay albeit that ordinance has been the most high profile. The anti-racism commission in Wausau held a meeting with local police regarding the development of ordinances that are pro-immigrant one week after the Reality Tour. Meetings are being planned with City Council in Racine regarding a proposed ordinance that is anti-immigrant.

In Whitewater, almost a year has passed since the raid on Star Packaging. Over $1000 was collected during the tour for the legal defense fund of these workers. Their hearings are still pending. Sentencing for Al Petrie, owner of Star Packaging, is still pending. A vigil is being planned in Whitewater for Wednesday August 8th.

The Milwaukee stop had a sanctuary focus and the committee has been working tirelessly since. Sanctuary organizers are currently collecting money to hire a full time coordinator in order to expand the sanctuary movement. They are also preparing for August 14th which marks a national day of action in the new sanctuary movement. Forty days after the Senate bill failed cities across the nation will declare themselves sanctuary cities and churches, mosques and synagogues will make public their commitment to the new sanctuary movement. An event is being planned in Milwaukee to stand in solidarity.

In Madison, the story of Tomas Contreras and his detention city nightmare has continued to pick up media attention. News of our tour reached the group Private Corrections Institute, an anti private prisons group in Tallahassee. The group has invited Tomas to give testimony at the Correctional Corporations of America conference in Kansas City next week.

These are just a few anecdotes of statewide activity in the midst of a flurry of national debate since the Hazelton decision and promulgation of many local ordinances. It is a top issue for political candidates right now and as the debate continues, local activity will no doubt continue to escalate.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Outcomes and Next Steps

Reality Tour Outcomes:

A little more tangible analysis of the Reality Tour. By the numbers we had over 800 people in attendance in the ten cities we visited. We topped 100 in attendance in four of the cities we visited and elected officials were present at 9 of the 10 cities. More than 150 people expressed an interest in Voces de la Frontera and our work. More than 70 people had simultaneous translation made available to them. 34 news stories have been written or recorded on the Reality Tour to date. Approximately 30 people from Voces, Appleton and Green Bay met in Appleton for a three hour strategizing session. Educational resources were prioritized and the group is now working on developing educational tools, organizing workshops, promoting positive ordinances and developing immigration curriculum with Universities. Testimonies from 23 panelists and countless audience members we shared. We received several invitations to for future speaking engagements and requests to visit other sites.

Information about the positive ordinances in Whitewater and Milwaukee, ordinances stating that police work will remain separate from the INS and the ICE, was shared. Calls for solidarity between the Latino and African American communities were made. In some cities, particularly in LaCrosse, an opportunity for real debate and a real sharing of opinion and ideas from both sides was made. The profile of two local cases- the Whitewater Star Packaging raid and the detention of Tomas Contreras were raised and reintroduced to the media. In every city the discussion transgressed the semantics of “illegal” and “legal” and issues like NAFTA and privatized prisons were discussed.

Overall, we felt we were among supporters throughout the tour. Many people lingered after the meetings to tell us that they were touched, overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem, but wanting to get involved.

What can I do?

So that brings me to the next point- what are logical next steps? What can one possibly do when faced with a problem so complex? There are lots of places to start. I offer eight starting points below, but certainly do not limit yourself to the ideas below.

First, continue to educate yourself- look for our list of helpful websites, movies and books about immigration (coming soon!).

Second, encourage more dialogue. Have another event. Invite an immigration attorney to talk about the ins and outs of legalization and immigration law. Solicit testimony from people in your area, immigrant or non, who have been affected. Have a discussion. Take some time to continue research. Continue to dialogue.

Third, oppose ordinances that are discriminatory and encourage fear mongering. Support ordinances that are respectful. Meet with local officials to talk about this.

Fourth, think nationally as well as locally. Meet with your representatives and senators to talk about immigration reform. Immigration is one of the top three concerns to candidates running in 2008. Some of the politicians we have talked to have informed us that they have received overwhelming opposition to immigration reform. Is this a representative response? I don’t think so, I think it is moreso a reflection of who is more actively speaking out. Nonetheless, this information is a signal that we must have a much louder voice. If we want a stake in the debate, we must be more proactively politically engaged.

Fifth, support pro-immigration legislation as it comes up. Comprehensive immigration reform may not come up again until 2008, but the DREAM act was recently re-introduced and will likely come up again this year. Support it.

Sixth, keep following our blog. Your commentary is welcome and encouraged.

Seventh, if in Wisconsin, support the Whitewater workers- more details about upcoming vigil soon. For more information about contributing to the legal defense fund e-mail If not in Wisconsin, learn about raids that have happened in your area.

Eighth, on August 14th several cities throughout the US will declare themselves sanctuary cities. Watch the news, see if your city is a sanctuary city. Think about becoming one if you are not and have a discussion in your church to think about becoming a sanctuary city. Support churches in your area that are considering sanctuary. Learn more

There is a lot of dialogue still to be had and a lot of action yet to be taken. Find a group in your area and get involved. For more ideas, feel free to contact us

Monday, July 23, 2007

Tacit Consent- a post tour reflection

I’d like to do a quick post Reality Tour reflection. While I know many of my thoughts are echoed by other employees of Voces de la Frontera, I should emphasize that these thoughts and words are my own, not official word from Voces de la Frontera.

At the end of the event in Milwaukee someone asked me if I was part Latina or “just a good person?” The question caught me off guard as I really hadn’t stopped to consider my identity in the movement or even with an organization like Voces de la Frontera.

So, who am I? Aside from the logistical coordinator and blogger for the Reality Tour, I am a white, middle class, twenty something female. With the exception of a few anecdotal incidences of sexism I am largely a stranger to discrimination in my own life. Directly, the struggles of many immigrant workers, the legislation that was discussed in the senate, the local ordinances passed or in process, all of these things have little tangible effect on my everyday life.

So what is it that called me and many others like me to get involved? It’s about consent. I remember studying John Locke’s social contract during a philosophy 101 course. A core component of the social contract is the concept of tacit consent: the idea being that we uphold the status quo by not challenging it. In other words, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with a system, whether your actions are directly involved, you give your consent when you do nothing. Apathy equates approval.

As such, I am a voting, civically engaged, lifetime resident and citizen of the United States and I cannot give my tacit consent to what I see as a broken system. I’ve traveled and lived in the dual economic systems of South Africa and Mexico and have seen rags and riches living side by side. I have seen poverty to a degree that does not exist in the United States. The change in distribution of economic resources and rising income inequality has been an impetus for increased immigration- legal and illegal and there needs to be some accountability for this drastically different economic landscape. The problem is not only in the United States, it is happening everywhere.

