Tuesday, July 10, 2007

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.

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