Monday, July 9, 2007

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


Anonymous said...

Balanced, thought-provoking commentary on a difficult and divisive issue. Let the dialogue continue.

Cody said...

As a former resident of LaCrosse I am all to familiar with the close minded and ignorant mentality of many of its citizens. Sadly I feel many people perceive migrant workers as a lesser being here only to exploit our social welfare systems. Well unlike some, I have dared to venture outside the sheltered microcosm of LaCrosse, and have even....(Brace yourself) traveled south of our US border on many different occasions. With regard to the perception of Mexicans being lowly scoundrels living in squalor nothing could be further from the truth. In fact most Mexicans and even myself would prefer to live in Mexico over the United states. Furthermore the poverty experienced by the majority of Mexicans is by in large created by us. We exploit their cheap labor and refuse to pay more for the goods and services we receive from their nation thereby exacerbating the problem. If an American factory worker or farmhand could make approximately 10 times more working in Canada, I can guarantee 99% of those who consider it patriotic to keep the American workforce white, would soon lose sight of their alleged patriotism and head north, whether it be legally or not. My point, take a look at your own actions as a consumer and think about your impact on the situation before you slam the front door on people who are human beings just as we are. LaCrosse is a beautiful city and as is evidenced by the changing leaves in fall, only made more beautiful by adding a little color. So please let's be a little more hospitable towards our neighbors.

Voces de la Frontera said...

Letter to The La Crosse Tribune from Dave Smiezek, Onalaska, Wisconsin - published July 15.

I attended the meeting at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center about immigration. Christine Neumann-Ortiz made many arguments for the illegals, including how difficult it is to cross the border. Crossing the border illegally is breaking the law in any country. I talked with her after the meeting, and all she could talk about was how the United States needs to change its laws.

I told her that the United States doesn’t need to change any laws. We need to enforce them. Mexico needs to change its laws.

I have been in Mexico at least 20 different times. The problem with Mexico is the division of wealth. After all, the richest man in the world comes from Mexico, Carlos Slim Helu (yes, more than Bill Gates). There are many millionaires in Mexico and a small middle class. That’s Mexico’s problem, not ours.

Unfortunately, people in this area don’t realize what a strain illegals are. They are a considerable burden on health care, schools and the general infrastructure of any area where they reside.

I worked construction my whole life, and I worked closely with payroll. Illegals go exempt on their W-4s and don’t bother to pick up their W-2s. They do not pay federal taxes. The La Crosse area is just starting to feel the influx, and shame on anyone who hires them.