Our Neighbors: Out of the Shadows Rev. Kate Rohde March 27, 2011 It was cold in the Arizona desert in that January, 2008. Most people don’t realize how very hot the Arizona desert can be in the summer or how very cold it can be in the winter. Josseline, a small Salvadoran teenager, was travelling across the desert with a group of other migrants, including her little brother. They were led by a coyote, a man paid to help people cross the border while evading immigration authorities. Josseline was travelling so that she and her brother could join their mother who had a job in Los Angeles. Five feet tall, a hundred pounds, she wore bright green sneakers and several layers of clothing, both to carry the extra clothing and to keep warm. During the night the temperatures had dipped below freezing, and Salvadorans have no clothing for such weather. They had already travelled thousands of miles through Guatemala and all through Mexico. When they got to Cedar Canyon she began to feel sick. Perhaps she hadn’t brought enough water, or she had drunk from a contaminated well, but whatever the cause she began vomiting and was so sick she could not go forward. The coyote had a decision to make: Stay with the sick girl and the whole group would miss its ride and probably be caught, or leave her behind. He chose the latter. Her nine year old brother begged to stay with her, but the group took him with them, wailing. When he arrived at his mother’s house alone several days later, Josseline’s mother raised the alarm about her missing daughter. By that time Josseline had been in the cold in the desert for several days. Three weeks later a volunteer named Dan from for the Group “No More Deaths,” a group that searches the desert for injured migrants and leaves water during the hot summers so people will not die from dehydration, was scouring the desert. He noticed a bright green shoe and the now unrecognizable body of a young girl. It was only the shoes and the clothing that let him know that this was one of the people they had been looking for: Josseline Jameleth Hernandes Quinteros. Josseline’s remains were sent to her mother, where Josseline found a resting place at her destination here, in the United States. She is only one among thousands who have died in a desperate journey to a better life. She, at least, went home to her family. Hundreds of others now lie in American morgues, unidentified, while still others still lie in the desert, bones bleached by the sun, their families never knowing exactly what has become of their father, their brother, their mother, their sister, their child. Every year more than half a million people cross our Southern borders, risking their lives so that they can get jobs cleaning our toilets, picking our crops, making our beds, taking care of our children, planting our gardens, butchering our meat, constructing our buildings – they come in order to feed themselves and their families. Or perhaps they face the danger to see their family once again. With crackdowns at the border after 2001 there was little change in the number coming up, but a large change in the numbers who died doing so. Indeed, as border crossings became more difficult, more women and children came to join their husbands who could no longer risk going back and forth across the border to
2 visit from time to time. It was only with the economic downturn, the decrease in jobs, that fewer made the journey north. Like many political issues in our country, migration has come to the fore not because of some real change that necessitated an adjustment in our behavior. There have been people migrating to our country for work in great numbers since before the United States began. I wager a good many of our ancestors came without visas or immigration papers. Currently, with fewer jobs available, many have returned home to Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Migration has come to the fore as another wedge issue, an issue which can exploit fears so that unscrupulous people can make us look away from the real causes of the problems that beset us. The narrative has been changed, so that, rather than focusing our dismay about high unemployment, the shrinking middle class, and mass foreclosures onto those who are most responsible for it, we will instead focus on the most vulnerable in our midst â€“ poor people trying to better their condition who have no legal rights to do so. At a time when we are being told that we are too broke to pay for schools or meals for the poor or college loans for the young, our government found billions of dollars to build fences and barriers at our southern border. These barriers and fences have been costly. They have been an ecological nightmare, cutting across the habitat of desert animals and destroying fragile desert ecosystems. Literally hundreds of environmental laws were overruled using the new Homeland Security regulations. Endangered species are now more endangered because they cannot as easily migrate to feed and to propagate. But humans have more resources. A barrier that might stop a jaguar will not