The immigration debate is complicated no doubt. I do not wish to condone any illegal activity, but when it comes to law and survival, for most people the will to survive will supersede obedience for the law. Many will say that the responsibility lies with the governments of poor countries. I agree, but I do not give sole responsibility to those governments. There has been a lot of talk of sovereignty throughout the forums and on the blog. I feel like sovereignty is a concept that is rapidly disappearing in the world of global commerce. Yes, the minimum wage of $4 a day is far too low in Mexico. The government needs to be involved in changing that- but if they are under pressure from transnational companies to keep wages down, then pressure must also be put on transnational companies. If US subsidized corn is driving down market prices in Mexico so that local producers cannot compete, then there must be pressure to reduce or at least redistribute those US subsidies. Furthermore, there has been resistance to government policies in Mexico, particularly in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, but those movements have encountered fierce resistance not only from the Mexican government, but from the US as well. The responsibility for this problem is bilateral and any solution must be equally bilateral in nature. To negotiate trade agreements that harm the poorest segment of the Mexican and Central American populations, to actively put down efforts for social and economic change and then to bar entry and deny rights when people are pushed to migrate is an unacceptable double standard. It is this double standard to which I refuse to give my tacit consent.

This tour was not just about promoting a faster path to legalization; it was also about understanding the roots of why people choose to leave their homes. It is imperative that any comprehensive solution must also look at how to promote a global commerce that is fairer and that takes into consideration the broader ramifications of cheap labor and lax laws. Any comprehensive solution must be equally introspective as external.

We heard a lot of debate and are still receiving lots of opinions through newspaper editorials, the blog etc. The criticisms and concerns are valid and I appreciate the openness with which people have shared their opinions. For me, however the bottom line I keep coming back to are the double standards. Until a more holistic solution is proposed, as a responsible concerned citizen, I find it impossible to give my tacit consent.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Do you have to look like Lou Dobbs to have a voice in the immigration debate?

Wearing Lou Dobbs masks and chanting 'Facts NOT Fear', 130 members of Voces de la Frontera gathered outside Milwaukee's Federal Courthouse yesterday for a lunchtime rally asking: "Do you have to look like Lou Dobbs to have a voice in the immigration debate?"

The action, which was widely featured by local and national media, also led to an approach for Voces' Christine Neumann-Ortiz to appear on Dobbs' show. Appearing live last night, she was able to firmly challenge his framing of the issue.

Watch Lou Dobbs video segment / read transcript

Monday, July 16, 2007

Racine - Day 8 (Sunday p.m.)

“¿Quieres hablar? No, no llores. ¿Quieres hablar? No llores.” (Do you want to speak? No, don’t cry. Do you want to speak? Don’t cry.)

This is the visual that will stay with most people who attended the Voces de la Frontera forum in Racine. We are in the audience participation part of the forum, about an hour into the event. A Whitewater worker facing deportation tells his story. His son, a bright eyed energetic child of about 7 years old reaches for the mic. “Do you want to talk?” asks the father. The child nods, but the words never come. His enthusiasm drains and the energy of just moments before dissolves into tears. We wait for the child to regain his composure, but as much as he tries, he can’t.

Another audience member speaks up. “I think actions speak louder than words. We can see that this child is hurting.”

The boy runs to his mother who then takes the mic. She introduces herself, “I am the mother of this crying child and that is my husband.” She discloses the fiscal and the psychological stress that the raid has caused them. Returning to the subject of her child, his arms still locked around her waist, face buried in her shirt, she tells us “he goes to school, he takes piano lessons, he plays soccer. We don’t have documents, but that’s not what is most important to me - I came here for him.”

The forum in Racine was a strong finish for the Reality Tour. It is Sunday evening and we are in Olympia Brown Unitarian Church. The church has a long history of opening its door to proponents of social justice. The church is medium sized, and the dark wood pews make a U around the altar space. The setting is intimate, comforting and welcoming- perfect for a discussion. The crowd is diverse, the most diverse we’ve seen thus far.

Christine assures the crowd that the decision to end with Racine was deliberate because of its history in solidarity and the strength of groups like the Dominican sisters, the NAACP, and Students United in the Struggle. Local panelist, Craig Oliver, current political organizer for the state of Wisconsin in the NAACP, affirms this sentiment is his calls for unity. He states that the NAACP national position is to oppose any bill, any law that does not have the humanitarian interest of all people involved.

He reminds us that struggle is not new and unity is crucial. He quotes Angela Davis, saying “if they come for me in the morning, they’ll be for you in the afternoon.”

There are a number of strong voices from the audience. One person calls on everyone to reclaim democracy, saying “we are the government. The people are the government.” It is our responsibility to demand justice.

There is a roar of applause in agreement. Another person jumps in, “no person is illegal. What the government is doing, that is what is illegal.”
Personal stories are shared:

“I worked for 17 years in Bolivia, I know what poverty looks like.”
“I was undocumented.”
“I am undocumented.”
“My brother wants to go to school because he is smart and he likes school. He sits at home because he cannot go to school. We feel sorry for him.”

Myths are dispelled:

“Someone I work with said they would like to be Mexican because so they won’t have to pay taxes. We are paying taxes equal to everyone else.”
“I am a chef in New York. My coworkers pay $50, to $100 sometimes $200 in taxes every week. Most of you get some of that back, I doubt that these employees will.”
“I am a real estate agent. The Latino clients buy homes that no one else will, often in dangerous neighborhoods. Sometimes they are crying when they sign the contract. Yet, when I drive by those houses, I see flowers, I see families. They are helping the housing market.”

The mic gets passed and people come together. There are few words of contention of opposition in Racine. We wanted this forum to be an open space. While it would have been nice to have some more debate in the final day of our tour, I cannot deny the power of the feeling of solidarity and the inspiration that one feels watching people come together.

Closing words come from a friend and a partner working to support the Whitewater workers. His words are passionate and his voice firm as he informs us that everyone who came risked their lives. They didn’t do it because they wanted to leave or thought it would be fun. They did it because they were hungry, because they were desperate. You would do it too, he asserts.

The event closes, evaluations are passed and people linger to converse and network. I flip through a couple of the Spanish evaluations in my hand and notice a consistent message in response to the question, “what did you like most about the forum?”

The answer: “That people are fighting for us.”

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Milwaukee - Day 7 (Saturday p.m.)

On August 14th, 2007, exactly 40 days after the immigration bill failed in the Senate, many cities will declare themselves sanctuary cities. What does this mean? It is a renewal of the sanctuary movement that gained momentum between 1982 and 1992. 500 congregations took a stand at that time against the deportation of Central American refugees. “Not in our name!” would they allow people to go back to deadly conditions. Today the new sanctuary movement believes that the conditions of economic repression and the intentional withholding of access to resources is not so different from the conditions of war. It is time for a new sanctuary movement. As such, several cities across the US are already declaring themselves to be sanctuary cities, churches promising to be sanctuary churches should the need arise. In Milwaukee we do have sanctuary church, Cristo Rey, which proudly proclaimed its commitment to be a sanctuary church at the Milwaukee stop of the Reality Tour on Saturday.

