Friday, October 29, 2010

My Testimony

On Wednesday, October 27, 2010, the SC Senate Subjudiciary Comittee on Immigration hosted a community hearing in Columbia. What I said during my testimony is below. Also, here is an article from The State newspaper about the hearing.
Thank you Mr. Chairman. My name is Anna Walton and I am from West Columbia. In May, I graduated with honors from the honors college at USC and I am currently a graduate student at the university. I am here today to share with you why I think South Carolina should not pass legislation similar to that which passed – though partially blocked – in Arizona, should not pass legislation like the ordinance which was proposed and did not pass in Summerville, and why we should consider supporting the Dream Act, as well as comprehensive immigration reform on a national level.

I believe that when we discuss immigration, we must consider why illegal immigration occurs. In a perfect world, illegal immigration would not exist. It is certainly not the ideal for any human being. There are some people who will always divert to the argument that the entire basis of the community of undocumented individuals is illegal, so we should pay no attention to their “rights.” Because of that, they say it is okay to stop anyone who looks “illegal” (what does that mean, anyway) and to require social security numbers from people who wish to rent apartments. I would like for us to collectively disregard this argument for its egocentric/ethnocentric nature and its apparent lack of hope that the US legislative process can produce fair and just laws that would make illegal immigration unnecessary. Once we do look beyond that argument, we can see why an Arizona or Summerville type law is not right for SC. Further, it brings us back to the most basic of questions: WHY does illegal immigration occur in the US in the first place? Here are a few reasons:

  1. First, we live in an increasingly global market. Companies, tourists, and goods cross national borders with fairly few restrictions. Unfortunately, the poorest of the poor, the people most often affected by the imposition of transnational companies in their backyards, governmental subsidies for big business, and US economic policies such as NAFTA, are left with few choices and sometimes see moving to the US as the only opportunity for better future.
  2. Second, the US has a very antiquated immigration system with unreal visa quotas. The one and two decade long backlogs for people to obtain visas legally – if at all – are frustrating, at best. I just turned 22, some people have to wait my entire lifetime to enter this country legally!
  3. Furthermore, the US has an unfortunate history in the 20th century of renting its slaves. Just look at the Bracero program, or the temporary worker visas for farmworkers and landscapers. We import workers when there aren’t American citizens to do the jobs. How can we open the borders to allow people to slave for us so that we can eat tomatoes and enjoy nicely preened lawns, but then dub them illegal the second someone claims that they’re “stealing our jobs.”

We can look at the US’s immigration policies for certain countries: Cuba had Fidel Castro and Haiti had an earthquake and in some twisted way they got lucky because the US decided to allow individuals from those countries a path to legal citizenship. Of course it is easy for a Cuban immigrant to say, “I came to this country legally, so should all immigrants!” On the other hand, the US has continued to violate Mexico, from the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Braceros program, Operation Wetback (an insulting and degrading name in itself), NAFTA, and US demand for illegal drugs, and provides no assistance or attention to the human rights violations caused by these US policies and occurrences. No, instead of lending a helping hand to our neighbors, we say they’re all illegal and that they should “go back home.”

But really and most practically, South Carolina is not in charge of immigration policy. It is up to the federal lawmakers to devise and enforce laws. Let us not run our state’s economy into the ground by getting in way over our heads and investing money in discriminatory and anti-constitutional legislation. Let us remember our priorities, investing in positive economic growth for our state, let us focus on entrepreneurship and creating jobs, let us restore the funds that were cut from the Department of Education, from Public Universities, from Department of Health, from programs for children and the disabled. And, let us allow our law enforcement officers to use their resources to catch the real bad guys.

I am a proud Carolina girl, but this hypocrisy and singling out of a certain group of people just because they don’t look like us and don’t talk like us and telling them they do not belong here makes me physically sick. We need to shift the blame away from these individuals who are victims in their own rights and stop comparing apples with oranges. Furthermore, it hurts me so deeply to see how many SC legislators outright ignore our pleas to stop discrimination and racism against all immigrants. I plan to stay in South Carolina and contribute to the wellbeing of our state. I want my future children to grow up in a community that celebrates diversity, respects human rights, and scorns discrimination and racism. Please think about that as you plan SC’s future. Thank you for your time.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Why you should not believe Jesse Hernandez

A day after the injunction of the worst parts of Arizona's SB1070 passed, I was listening to a CNN interview with Jesse Hernandez. Jesse, a Mexican-American man in Arizona who supports SB1070, rattled off the age-old anti-immigrant sentiments. Yes, those that completely ignore the facts. Of course, what does it matter if one more person propagates lies if Arizona's own governor bases her legislation and PR on exaggerations of the crimes committed by undocumented immigrants?