stop a young man with a rope or a ladder. The wall did not stop human migration; it is, as the Border Patrol says, merely a speed bump. Our government found money to increase technology and manpower at the southern border. It has cut down the numbers of people who cross at some of the busiest crossings, and driven them to take bigger risks in remote and barren areas. But as one of the migrants himself said: If you close one place, like ants we will find another hole in the border. Most migrants come for work and, if return were easy, would return home once they made enough money here that they could survive in their own country, and would visit home frequently, maintaining contacts there. Indeed, in my travels in Central America I met hundreds of people who had spent time in the US, saved up money, and returned home with a nest egg that allowed them to live a modest but decent life at home. A taxi driver had worked in a chicken factory in Arkansas until he earned enough to by a taxi. A grandmother had been a housekeeper to earn enough to send her eldest grandchild to a vocational school. Of course, after working here for years, especially when it is difficult to return home, many make a life for themselves and prefer not to return, and some fall in love, marry, and have a house, a small business, and a family. The children who migrate often become so Americanized that when deported they do not know the culture or the language of the country in which they were born. Imagine if one of our native born teenagers was suddenly transported and set down across the border in Guanajuato. What would
3 she do, how would she live? And yet this happens to youngsters no different than our own, except that these children’s birth certificates list a different country of birth. There are many ways in which we as a country contribute to making this migration from Latin America to the U.S. something that people will leave everything they have known and take huge risks and often spend their life’s savings to do. The first thing, of course, is that we offer jobs. This is often literally true. I am told that not long in the past there were posters in Mexico beckoning to Mexicans to come to Nebraska and work in our meatpacking plants. There are a great many American businesses that rely on migrant labor. And almost no visas are available for unskilled workers from Mexico to come here legally – in 2005, for example, of the 5,000 visas issued to unskilled workers to come to this country, only two Mexicans received an unskilled worker visa. As long as there are jobs here and people have desperate needs that can be met by those jobs, they will come. Our country has many policies which affect migration in people’s country of origin. When we supported corrupt and repressive governments and helped fuel civil wars in Central America, huge numbers of people left their homes and many came here. NAFTA may have exported some manufacturing jobs to the south of our borders, at least temporarily, but American agribusiness efficiency lowered corn prices in Mexico and Central America to such a degree that subsistence farmers could no longer make a living on their small plots of land, increasing the migration of rural farmers to look for jobs in El Norte. American demand for drugs and our international drug policies has caused a huge increase in crime and violence all over the Americas, sending some people north to escape it. In other words, our influence and policies in the Americas have often led to an increase in migration to our country. We have contributed to the poverty and violence that people migrate to escape. Our migration does not come from countries like Costa Rica, which is far poorer than we are but is peaceful and has far fewer who are desperately poor. Those who express concern about the many people who have migrated to our country and want to see all eleven million sent back express a number of concerns: They say that these folks are costing us money we can’t afford. It is true that they receive some government services, but they also pay taxes. For example, a great many pay Social Security taxes but will never benefit from the system and are helping to keep the rest of us afloat. All estimates suggest that they are a considerable boon to our economy in general and our tax base as well. They say that they are dangerous. Migrants, unless they are part of a specifically criminal enterprise like a gang, are less likely than Americans in the same demographic to commit crime, especially since they need to stay under the radar in order to remain in the country. And although many anti-immigration efforts are made using the post 2001 anti-terrorist laws, the individuals known to be terrorists are either home-grown or came into the country legally. None were Latin American. Many were born in America. People living in America who are afraid that police will be likely to help have them deported are more likely to be crime victims because they cannot go to the police if they are victims of a crime, nor can they step forward when they are witness to it.