I don’t know what it will take to make Milwaukee a sanctuary city, but 140 people arrive at the meeting on Saturday to think about it. We are comfortably seated in the basement of Principie de Paz, a bilingual church in the heart of the South side. The crowd starts with a trickle and then there is a steady push until the basement is full. Doing final set up one can hear a pleasant buzz of conversation, a harmonious intermingling of the Spanish and English language. It is the largest Hispanic crowd we have had yet. Thus it is important that we frame our message appropriately.

Speakers for the day are Luz and Christine per usual, Tomas returns to tell his story once again and we are also joined by Henry Hamilton of the NAACP and Joanne Lang who is spearheading the sanctuary movement in Milwaukee. A particular highlight is the short commentary from Henry. It is no secret that there is tension between the Latino and the African American community. Henry calls for unity. He avers that Latino struggles have been part of the African American condition for generations. The detention centers described by Tomas in his testimony are sadly and shamefully reminiscent of the slave ships that came to the US so long ago. “Whenever hatred rears its ugly head it is most likely to be directed at one of our groups” Henry asserts. He believes there is much to gain by working together and so much to lose through division.

Several political leaders chime in. State representative Pedro Colon comments about his catholic upbringing and how it taught him about justice. Peggy West, the county supervisor and the only political leader who stays for the whole of the forum, assures everyone that no matter what their status, human beings are human beings and they should receive services with dignity. An alderman speaks who is only second generation himself. While of European descent he says he can relate to the struggle of living with parents who did not speak English and working low wage jobs. He claims, that we must allow immigrants easy access to citizenship if that’s what they want, that he does not want the government to “wholesale people back to where they came from.”

And then comes the audience commentary. A young man reminds us that it’s not just about border crossings but also about borders moving. “This is indigenous land” he affirms, “it was taken away from us.”

Another man asks about positive ordinances and the Milwaukee police department. Christine shares with everyone the Milwaukee police have agreed that the role of the police and the role of INS and the ICE are different and should be kept separate. In other words, the Milwaukee police will not actively pursue undocumented immigrants. The audience applauds this announcement.

More of the workers from Whitewater are also in the crowd. Javier talks about his job, “my job was to put pet food in pretty packages.” He asks, “Is it is a crime to make something that looks nice for your cats and dogs to eat?” The deeper question is implicit- if we can afford to buy nice food for our dogs and cats, is it so wrong that he immigrated here to ensure that his children would not starve?

Another worker, who wishes to remain unnamed, is scared. She is crying when she tells us, “I have children, I don’t know what it going to happen to me, I don’t know what is going to happen to my children, I don’t know what is going to happen. My children are citizens.”

And as she cries the audience cries with her. There is a pause for tears and then a call for action.

Our translator for the day, who has been working with the Whitewater workers since the raid almost a year ago, takes off his headphones to share some more information with us. He talks about the upcoming trial and tells us we what can do to be supportive. Be present at the hearings, support the legal defense fund.

Christine wraps up the day with some notes and Jeanne announces upcoming events. The forum closes, information is distributed and membership applications are taken in. This was a successful event- high energy, attentive crowd, translation running smoothly and most importantly people who are empowered. People stay and talk to us afterwards about wanting to be involved, wanting to learn more. Fundamentally, I think this is how we measure the success of this tour. It’s not about numbers in attendance, it’s not about how many opinions we sway. It is about how many people walk out knowing their rights, walk out feeling dignified and most importantly how many grassroots efforts are sparked, how many seeds are planted from what people have heard on this tour.

It is yet to be seen what exactly people will feel called to do, but I am optimistic.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Wausau - Day 6 (Friday a.m.)

“I married an American citizen. It was a bad idea because he beat me.”

So starts the testimony of our local addition to the Wausau panel. She, like many Mexican Americans, has a family of mixed legality. Her father came here before 1986 and was granted amnesty. Her mother did not and it was a long fight to bring her to join the rest of the family. Our panelist is undocumented despite living most of her life here. She has three children, two teens and a twenty month old baby. She works as a receptionist but is studying to be a nurse. She is not a citizen and does not qualify for loans. Her two oldest sons are joining the military. They want to serve this country she says. She working hard, but still feels like doors are closing.

The panel in Wausau is a success. We are in an intimate old church talking to about 30 people who have taken a few hours from their day. There have been a number of recent anti-immigrant rallies in Wausau, so we didn’t know exactly what to expect from the people. The crowd however was friendly.

One woman is an immigrant from Guatemala. “Everyone who comes here comes with a different story” she reminds us. She emphasizes the opportunity to learn. “I want to go back and start a women’s shelter in Guatemala,” she informs us, “but I still have work to do here.”

A social worker stands up and speaks. She has just returned from Mexico where she observed a difference between Mexican and American work ethic. Her impressions in Mexico were not of a system of competition, not of a system where people get ahead by putting others down. Instead, she saw a real system of community and unity. The idea that Mexicans do not want to fix the problems in their country is a myth she says emphatically. She exemplifies her point by describing a widespread movement and petition to demand higher wages from the government.

People ask about legal measures. One has recently read the Southern Poverty Law Center briefing on the guest worker program and asks if it really is akin to slavery. Christine affirms that it is. Another participant wonders what measures to take. A faster path to legalization, family unification and changing a corrupt trade regime is the response.

And then the best question we’ve had yet from an elderly man and long time community advocate, “Congressman Dave Obey’s office is three blocks away, why don’t we go pay him a visit?”

So we do. The woman walking next to me has an issue of the Utne reader, the title is appropriately “America’s new slave labor- illegal immigration and the moral issue.” A staff member meets with us, and there are about 15 of us in tow, and receives us warmly. He asks the opinion on the last immigration bill that failed in the senate.

The problem with the proposed legislation is the touch backs. It is unaffordable and unrealistic. People are expected to go back to Mexico and stay until the request is processed. There is no guarantee of return and it could be as long as ten years. It costs each family $9000. “No one can meet that threshold,” argues Christine.

The staffer agrees- he cites a poll claiming that 75-80% of the undocumented would participate if the touch backs were removed. (Though I do question the accuracy of most polls with undocumented participation, as I think very few people would want to participate in something that requires them to admit they are undocumented.) The talk turns to trade and we are assured that Obey agrees with our assessment. The best for our workers is what should be mirrored in our trading partners, says the aide of Obey’s stance. Mexico and Canada deserve worker’s rights too. Obey did not vote for NAFTA and he has not supported any of the farm bills thus far.