What is so wrong with what Jesse had to say? Let's take a look...

1. Jesse is against "illegal immigrants," firstly, because they are a "nuisance." Yeah, I really can't stand that the guy in Five Points just asked me for 5 bucks. Or that the person in front of me took a long time in the line at Target. But that's okay. I walk on. I don't start a campaign to send them to some far-off land because they're a "nuisance."

2. Jesse said that it hurts the local economy because the undocumented individuals that solicit work in the parking lots don't pay taxes. Oh, Jesse, you couldn't be any more wrong. We all pay taxes; if we buy a Coca-Cola, we pay tax; if we own a car, we pay tax; if we have to buy work boots or tools, we pay tax. Those individuals are no different. If they were to pay taxes on their wages, well honestly, their wages nowadays are so small that the taxes wouldn't amount to much more than a bag of spaghetti that Jesse gets for his own kids with food stamps.

3. Furthermore, the unfortunate part of this situation is that, while indeed they DO pay taxes, they almost never see the benefits. Jesse, you are wrong, yet again. If you do not have a social security number, you cannot apply for food stamps. Unlike what that chick who bought the drop house in foreclosure said, you cannot get on "welfare" if you don't have a social security number. What does that mean? No medicaid, no medicare, no social security, no unemployment, no disability. Also, if they are working informally, they do not have health insurance and the other work-related benefits. That means, if they go to the Doctor's Care, they have to pay UP FRONT. Got it, Jesse?

4. Jesse said that undocumented individuals do not pay their hospital bills. First of all, one report (I'll have to find it later) stated that Hispanics (not necessarily the undocumented, mind you) accounted for less indigent patients than African Americans. So, really, don't exaggerate things, Jesse. Also, if they really aren't paying their bills, why would that be? From my experience in working with clients, they just don't know - the emergency room doesn't charge you when you're there, and a few weeks later, a bill or two or three or four, in English, arrives in the mailbox from "Laboratory Services, Inc." and "Dr. Green" and "RadioSurvey Corp." The thing is, those bills make no sense to those of us who are familiar with the system, so how are they going to make sense to people who are new to the system?

5. Jesse made it sound like a horrible, dirty thing for the children of undocumented individuals to be attending public schools. Do you not think that education is a good thing, Jesse? (Probably not, because you certainly don't know how to make a sound argument.) Perhaps, if we educate these children, they won't have to be in the same, poor economic situation that their parents are in. Not to mention, some of those children may be US citizens (just like you were, Jesse!) born to immigrant parents, so they have EVERY right to attend those schools. I can't believe you even went there, Jesse. Really.

6. Jesse emphasized the crime that is happening because of undocumented immigrants. Ok, but did you realize that it wasn't ALL of the undocumented immigrants who are doing the crimes? It's the smugglers. Those individuals are taking advantage of the broken immigration system in America, the poverity in Latin American, and the people who are simply searching for a better life. That mom that was 3-months pregnant - she risked her life to come to the US because she wanted a better life for her and her baby. This shows the need for comprehensive immigration reform that also considers the international economic policies of the US, so that we take the jobs from the smugglers, not the innocents!

7. Jesse said his main issue was that undocumented individuals were using false documents. Let's return to the root of the problem. Why are they using false documents? Because the US immigration system is so backed up that there is no way on earth that a person, going through the process "legally" can enter this country legally if they come from certain countries. Using false documents is certainly not the way things should be. So, let's fix the system, Jesse, so that one day, maybe all immigrants can say that they did things the "right way," just like your parents, right Jesse? (Because it certainly wasn't you that did the work!)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Independence Day?

This is an entry I wrote a while ago and, due to limited internet access, am just now uploading it to the blog...

July 4th - El Dia de la Independencia - was a solemn one for me. The night before, I went camping down in Kiptopeke Park with a Honduran family. I learned a new card game which was sort of like slaps in that their only similarity is that you suffer severe bodily harm by the end of the game. I also heard a lot of "vos," which is Central American Spanish for the "tu" normally thought to mean "you" in English.

On Saturday, July 4, I drove up to Silver Springs, MD, for a quinceanera for a daughter from a family from Guerrero, Mexico. On the drive up from the bottom of the Eastern Shore (where Kiptopeke is) toward the peninsula's point of contact with the mainland, there was the normal July 4 traffic with people rushing to get to their cookouts and pools before too much of the day was gone. Can't miss the fireworks! Cars with license plates from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Virginia littered US-13, apparently one of the deadliest highways in the US.

