Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Mr. Bush, tear down that wall!

Opinions are often molded by which side of the fence you are on. When I listen to the debate over desperate people trying to reach America to work, it conjures up a lot of memories for me.
When Gaila and I travelled, full-time, in the late 70s and early 80s we worked with wonderful migrant families in the orange groves of Florida and the blossoming desert subdivisions of Phoenix. I often worked constructions jobs in Arizona when I was the only English speaking dirt pusher. I knew when it was lunch, everybody sat down. I knew when it was quitting time, everybody went home. In between I just kept shovelling and kicking myself for not paying more attention to my Spanish teacher in High School. Even with the language barrier we had no problem working along side these migrants. I shouldn’t say no problem. On guy I worked with kept saying, “Pool Turn You,” while we were folding ground cloth. But as soon as I learned his unique vocabulary I knew he meant, “Pull Toward You.” Within a week we had our own new language constructed. They could have used us in the army as code talking radio men.
Working with the migrants in the fruit orchards in Florida convinced us that the conditions were close to slavery. There are few Americans that are more than a couple generations from new citizenship. Most of them have no historical connections to the problems that faced their ancestors when they arrived. Let the first stone be thrown by someone who has spent a few weeks walking in the bare soles of a migrant, working in a hot agricultural field. Maybe “Grapes of Wrath” should be required reading for those who show apathy in the plight of those willing to take the jobs Americans do not seem to want and smart enough to understand the blind-eye system we have set up to allow them to enter our country illegally.
The United States government does a great job of monitoring our borders. They capture just enough illegal migrants to make it look like they are really trying—letting enough squeeze through to keep an abundant supply of unskilled labor available for the millions of low-paying industry positions. I have spent a lot of time in the high desert. Hiking from our border with Mexico, north into Arizona and New Mexico you can see for miles on end. There is very little to hide behind in the sparse landscape that borders our two countries. By commanding the high ground it would not take a huge observation force to patrol and control illegal traffic. The question here is, “Have we ever really wanted to?”
During several birding trips in Arizona we have been stopped numerous times at Border Patrol check points and chased down in the early morning hours along desolate Arizona roads to have our van searched for passengers that might not be birding with us. As it turns out, birders get up before sunrise and so do human trafficers. In the wilds of Fort Huachuca I once had a drug sniffing dog pee on the front tire of my van. I said to the handler, “Is this four-legged tire squirter George Bush’s first line of defense?” He did not appreciate my attempt at a little late afternoon humor.
Often these workers get their money from a third party. That way the actual employer is insulated from illegal contractual dealings. We live in the shadow of a large Midwestern golf resort. A hundred yards from our home is the resorts housing unit for housekeeping workers they hire from out of the country. These are friendly, quiet neighbors. We have helped many of them with transportation and car problems. They seem squared away, polite and responsible. Last year the complex was raided and the majority of those living in the housing unit were hauled away to jail. Most likely they were involved in something as subversive as trying to make a decent living under working conditions designed to manipulate them and take advantage of their questionable status. After doing a fine job for years they were rounded up and processed for removal from the United States. It was discovered that the company that rented these people to the resort had not paid them their overtime pay and in some cases, not even paid the federal minimum wage.
With all the terror threats this nation is facing, it is no wonder that we must mount raids to round up a quiet, complacent work force, hell-bent on our cleanliness. Is Bin Laden really so important? What about the guy cleaning your bathroom or picking your asparagus?
Few can understand the desperation that triggers the decision to risk so much for so little. Many die just trying to reach the land of opportunity. But it is not an opportunity for many. It is a life of living under the radar, being taken advantage of, and not having the knowledge, money or direction to obtain the proper work permits. The constant fear of being discovered, being deported, possibly being separated from family who have earned citizenship through birthright, is enough to keep many workers from attempting to get a legal work permit.
Getting the proper documents is not easy, which is why many workers end up working for companies that specialize in contracting undocumented workers. Employers are required to check that these documents are in hand, but not verify their authenticity.
In Guatemala last year I learned that many people leaving Central America never reach our borders. If stopped in Mexico they are often jailed for long periods of time before being sent home. The toll to try is devastating. Just documented cases in this country add up to almost 4,000 horrible deaths among the legions of hopefuls that cross the border on foot, or are trucked in by human smugglers. As dark as drug trafficing is, human trafficing is worse.
It is obvious that the system we have is not working. It hasn’t worked for a long time. We have let it continue from a sense of greed and a lack of compassion. Now that the problem has matured to a point that can no longer be ignored we spend all of our time trying to convince ourselves we didn’t realize it was happening, instead of approaching it honestly and responsibly.
I would never judge the efforts of those who are willing to gamble everything to make it to “The Land of Milk and Honey.” I’m a hiker. If my kids were starving in Mexico you would find us with our backpacks—Comin’ Over the Horizon!

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