Maria, our local panelist and a constituent of Obey’s office, tells her story. She says she and others have been pushed by the Mexican economy to push for a better life for her kids. She has struggled here to pay tuition costs, she was a victim of domestic abuse, but she still thinks there is opportunity here. She wants to stay. She works in a workers center and is witness to the multitude of problems that immigrants face daily. She shakes her head, “there are doors closing everyday.”

Luz also shares her story. Christine adds a detail about the hearings. To be undocumented is a civil crime, identify theft is a felony and usually reserved for people who ordeing credit cards and stealing. A handful of the Whitewater detainees are being charged with identify theft, though all they used the IDs for was permission to work. They are being treated as felons. She mentions the factory owners in Whitewater who spent years as the janitors, the owners and the operators of their factory to build it up. Twenty three years of work gone in a day.

What do we want from the congressman he asks? New legal channels. We have a dysfunctional system. Employment policy is “don’t ask don’t tell.” This makes it “convenient to treat people as disposable” Christine explains. The only change over time is the increase in abuse. This is why the AFL-CIO supports immigration reform.

Another Wausau member highlights Luz’s story. “We talk a lot about family values in this country. Luz came to see her family because she values her family.” Does that make her a criminal?

Overall the meeting went well and we have a standing invitation to follow up. Politicians have been invited to nearly all our other meetings, but none showed up in Wausau. Maybe Wausau had the right idea. If the politicians don’t come to you, just go to them.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Appleton - Day 5 (Thursday p.m.)

We had technical problems with the simultaneous translation equipment in Appleton. This was devastating to the flow of the event.

About 100 people arrived. It was during the testimony of our first speaker, Marta a young girl in her early twenties, that the PA system began to interfere with the simultaneous translation. Marta’s story is a student story. She immigrated as a child, grew up in Wisconsin with her family and was educated in here. She is perfectly bilingual, was active in her high school community and graduated with honors in Neenah. She wanted to go to a University and was accepted. She is undocumented. She does not qualify for in state tuition. She cannot take out loans. She went to community college instead. She could do better. It is a waste of talent. What do we gain by holding back these smart students? Immigrant children were thrown into a new environment with new challenges without making that choice and they are thriving. How much would society benefit from more people who are smart and hardworking but also have perspective on how to persevere, how to overcome and know what it is like to be different?

We talk a lot about diversity these days, but the approach is so often tokenistic. It is as if we want to make them more visible so long as we do not need to afford them more opportunities. The fastest route to class mobilization is education. One of, if not the most important, approaches to class integration is more economic equality- which comes with education. Marta is intelligent, composed, and charismatic. Moreover, she is young, fresh and ambitious. She is the future. Shame on us for putting a limit on the power she will have to shape what that future looks like.

I heard her story during the afternoon and I know how powerful it is. Sadly, much of the value of the story and the other testimonies like it were overpowered by my frantic quest to find the source of the technical problem and fix it. I zipped back and forth on stage, I sent other people up to stage and I’m afraid the chaos was not only distracting but gave the perception of an unorganized and unprofessional team. A handful of people walked out. This is regrettable because when doing a forum like this, especially when addressing sensitive issues and creating a comfortable open space for dialogue is essential.

Technical problems aside, the audience participation section was valuable. Some commented on the disorder and others on mixed messaging:

The first speaker: “I’ve been here an hour and a half and I still don’t know what it is that you’re trying to tell me. That you’ve had a hard life?” Like many, she indicates she thinks we all go through hardships, that life is full of struggles for everyone and suffering alone does not merit breaking the law.

It is another member of the audience was answers the question. She interjects that experiences of American suffering are different than our neighbors to the South. To her, Americans have no context for understanding the difference between the poverty of Mexico and the poverty of America. If one you were only making three dollars, five dollars a day, what would you do? She asks.

There is retaliation and a response to Luz’s testimony, “I’ve been to Mexico” an American woman informs us “and I am not a citizen there. If you do something illegal they will throw you in jail. It is the same.”

A man sitting nearby agrees that low wages are driving workers here, but asks Mexicans instead to challenge a corrupt government to change, to rise up to the challenge the way we do here.

A father refers to Christine’s presentation on NAFTA and the influence of trade agreements on migration, “It seems to me that we caused this whole mess. I’m a father and I always tell my son to clean up his mess. It seems to me that we have to clean up our mess.”

Another man falls somewhere in the middle. He thinks it is clear that NAFTA is at the root of the problem, he sees that immigrants are beneficial to the economy, but these things alone do not justify disobeying the rules. He wonders why can’t they just come through legal channels and uphold the laws in the American tradition?

I disagree on this point. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but we have become a society that accepts, if not encourages, the manipulation of the law to achieve maximum profit. He cites an American tradition of upholding the law. To the contrary I think the most important moments of American history were when the people rose up to challenge laws that we saw as unjust. The Boston tea party and the history of the American Revolution epitomize the principles of defiance, not compliance that our country was founded on. Have we forgotten the abolitionist movement? The labor movement? The womens suffragist movement? These were among our finest moments as a country. If we close our doors on that tradition, we what do we have left to be proud of?

The two sides of this debate are not so different. Do we want people to do it the “legal” way? Yes, everyone does. We disagree on the degree to which that is possible. People say “get in line.” The reality is there is hardly a line anymore. Immigrant labor is cheap and when it is illegal it is even cheaper. Undocumented immigrants can be exploited because they are afraid and they do not have the same civic rights and they will not complain. They will not go on welfare, they will not use food stamps and they will never get a tax return from the taxes that they are paying. As this has become more and more clear, the government has systematically been destroying the line. As demand for immigrant labor has risen, the government has cut back the number of visas available to the United States from Mexico. The line is disappearing.

Deportation and border security is also profitable. The companies that have the military contracts in Iraq are getting paid billions by the government to militarize the border. Private detention centers along the border are also getting paid to fill those beds. A detention center is different than a prison. Criminals in prisons are citizens and have rights. Detainees are not granted the same civic rights and as Tomas told us earlier this week the conditions are deplorable, despicable and almost unlivable. The majority of the detainees are deported, transplanted into their home countries with nothing. Who are they going to tell? Who is going to listen? As the profits have grown the legal path available has eroded to the extent that now it hardly exists. The debate is not about getting in line. It’s about recreating the line that we took away in the interest of profit.

That is what I wanted to say in Appleton. Unfortunately, I was busy trying to fix the technical problems.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

From tour bus to tour buzz

We're five days in and media interest is coming at us like a deluge...

It's even coming at us *during* a deluge.... big kudos to Melanie who kept a radio interview going when the heavens opened over Appleton and soaked her to the skin.

