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.


Tina McDaniels said...

There is no country in the world that can add 20 million people to its citizenship base. 20 million people having families can quadruple its population in less than a decade. Overpopulation depletes resources--overcrowding of schools, urban density, electricity, water, congestion. Tensions among people develop as a result and then this place is not a pleasant country to live in. If this were a matter of a few hundred thousand economic refugees, American sympathies would rule. Poverty in Mexico? What about poverty in Darfur? Surely those Sudanese would also love to come to America as they are suffering both from starvation and genocide. Mexicans cannot claim all of our spaces for immigrants--others in the world want to emigrate here as well.

T. McDonald said...

Yes, the truth is that this country has once more returned to slavery to achieve economic gain, luring nearly 20 million illegal immigrants to work for less than the minimum wage.

American labor history is filled with the sacrifices of workers to create a workplace that respects its workers instead of exploiting them. The result is a living wage, safe working conditions, appropriate pay for overtime work, equality of opportunity.

But using illegal workers is the same as using scabs that undermine the progress in the American workplace. American businesses are all to happy to use illegals who'll work for less, who won't demand overtime, safety, advancement. Is slavery really a step up, and is it fair to American workers who have died for better workplace conditions?