Today was the first day of a 2-day conference at GFU called Christians and Immigration in a Land of Contradiction. (See the Facebook page and the blog if you're interested in learning more or joining the conversation.) If you're in the area, I think you can still come tomorrow if you want to. Just show up at Fox and register--it doesn't cost much. The first session is at 9am.
Anyway, I've been looking forward to this conference for quite a while, and posted a blog entry about it a while back. So it's great for it to actually be here. I guess what's important about it to me is that I care about this issue, but I feel woefully uninformed. I've learned a little Spanish (since that's the main immigrant population around here) and tried to get to know a few people who are recent immigrants, but I'm not sure how to really help make the situation better. So hopefully this conference will give me and the rest of us some ideas, as well as help clarify what the issues are.
Today I went with a group from the conference who visited an organization in Portland called VOZ (the Spanish word for "voice"). It's an organization of recent immigrants who work as day-laborers. The organization provides a place for people to come and wait for employers each day, and also helps ensure that the workers' rights are respected--that they get paid for the work they do and are paid a decent wage. They said previously most of the people who utilized VOZ were Latino, but as the economy has slumped there are more whites, African Americans and others who need work and come to VOZ. The city actually made it possible for them to open a Worker Center, which is of course beneficial to the laborers who have a safe, organized place to wait for work, and for the city, who don't get complaints from families and businesses because there are a bunch of people waiting for work on "their" street corners. So everybody's happy!
One interesting thing I learned today at VOZ is that it's not illegal to hire day-laborers even if they aren't in the country legally, at least in Oregon. (It IS illegal not to pay them.) This is good to know, because it means that any of us could try to help support those families who are having a rough time here by hiring them to do work, and not feel like we're doing something illegal. Our churches could even hire day-laborers to come do jobs like painting or landscaping or whatever our needs are.
If you live in or near Portland, VOZ just opened up a taco stand at the Worker Center where they wait for jobs. The address is 240 NE MLK Jr. Blvd., Portland, OR 97232. It's open M-F, 10-1. So if you need lunch in the Portland area, this is an excellent way to support the work of VOZ--it helps pay to keep the Worker Center open. VOZ also offers English classes and other skills training workshops. It's entirely worker-run, so it sounds almost like Quaker practice: they have a monthly meeting where all the workers are invited to come and share their thoughts and ideas, and they decide together on the course of action. (Quaker process without the faith part, I guess.)
Anyway, it seemed like a great organization. If you're in Portland and interested in a place to volunteer, it sounds like they appreciate volunteers of all kinds.
The other thing I did today at the conference was attend a session where we watched a movie created by the American Friends Service Committee called "Sueños Congelados," or "Frozen Dreams" (see a trailer for the film here). It is a documentary sharing the experiences of women working at a Del Monte food processing plant in Portland. The plant was raided by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in 2007. Over 100 women were detained, many taken to a detention center in Tacoma, WA, and many were deported from there without seeing their families again. The ones who remain formed a group called the Committee for Solidarity and Mutual Support, partially to support each other and partially to learn more about their rights and spread that information in their community. You can read a couple statements about their experience during the raid as well as their gratefulness for this group and AFSC's help in learning their rights and how to organize.
Just because they do not have the proper documentation does not mean these women do not have rights in our country. Just like any of the rest of us, they have the right to remain silent when arrested. They are not required to give self-incriminating evidence. They do not have to sign any papers that are put before them. They have a right to have an attorney present. They do not have to let ICE or any other law enforcement inside their home without a warrant. When they said these things on the film it made me think, "Well, these should be obvious!" and yet, since they're undocumented and scared, it wasn't obvious, even to me. So just by sharing these simple rights, I would imagine life would seem a little safer and less fear-inducing.
Another important thing that was brought up at the session was that we think about the supposed difference between civil and criminal law in our country. When one breaks a civil law, there may be a fine and one may have to appear in court (e.g., traffic court). But unless one commits a criminal offense, one does not end up in jail. Immigration violations are supposed to fit in this category. Not having a green card is not a criminal offense--and yet these women were handcuffed and taken to a detention center. Their families didn't know where they had gone for a while. After their release, many of the women were required to wear an electronic ankle bracelet so that immigration authorities could know their whereabouts at all times, and they were confined to specific geographical areas. Maybe we'd have fewer traffic violations if we treated people this way for speeding, but unless we're willing to undergo that kind of treatment for a similar offense, this way of treating people is actually illegal, not to mention unjust.
These women were mostly mothers, just trying to make enough of a living to feed and house their families. They moved here not because they wanted to live a life of fear from being undocumented, but because they didn't have much of a choice. They could stay in their countries and starve or live in an area that was war-torn and dangerous. Some were kicked off their family's traditional land so that it could be mined or clear cut (or both). What could they do besides come to a place where there was a chance their children would be educated and they could find a job?
How is this so different from most of our ancestors? Have not generations of immigrants--our ancestors included (unless you're Native American)--come to the United States for the same reasons? Why should our laws shut them out now and make it so difficult to be a properly-documented immigrant?
And for those who say immigrants are coming and taking "our" jobs, to me this is a farcical point. Most people who have grown up here in the United States don't want to do jobs like these people are doing. We don't want to do day-laborer jobs; we don't want to nanny people's kids or chop fruit all day or clean hotels all night; we don't want to pick entire crops of strawberries or grapes. Because of our pride and sense of entitlement, we actually need immigrants. I'd like to see what we would do if all the undocumented immigrants just left, or refused to work for a while, and see what happened to our economy and the luxuries we take in stride as "normal."
There's my rant for the evening--more to come after tomorrow's sessions.