Amid the forums and the travelling, we caught nothing of the radio and TV coverage until tonight's interview with WORT (88.9 FM and

You’ll find it online via: (look for 'In Our Backyard Thursday July 12').

The feature begins 19 minutes into the half hour show.

Green Bay - Day 4 (Wednesday p.m.)

“No plans tonight? Attend forum on immigration reform.”

This is the headline of an article posted shortly before the forum today in Green Bay (incidentally following a press conference we held mostly because we had no other plans). Green Bay is hot spot in the immigration debate largely because of the recently passed ordinance.

Ordinances are powerful mechanisms of change. A positive ordinance is a victory, a mandate for modifying what’s broken. The Milwaukee police passed an ordinance promising they will not seek out undocumented workers. A negative ordinance can be devastating. Green Bay is a bad ordinance. I see a copy for the first time today.

It says: “No city license shall be issued to unauthorized aliens.”

It says: “It shall be a defense that an employer was shown and can produce fraudulent documentation of an employee’s legal immigration status.”

This clearly includes food and liquor licenses, an obvious blow to the restaurant industry which is one of the largest employers of undocumented workers. The bill also calls for a screening program to check for social security numbers and false documents for all licensed businesses. The program is administered by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and encourages employees to act as immigration officers. It promotes raids like the one in Whitewater. Perhaps the most troubling clause is the one that comes last:

“All ordinances, or parts of ordinances, in conflict herewith are hereby repealed.”

In other words all the positive ordinances calling for respect are trounced in two words: hereby repealed. There was widespread support for the Green Bay ordinance and the city is the largest to have passed an ordinance of its kind. With this knowledge in hand, we came expecting a fight.

The battle of Green Bay never came. Instead we heard, “one of the things about the ordinance that most frightens me is that it gives people license to be disrespectful to others. We must fight against this sort of thing.”

A hundred people arrived and listened. While I imagine there were dissenting voices among us, none of them spoke out, they merely observed politely. Also among the under represented was the Hispanic population. Fortunately, the entire forum was simulcast on the local Spanish radio. The representative from the station says the people are scared to come to things like this, but also recognizes that they should be, that they need to be.

There are more questions about legalization, “I understand that most people came legally and then stayed later. Is that true?”

Christine points out that yes, 60% of undocumented workers have overstayed visas, but emphasizes that this trend only began in the 1970’s when the US systematically started cutting back the numbers of visas to countries which generated the most demand for those visas.

Maria brings up another important, often overlooked point. She clarifies that not everyone who is here came legally or illegally. She is from Texas which was part of Mexico not so long ago. She quips, “my family didn’t cross the border, the border crossed my family.”

For the first time Luz is asked about her crossing. She hesitates before answering and Christine assures here that it is okay to talk. Luz applied twice for a visa and was twice denied. She decided to come illegally to visit her sons who had already come. At first she just wanted to visit, but after investing so much time and so much risk just to arrive for a visit she began to question whether it was worth it to go back. It would be a risk to stay and a risk to go back. If she went back would she be able to overcome the risk of another trip to see her family again? She decided if she is going to take a risk, it is better to do so close to her family.

Another person asks about about "six month visas or something?" Christine responds, “it’s a thing called the guest worker program, it ties a worker to a single employer and it’s as close to slavery as you can get.”

The audience is sympathetic. The woman who asked Luz to share her story then turns back to the audience and rails against a prohibitive system. Another woman wearing a headscarf informs us that she has cancer. Maria lost a daughter to cancer while waiting for her husband to get his legalization. The woman tells Maria she cannot imagine going through it without her family.

The talk moves to mobilization. A recent graduate complains that she has been here seven years and has not been able to find diversity. Local panelist Matt Hollenbeck takes the mic to talk about diversity circles and the anti-ordinance effort. A minute later there’s a paper in my hand with a phone contact for involvement in the diversity effort. Matt says there is a need to organize voters. He asks for help especially in predominately Hispanic wards to bring allies into the government so this doesn’t happen again.

The panel finishes and we stop the discussion. We mingle, we talk, we network and the night comes to a close. As we’re packing up two Hispanic men come rushing in. They heard the testimony on the Spanish radio and when they realized it was simulcast they came because they wanted more information. They want to tell their friends. We chat for a while and they walk out with us as we’re leaving. They tell me that they did have plans for tomorrow night but they are going to break those plans. They would rather go to our forum in Appleton.

Thus, perhaps the Green Bay headline would have better read: Plans tonight? Attend immigration forum instead.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Sheboygan - Day 3 (Tuesday p.m.)

If we were one state over they would have called it, “Minnesota nice.” Sheboygan was a different atmosphere than the last stops. We walk into a brightly lit church basement, food spread in back, tables with cloths and flowers and individual prayer cards at each spot. Welcome to a Midwestern church forum. I was pleased to see that the forum was so inviting- it is important to have a comforting space when so many are so afraid to come, so many afraid to speak out.

The event is a little panel heavy. Luz gives her same heartfelt testimonial, Maria talks about her struggles with the legalization process and how difficult it is to be separated from loved ones, how difficult it is to wait. A Cuban priest joins the panel, he is hopeful, says he has felt welcome in this country. The problems and the testimonies make him sad. Yet he has met good people and believes there is hope. Jorge Mayorga is also a priest working in Milwaukee and came originally as refugee from El Salvador. He reminds us that it is important that people like him who have had positive experiences in the United States give back something back. Veronica Castro comes from Southwest Texas and now resides in Green Bay. She has a Hispanic name, but is of Hispanic, Native American and German descent. Born and raised in the US, she said she was largely uninvolved in immigration issues because most of her life she was unaffected. Bilingual, she was often asked to serve as translator for businesses she was working with. Her call to personal action came when she took a break from work and decided to translate for immigrants seeking social services. It was at that time that she began to notice the anti immigrant comments coming from friends and coworkers, sentiments that the city would be better, more job secure and safer without this sudden influx of Hispanic workers. She was invited to sit in on City Council meetings in Green Bay and that’s really when it all changed. Her background is in human resources and she sees the discrepancies in the ordinance. The ordinance calls for heightened background checks on social security numbers. It calls for the revocation of licenses of business owners who employee undocumented workers. Veronica says that no one has the right to just walk into a business and demand their HR files. She also points out that corporations with factories that hire undocumented would be unaffected as they do not need the same licenses that small business owners like restaurants and convenience stores would need, small businesses one might add that are by and large owned by immigrants and ethnic minorities. Green Bay is the largest city in the United States to have passed an ordinance of this kind.