They say that migrants are taking jobs away from Americans. Latin American immigrants are found mostly in low wage jobs. Many employers claim that American-born workers will not take those jobs. This is true. Whether American-born workers might take the jobs if no one else were available and the employers had to improve the pay and working conditions is another question. If the later is true, it seems that the legal onus should be on the employers rather than the migrants. If we are failing to enforce our labor laws, allow collective bargaining, and pay a living wage, this is not the fault of migrants but of America and its employers. Further, studies suggest that the need of immigrants for goods and services may create at least as many jobs as those the immigrants fill. Also, many of the jobs that are being taken by foreign workers are in industries which use legal means to import workers from Asia and then illegally pay them far less than required by law. The good jobs that are going to foreign workers are often such things as computer jobs. Employers claim that no American can be found for the job, get the immigrant a work visa, and then illegally pay the worker substandard wages. They say that migrant people are criminals. Being without documents in this country is a civil offense and falls outside the criminal justice system. They are no more criminals than are you or I when we break the law that says we should signal before making a turn while driving. It is an open question as to whether the eleven million undocumented workers in this country are a significant problem to the rest of us. The majority of problems they do cause are a result of the restrictions put on them in terms of getting a drivers license or accessing health care. I would feel better, for example, if there were more liberal policies in providing health care for undocumented workers who may be involved in preparing my food, cleaning my room, or even riding with me on the subway. What is clear is that the inferior status of undocumented migrants is a humanitarian crisis that becomes larger the more we try to shut down the border and deport those already here. Our border control efforts have not stopped entry, but they have led to more injury and death. They have led more migrants into the hands of unscrupulous and criminal elements who rob them and put them in danger. They have kept families apart and caused more women and children to attempt to make the dangerous crossing in order to keep their families together. In this country, migrant families are ripped apart. Just last week I received an e-mail from another UU congregation requesting me to send a letter to Homeland Security asking them not to deport one of their members, Raul Cardenas, husband of Judy Rivera, stepfather to Sammy and his brother, and father of Pamela. If Raul is deported, Judy will lose her husband, Pamela her father, and the two teenage boys the only father figure they have ever known. It is hard to see how this is making our homeland secure. Thousands of families like this are ripped apart when a member of the family is deported. Often families where several members are deported are deliberately separated in order to make it difficult to reunite. Those who are deported are often dropped far from any familiar area, without resources, in
5 dangerous places. Parents are deported without their children and without being able to make arrangements for their care. Those who do live here live as a permanent underclass. They must live in hiding. They donâ€™t have many legal rights. They are vulnerable to economic exploitation and to crime. They live lives reminiscent of African Americans in the Jim Crow days in the South, with the added feature that at any moment they might be whisked away from any life they have built here. As a faith group, we Unitarian Universalists have long stood for humane treatment of all people regardless of race, color, gender, sexual orientation, or national origins. As such we should eschew policies which deliberately endanger men, women, and children who in desperation are migrating to this country. We should care about foreign policy and foreign aid policy which helps in peace and development, rather than in exploitation and militarism to Latin America and the Caribbean, policies which make home a better place to live than to be a stranger in a strange land. We should encourage those who want to limit new migration to look to enforcing employment laws when it comes to the employers themselves, requiring them to have wages and working conditions suitable to all, and to employ only those eligible to work. Sanctions, if any, should be placed on employers. We should encourage reform of our immigration laws so that they deal with reality and treat people in a humane way. If more unskilled labor is needed than is available in this country, we should make laws that would allow the needed workers to migrate to those jobs. Eleven million people live in our country never knowing when their lives might be turned upside down. If we are people who want to stand on the side of love, we should do what we can to make things better for all of us. Here in Nebraska, Senators Ashford, Council, and Harr are proposing a law like that recently passed in Utah which would allow migrants without a criminal record to be able to work freely in our state. This would be a step forward for the thousands of people who live in our city in the shadows. I hope you will call or e-mail your state senators either to thank them for the idea if they are sponsoring it or to encourage them to support it. I hope you will stand for national immigration reform of a system that both parties have admitted is in need of great change. I hope you will stand on the side of love when considering what reforms to make, because it is literally a matter of life and death to thousands, and a matter of hope for the future for millions.