Amidst the vacationers and travelers, however, I saw a different type of traffic. Practically rundown school buses, some white, others painted bright green, others with small Mexican flags on the side, showed a different side of our nation's Independence Day. Those buses were full of migrant farmworkers, going to work to pick tomatoes while we enjoyed the fights of our ancestors for our freedom to drink beer, get sunburnt while playing on the beach, and shoot fireworks. It makes me wonder how really independent we are. We are dependent on a group of people who have no choice but to break their backs and their families to come to a country they don't know, to work in one of the most dangerous jobs, and sacrifice the chance for a life even half as comfortable as ours, for us to be able to put tomatoes on our hamburgers. We have certainly based our freedoms and independence on making others dependent on us. We have raped them of their ability to provide for themselves and we say that we are their saviors because we offer them work. The work that no one else would want to do. The work that we are too "good" for.

I am one of the guilty ones, too, though. I wish I would've stopped by car at one of the fields and asked if I could work in the fields. I'm sure I would've been the weakest worker out there, but maybe showing a bit of solidarity would have been one step forward to a new type of Independence Day for our nation, where we stop the exploitation and the outright negligence of the people who help to bring us our most basic necessity: food.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

La Cosecha

I have a few minutes before work today, so I stopped by a quaint restaurant in 'downtown' Parksley called the Club Car because they have wireless and because I was in desperate need of caffeine. Yep, I drank coffee. I hope I don't have the anxiety attacks I used to have or that I don't start feeling that itchy feeling under my skin.

Anyway, this is finally the week where we are doing the pesticide trainings with the large grower for their new workers. We were expecting last week to be the busy week - i.e., when all of the workers came in - but after spending two days sitting around in the deserted packing house, we were told that THIS was the week. And man were they right. Sunday night, bus loads of crews came in from Florida. Monday morning, that old packing house once deserted was filled with a new air, with men and women ready to work, ready to settle in to another home that they'll only have for 5 months, ready (or at least hoping) to make $200 for spending 60 hours a week picking tomatoes.

The foodbank, consequentially, is also busy. There, I get to talk to the farmworkers a bit more. They tell me that they're lucky if they get that $200, but that's only one or two weeks during the harvest. They've also gotten checks for $27. For one week of work. To feed themselves, maybe a child, pay rent, gas, electricity. Wow. And they still find some way to be friendly, open and outgoing.

Well, it's time to head to work. I saw my first combine in action the other day. The picture here is one of the dozens of wheat fields around here and in the past week all of them have been harvested. Hence, the title of this entry: La Cosecha means The Harvest. The summer is finally started aaaaand we'll see what kind of fruit she bears.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Wrestling with the higher powers?

As part of the internship, I have to write "guided journal entries" throughout the summer. The following is from my first assignment, which was written in response to a book called The Human Cost of Food.

I’m not sure if it’s just because I am only in the first week at my placement but I feel that there is a suffocating amount of limitations placed on the work we can do with the campesinos under the auspices of the agency. On my first day of work at the office, I met the man with whom I would be doing a handful of pesticide trainings and together we went to meet a grower that wanted to go through our agency to provide the training for his workers. As we waited in the grower’s small, wood-paneled office which revived olfactory memories of my grandpa’s dining room I was upset because I felt like my co-workers were letting the grower walk all over them and that the health education training I received at internship orientation would be thrown to the curb. My two, middle-aged co-workers expressed their excitement to me that the grower had decided to give us a second chance to conduct the pesticide trainings for his workers. Apparently the year before, a pesticide health educator new to the agency and the grower, came in and spent an hour and a half on the EPA's Worker Protection Standards (WPS) pesticide safety training.

I asked, “What’s wrong with that? You can hardly cover everything in less than that amount of time, if you’re doing it right.”

The grower only wanted her to spend 20 minutes to cover the mandatory 11 points of the training with more than 50 new workers at a time. I was shocked and decided I would try to watch what I said from then on, even in front of people I thought were advocates on behalf of the campesinos.

In two weeks, we will be standing in front of a long day of rotations of 50 campesinos recently arrived from Florida to show two videos for a total of 40 minutes about pesticide handling and pesticide safety. Apparently this is exciting news but I am dreading that day. Maybe I am biased because of how a health education specialist who conducted our training at orientation talked about how ineffective and even painful it is that growers will just pop in a video to “train” the exhausted campesinos as soon as they’ve arrived from a 20-hour car drive. It could also be due to my prior experience in developing culturally sensitive and plausibly effective health education materials and approaches, which has given me a basic understanding of some of the theories of health education. Either way, I feel torn, because the word around town is that the grower is a nice man, that he is more understanding toward the campesinos, and that he actually was fired from a previous place because of his generosity toward the campesinos.

I ask myself then, “What purpose do we even serve at the site? To click the ‘play’ button on the remote? To be able to sign the green cards to certify that the campesinos received the 'training?'”