Christine talks again about NAFTA and the global acceptance of the movement of goods and the parallel stigma associated with the movement of people. Christine’s presentation and Veronica’s assessment of the Green Bay ordinance gives an appropriate juxtaposition of two sides of the same problem. A woman in the audience asks what we can do if the problem is with corporations, globalization, how can we make any difference? The answer lies with Veronica- take action on a local level. The issue is global, but the manifestations are local and can be extremely damaging. We must promote positive ordinances, oppose the raids, and treat people with dignity. These are all tangible, local and necessary. Another woman notes the location of the forum in a church and challenges us, “Chicago is a sanctuary city, why isn’t Sheboygan a sanctuary city?” Several in the audience clap acknowledging that they too believe it is time for a new sanctuary movement.

Another woman, a legal immigrant from Cuba is worried because she knows so little about the rules. She teaches piano to students who are both documented and undocumented. She claims, “I will continue to help, but am I at risk? Is it illegal to teach undocumented immigrants?” We assure her that it is not, but she highlights the uncertainty of many. It demonstrates the way that the fear is not limited to the undocumented, not only the immigrants, and as the laws become harsher their reach is spreading and so is the fear. It is a counterproductive fear because while the Cuban speaker assures us that she will continue to help, not everyone will. We remind her of her rights and we give her some information about the rights that everyone, documented or not also have. Fear is a powerful weapon and it is this basic information that is so essential to fortifying the movement. These simple interactions, these short idea exchanges are testament to the value of this tour.

Sheboygan testimonies

Whitewater - Day 3, Part 2 (Tuesday p.m.)

“Where are the workers?” asks Maria.

“There are no workers” is the reply as we walk into the eerily silent Star Packaging factory in Whitewater.

It is a vivid, shocking and saddening example of the inadequacy of the system. The Star Packaging facotry was the site of an immigration raid in August 2006, where Luz, one of our travelers and a featured panelist was employed. We pay a visit after the panel. It is 1:00 p.m. on a Tuesday. Normally first shift would be in full swing, with about 80 employees busy at work, machines buzzing and clinking. Now there is no one. Overnight the plant went from 100 employees to nine. The machines are still. All we can hear is the slight hum of a generator. The warehouse is empty. All we can see are yellow lines where boxes should have been.

Star packaging is bankrupting. The employees are gone, the once robust revenues have gone to court fees because the owner too is being indicted for hiring undocumented workers. He could have made a settlement and admitted that he had done wrong by hiring these workers, but he did not. Our guide tells us that the family is surviving on retirement money. “This has ruined our lives” she says.

The loss for the workers, those awaiting deportation is obvious. But the devastation of the raid does not stop with those directly impacted. Whitewater is a small town and Star Packaging is a small business supporting the local economy. As a leading employee and an active community member, one has to wonder what is the economic loss to the city to the people of Whitewater? The factory owner gave to charities and supported events. The workers in the factory shopped at the stores, went to the restaurants, rented their homes. They were not criminals, they were not robbing, they were simply working and buying and living – perfectly in sync with the American way. The factory owner fears they will have to sell, 25 years of work gone, and seek a new beginning. No longer can he contribute to the local charities, sponsor local events or be an active member of the community. He is too busy fighting imprisonment for the crime of employing people who needed jobs. He is running bankrupt struggling for his own freedom.

The family is livid. Star Packaging was at one time a large financial contributor to community groups and events. His daughter tells us with a grimace of disgust, that the raid and the public knowledge of their legal battle, does not stop the local police from having the audacity to call from time to time seeking donations.

What will happen when all the factories close? What will happen to a town like Whitewater when one by one the factories that line the outskirts of town shut down and move away because their workers are scared, their employers live in fear and there is no one left to do the work? What will happen if all the workers are detained and all the employers thrown in jail? What will happen to the restaurants these people used to go to, the stores they used to shop at? The factory is dead, a ghost town. Will the rest of the town follow suit?

The devastation caused by this raid is visually apparent. Far less clear is who benefited from this “victory” in the immigration fight? Who were the winners in this? I’ve been thinking about it all day, and I still can’t find an answer.

Luz Huitron - Whitewater testimony

Whitewater - Day 3 (Tuesday a.m.)

“No taxation without representation.” It is a phrase harking back to the days of the American Revolution. This rallying cry of the 1760’s summarizes a primary grievance of the original colonists who were expected to pay taxes without any representation in the British parliament. More than 200 years ago we won that revolution, but the core problem of economic contribution without political voice persists.

Jorge Islas of Sigma America challenges the group in Whitewater today to recall any time that they were told they didn't have to pay sales tax because they are an illegal? Or that there wouldn’t be any deductions from their paychecks because they’re illegal? "Immigrants are paying taxes" he reiterates "and they are not taking welfare or food stamps."

His frustrations remind me of another impassioned speaker at the forum in Beloit last night. A Dominican and long time resident, he agrees and he is angry. He poses a rhetorical question: “Does the American economy benefit from immigration?” hesitates, and then answers it “Absolutely they benefit, they want immigrants to come here, they just want to abuse them without giving us any rights.” One can’t help but wonder, is this taxation without representation all over again? Is there a new type of neocolonialism within our own borders?

Some of the people we meet in Whitewater seem to think so. Taxes are one of many hard hitting issues raised in our most emotional visit yet. Many tears are shed. Luz gives her testimony particularly eloquently and we lose a translator to tears of sympathy. Tomas who joins us again from Madison is close to tears this time. He trembles as he speaks and apologizes, telling us that he hoped he wouldn’t cry this time, but it is so hard to remember. “People are being mistreated,” he repeats, clearly distressed and with urgency. All three detention centers where Tomas was held facing deportation are all private - this means that they squeeze budgets by overcrowding rooms, denying medical care and providing substandard food. They get away with it because the detainees are by and large deported, never to come back, never to speak up. Carmen, Tomas’ wife, talks of her struggle from the outside to get him back and their new struggle together to help those still stuck inside detention centers. She weeps, "there are children in there, what is going to happen to those children?"

The tears keep coming. An elderly woman cries behind me and laments, “this just makes me sick.” The reporter sitting across from me is welling up. One tear manages to sneak its way out of my eye and my lip is quivering, but somehow I manage to brush the tear away without much notice.

There are so many stories to hear. Maria Morales, a traveling member of our tour, was reunited with her husband of seven years just two months ago. She is a citizen he is not. They married and they thought it would be easy. He had to go back to Mexico, he had to ask for a pardon (a pardon for what crime? she asks), he had to get letters of support to gain status as a legal residence. It took seven years. A lot happens in seven years. Children grow up, cities change, people change. In Maria’s case, she lost a daughter to cancer without her husband at her side, without the support she needed from her partner. Maria did it the legal way, but it is easy to see why so many cannot. We talk about waiting in line, but the need is immediate. “Now there is no line,” a woman informs us, “they took it away.” Seven years is too long.

The Whitewater workers stand up to talk about the raid against the backdrop of the place where it happened. The police station is adjacent to our meeting room. They confide that they were scared to talk today, here so close to the scene of the raid of the hours that followed, but go through with the testimony. Jorge reassures us that the location was deliberate. He frames the session as an opportunity to “rebuild the trust that was broken.” Luz, though visibly nervous at first, starts to speak and grows in confidence with each word. In the end she tells us, “I’m not afraid to speak out anymore because I have already lived much of my life. But it is not like that for many people.” She says she is doing it for the 12 million others. There are too many young who are still living in fear.

A former pastor nods in sympathy. He says, “I feel like America has lost its soul.” The whole of the session is despairing, but the testimony is also oddly therapeutic. People are talking and I get the sense they have wanted to talk for a long time. This dialogue is the first step.

The event is dynamic because it addresses so well the complexity and the various facets of the issue. Maria explains the impossible bureaucracy of the system and Luz pleads to be treated with dignity. Their words help to restore the humanity of a group that is often only talked about in statistics and stereotypes. Christine and Tomas command the audience to look at the roots of the problem. For Christine, it is understanding the way that trade forces people to make a choice between their home and their economic security. For Tomas, it is unburying the dark underside of the system and the profits that are to be made from treating people like animals. Profits to companies contracted by the government to build and operate these detention centers paid for by everyone’s (including the undocumented) tax dollars.

This is hard. The system is strong and many of its components deeply entrenched. Entrenched, but not impossible to adjust. People are talking and that is a first step.

~Melanie Benesh

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Beloit - Day 2 (Monday p.m.)

Monday evening, we trade the grandeur of the Capital Building for a church hall in Beloit, a city almost falling over the Wisconsin border into Illinois.

Ten days earlier, Beloit hadn’t even been on our tour map; now we're here, receiving the warmest of welcomes as we step off the bus.

Set up: we’re now finely tuned. The traveling photo exhibit is up in no time - and here it has lots more space. Many eyes take in the images as the room begins to fill.

We take away the tables separating panel from the audience – that’s not how we want it. This should be person to person.

Empty seats become scarce, the hum of conversation rises, then falls as we call things to order.

Our format cuts to the quick - no big ideas. The immigration debate has human faces, human tragedies. The spotlight shines on Whitewater as three people speak out about lives devastated by last August’s packing factory raid. Magdalena shares the story of a normal day at the factory broken by a voice over the megaphone. The machines stop. Is there an accident people wonder? Soon they have an answer. Immigration cops are everywhere, pointing guns, shouting. “They came in as if they were looking for assassins,” she says. Bodies tense up in the audience at the image. “It’s like the world came down for us. Myself and my co-workers were just struggling to take care of our families… In that moment all our dreams were shattered.” She tells of hours of interrogation, an attorney denied. “We didn’t know we had rights. We felt very forced to answer their questions.” Six hours later they were in a jail, she says - families shattered, yet faced with the urgency of raising thousands of dollars bail to get them out. “Many of us had long stays… 9 days. It was a lot of money for all the families.”

Javier speaks next. He tells us his experience is similar, but his tone is different, angrier. There’s something he wants to add, he says. Not a story, but a question. Not one, but several, each challenging our humanity : “Would the juice that you drink taste any different if an American picked the fruit?”

The words I understand come from a translator, but I’m ahead… for all my lack of Spanish, I’ve heard them already - in the urgency of his questioning voice, in his standing tall before us, proud, unbroken. These things have spoken to me well before the translation arrives.

When Christine takes the floor, we are soon journeying with her. She weaves a path from the raw testimonies we have just heard, to impersonal, intangible acronymns – NAFTA, CAFTA - striking out borders for business and pushing workers around - literally. What do those abbreviations stand for? Misery.

We move to questions. A familiar one comes at us again, but with a difference. Last time it was hostile, tonight it’s from someone wanting ammunition to take on the myths - “People say ‘Why can’t Mexicans wait in line? Explain why.’”

The answer is simple: “There is no line”. Christine unpacks it. The line was taken away. Politicians took the immigration system of previous generations – open and mostly welcoming – and started slamming doors shut. Today, most are locked tight. Work visas for legal immigration from Mexico barely exist, she says. The quota stands at something like 500 a year.

More contributions. Questions mix with personal testimonies as Latino audience members speak up. People are heard, respected, affirmed. Hostility has found no place in the room, but one man questions the focus. “We’ve moved away from what the meeting was for,” he begins. “There’s no point talking about economics and other governments when there’s nothing we can do about it. We need to look at what we can do here and now.” Some people nod. Christine comes back, acknowledging the point: “NAFTA IS a big issue, but we need to understand it in flesh and blood.” It’s as close as we get to a disagreement.

Samantha Jiminez - Beloit testimony

Madison - Day 2 (Monday a.m.)

Immigration is not a new story. This is visually apparent as the panel begins and we are sitting inside a grandiose hearing room inside the state capital. The domed ceiling is bordered with four vivid murals depicting the arrival and the progression of pilgrims seeking refuge in a new land. In the beginning, people came here for refuge, opportunity and hope. They still do. Immigration is not a new story and neither is the tension between the new and the old. The paintings in the capital are beautiful, but painfully euphemistic. They portray a partnership, a unity between the pilgrims and the Native Americans. We all know how the rest of that story unfolded. The paintings are a sugarcoated history, and it is clear that many in the room feel as though much of the rhetoric around immigration reform is equally sugarcoated if not outright deceptive. The message in the forum today was clear- people are ready for something a little more real.

And so we take the capital by storm. On the panel sit four Latinos, aptly and ironically framed by an American flag on one side and the Wisconsin state flag on the other. Sal Carranza, a local Latino leader is the chair, Luz Huitron continues as the voice of the Whitewater workers, Christine Neumann-Ortiz highlights immigration in a global context talk, and our local panelist is Tomas Contreras. The testimony is passionate, shocking and unrestrained. But then anyone who has ever been to Madison would expect nothing less.

Perhaps the most shocking story is told by Tomas. In January 2007 Tomas was detained at the border for three months. Tomas is a legal resident of the United States. He got a green card in 1964 and traveled to the United States with his family to pick produce. He worked hard, studied and today is the owner of five businesses in the Madison area. Until 2007, Tomas’s story was the classic immigration story, the one proud Americans love to tell. In essence, Tomas was the manifestation of the American dream. And overnight he was thrown into a living nightmare.

It is hard for Tomas to speak about the atrocities of the detention center. He tells the captive audience that “we were treated worse than criminals.” He describes in detail the initial detention, the lack of access to food and water and the mental and physical toll. The detention centers are overcrowded and incubators for disease and discomfort. He recalls life in a dorm room, built for sixty, but routinely filled with 100 or even 150 people. If someone vomited the place would smell for days.