It feels like we are getting thrown alongside the campesinos and even the growers, governed by some outside entity – the market? the corporations? – to cut back our time and do the bare minimum required to be compliant with the law. In other words, we are to be as machine-like as possible. As one of the co-workers put it, “Thirty minutes times 500 workers is 250 hours of work that the grower is missing out on because of the pesticide training.”

Nonetheless, I sit in my office and prepare activities for more entertaining pesticide training education sessions directed toward a group of people about whom I know very little in regards to their previous training, educational background, and personal history, with hopes of facilitating their discovery of the dangerousness of pesticides and actions they can take to reduce their potential to suffer from the chemicals’ harmful effects. I am trying to do all of this while still complying with the WPS training requirements.

I know that, supposedly, WPS, our agency, and even the grower are on 'our side' in providing this pesticide safety training, but I think I’m starting to be able to differentiate between different types of service and advocacy. At the internship orientation, we discussed 'service' and how many of us look at service as someone with an 'expertise' and goodwill going to another person and saying, "You need this and I am going to give it to you," without ever giving the choice to the other person. This has stripped people of their own power to make decisions and choices, and so I'm hoping that, even through something as perhaps mundane as pesticide safety education, the campesinos with whom I work will have the power to let their own voices be heard, instead of having to suffer through a mundane video produced in the 1980s (just imagine those videos you had to watch in middle school health class).

I'm not much for prayer anymore, but I'm praying that the theatre group works out. I have a meeting tomorrow with some of the women in the camp and they seem excited to be a part of something novel where they can share their experiences with other community members to help improve the working and living conditions of their vecinos (neighbors).

Friday, June 12, 2009

Thought of the morning

Woke up this morning to a nice thunderstorm, grabbed a Coke Zero as I rushed out the door (was almost late again!), and drove the daily 26 minutes (according to Mapquest, it is supposed to take 34) to the office. The fields have a surreal magesty to them under overcast skies. So, sitting in the office, I began to work on the pesticide training again, and I started thinking about how painfully ironic it is that these campesinos, people who work long days with the food that will eventually find its way to our tables, have to humble themselves to come into an office and ask for cans of green peas, sweet corn, and diced tomatoes as a way of sustaining themselves and their families. How can such a basic necessity, like food, be subject to such an inbalance of power and distribution? Is it human nature? Is it animal nature? This won't just be the thought of the morning, I think this is going to be something to wrestle with for the rest of the summer and the rest of my life...

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Settling in...

Well, four days on the Eastern Shore of VA and I find myself with mixed feelings. I spend the days working at Telamon distributing food to farm workers who come by the office while also making contacts to start a theatre group with some of the interested community members and creating an entertaining pesticide safety training workshop. I spend the nights trying to remember how to cook (at least, how to cook enough not to starve) and meeting the array of our roommate's small-town friends. Spending time as a child in what we affectionately called 'The Country', or our small plot of land out in Gaston, SC, certainly wasn't enough preparation for life in this rural peninsula in the Chesapeake Bay. The other Student Action with Farmworkers intern, Rachel, and I found a cute bar with wifi in "'downtown' Parksley. So, with a jukebox soundtrack of Guns N Roses, Allman Bros., and whoever sings that song, "Cornbread and Chicken," and locals playing pool and darts, we work on writing assignments and check the beloved facebook.

So now to the interesting stuff: in the office, I've gotten to work with a few campesinos (farm workers) who come in for food assistance. Our outreach so far has consisted of going to an English as a Second Language class, and we were greeted with such warmth! We are planning an art exhibit on the civil war in El Salvador and I am going to be interpreter for the introductions. In two weeks, we also are hosting a Latino festival and I have hopes that the theatre group will be ready for its first presentation; we'll see. We have many other pesticide safety trainings planned with some of the major growers in the area as well as with the people who come into the Virginia Employment Commission office. The farm workers are arriving here in the next week or two from either Florida or Beaufort, SC. Many of them who are already here say that the work is limited. Driving by the fields, you can see that harvesting time is still a few weeks away.

So far, in terms of 'cultural experiences,' I've stopped by a vegetable stand on the highway and 'The Oaxaquena' tienda. This weekend, Rachel and I are planning on hitting up all of the thrift stores. Blue crabs are a huge thing on the peninsula....and I can't wait to get to eat some. All I'll have to do is stop at the local roadside stand.

There are certainly beauties of the open fields and long highways. But, a change of scenery brings with it many challenges. I have had more conversations in which racist comments are tossed around within the first five minutes than ever before. I have also been greeted by people as if they had known me their entire life. This summer promises to present many questions about my past, my present, and my future, as well as questions about the history of farm working, the current situation, and plans for cultural understanding and agricultural work reform.