There is not freedom to speak in the detention centers. He was one of the few bold enough to speak up about his treatment and was thrown in solitary confinement for 30 days. Tomas was betrayed by a country that once gave him so much. In a particularly heated moment he exclaims, “I did not know this was possible in the United States!” Tomas took action by going on hunger strike. He did not eat, did not drink for 8 days. When his peers rallied to his side and said that he needed to eat to have the strength to fight Tomas was tied up and transported to another center along the border after just one bite.

People begin to ask questions and Tomas’s epic becomes more deplorable when a woman asks if he knows anything of a recent CNN story on rape. Without hesitation Tomas informs us that it’s bad, that many are raped, that “women are raped, children are raped and young men are raped.” Children are born in detention centers and those children are citizens. He says no one knows what to do with these children.

So what happened to Tomas? He was released after three months following heavy support and petitioning from groups in Wisconsin. What was his crime? In 1989, he was pulled over and the mat had a little bit of cocaine residue. There were no drugs in the car and the offense was minor. Seven years later in 1996 a law was passed allowing the government to deport non citizens for certain crimes. In 2007, eleven years after that, Tomas went on vacation and the 1996 law was applied to the 1989 crime and Tomas, a legal resident for more than forty years, was told that he was not welcome to return. The American dream shattered by a broken system.

Many are shaken by the testimony. Luz’s testimony is equally raw and emotional. She gives the same plea for dignity. She tells us, “We’ve come to survive and overcome the poverty in our own country. We’re humiliated, we’re violated. We don’t come to rob, we just come to survive. We’re humans just like they are.”

Salvador agrees and articulates “Ideology divides us, our struggles and dreams unite us….humanity has to prevail.”

The scope of the discussion continues to grow as more and more people - immigrants, union leaders, activists and political reps share their stories, their insights and frustrations. And that’s when something magical happens. Without any prompting from the panelists the conversation organically progresses from the emotional to the organizational. People start asking different questions. Not what happened, but what can we do? A political rep asks about companies in the area with particularly bad working conditions. A union organizer tells of his experience organizing nationally and suggests more idea sharing. An activist advertises her upcoming session. A student asks, “what can I tell my parents?” and there is no shortage of suggestions. The time runs out, but the discussions continue informally in the hallway, by the podium, around the photo exhibit until everything is packed up and we have to leave. We have to leave but we have only begun to ferment the dialogue. Business cards are exchanged, e-mail lists compiled and the discussion will go on.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Tomas Contreras - Madison testimony

Newspaper Feature - July 19, 2007

Madison man charges abuse at private detention centers
Capital Times, Madison

La Crosse - Day One (Sunday)

“You people really irritate me.” We’ve scarcely arrived and already a heavyset man accosts us as we walk into the lobby, photo boards and newspapers in hand, getting ready for our first stop in the Reality Tour. This is our first impression of La Crosse, a mid size, historic, middle American town on the banks of the Mississippi River. Fortunately, the initial hostility of the evening was not a foreshadow for the rest of the event.

The forum starts out with testimony from three perspectives: Luz Huitron, a worker impacted by a factory raid in Whitewater, WI and detained for two days; John Rosenow a Wisconsin Dairy farmer and employer of migrant workers; and Dr. Jeff Thompson CEO of Gunderson Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse.

Then, Keith Matthews of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR); Christine Neumann Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera; and Victoria Seltun, immigration attorney took the stage to respond to audience discussion. A myriad of emotions came forward. Comments ranged from the sympathetic to outright racist. Luz is accused of embellishing her story, but many in the crowd rush to her defense. One man, an employee at the hospital, storms out and confides to us in the hallway, “It’s hard enough that I have to put up with vermin like him in addition to trying to take care of sick people.” Another woman in the audience comments, “lady liberty would be sad.”

They talk about the past. Christine makes reference the sanctuary movement for Central American refugees in the 1980’s, where churches opened their doors to the refugees with the message that if refugees were sent back to their countries where they would fear for their lives- it would be “not in our name.” She calls for a new sanctuary movement. People also look at the trade deals of the past, identified by many as a root of the problem. Christine highlights a net loss of jobs in Mexico as a direct result of NAFTA. A local farmer agrees saying “trade agreements hurt everyone.” He says his employees don’t want to stay long and they don’t want to be so far from home, he says we all want to be close to home, the trade agreements and the negative impact on the economy for the poor overrides that desire to stay, it forces people to leave.

They talk about the status quo. People are worried about crimes, gangs and a strain on resources. One man calls the Latino population “cruddy people” and suggests that if these cruddy people were taken care of it would ease the path for the nice people who don’t want to cause problems. Another person defends the immigrant contribution of the billions of taxes that are being paid and notes that none of those workers are taking welfare because they are afraid of being identified. Another farmer comments on the demand for labor. Of her employees she says, “They want to obey the laws, they are decent people who just want to make some money and go home. You think there’s enough people to work here? There’s not!” Another man reminds us that we are in a war, a war on terror and unsecure borders make us vulnerable. A blue collar worker feels threatened, he says, “I see what they do- we’re losing.”

We talk about the future. There are legitimate concerns- how can we reach an acceptable compromise? How do we address population pressures? There are also somewhat preposterous concerns as one man prophesizes, “we’re going to be impoverished by these immigrants! America will become a third world country!”

And of course the blame gets passed. The undocumented immigrants are to blame for their defiance of the legal system. The corporations are to blame for the unfair trade agreements, the exploitation of workers on both sides of the border. The Mexican government is to blame for their corruption. Our government is to blame for not enforcing the laws. No one, it seems, is personally to blame.

Yet through all the polarization and strong opinions there is an overtly present middle ground. This perspective came from people who I believe see themselves as hardworking, decent people who provide for their families and do their best to not cause problems. They want the best for everyone, but they want to see it happen within a certain prescribed legal framework. One woman describes herself as a grateful citizen and says that she wants to help everyone who needs help, but “let’s be legal so I know who I’m helping.” This is where I see some common ground. She wants the same things for her family that the millions who cross our border want for theirs. She wants to do it legally, so do they. The problem is that she has little context for understanding just how tenuous and complicated the process is. The difference is that the undocumented have already seen that they could be waiting for ten years, fifteen years or a lifetime to gain entry if ever and this is too long. When wages are falling, jobs are moving, and families are going hungry the immediacy of survival supersedes respect for the law. We share this fundamental drive for survival. We also share these same basic desires for work, for community, opportunities for our children and for a little bit of security. As more and more in the audience extend their empathy but demand order, I can’t help wonder what kind of choices they would make under different circumstances. Would they uphold the laws they love if it meant forsaking the survival of their family, the opportunities for their children? Would you?

~Melanie Benesh, Reality Tour Coordinator, Voces de la Frontera