Interestingly, our comprehensive introductory overview on immigration came on our final service learning day. On Thursday afternoon, we visited El Centro de Igualdad Y Derechos: The Center for Equality.
The Center was born from special project work at Enlace. Organizing often forms out of a call for action. Releasing that individuals need assistance as well, El Centro was formed. The mission of El Centro is to work with Latino immigrants and allies to strengthen the community and advance immigrants’ rights.
New Mexico has become a beacon for immigrant rights. Immigration laws are more liberal than most border states, especially neighboring Arizona. In spite of such a warm welcome, surprisingly, the immigrant population in New Mexico is significantly lower than the national average. Why would this be? For starters, New Mexico is considered the poorest state in our country, recently eclipsed by states in the Deep South. Secondly, families wish to immigrate near their families. Most immigrants settle in areas of opportunity or economic prosperity. As our poorest state, New Mexico would be the unlikely first choice.
To better understand immigration, one must take a look at migration. NAFTA, while first seen as a positive change for our neighbors to the south, forced many Mexican farms to close and thus the Mexican farmers out of work. Forced migration became necessary as a means for these farmers to provide for their families. As time has gone on, border control has become ever more strict. Knowing that a return to their home countries is not only unlikely but dangerous, the spouses and children of these workers have been forced to follow suit.
When comparing immigration from the early 1900s and today, the percentage of immigrants to the United States remains the same. Numerically, we have more immigrants in the U.S. today, but we also have many more natural born citizens living in the U.S. Thus, the percentage remains roughly the same. So why all the fuss now? Failing educational systems, increased unemployment rates, widespread poverty, and pressures for healthcare reform become much easier to point the finger of blame on a segment than the whole. What if the aforementioned issues were a result of a weak nation or a failing government instead of a group of people looking for a better life?
The immigration system: why is it broken?
The ability for an immigrant to become a citizen is not for the faint of heart. There are three options, that would allow an immigrant to apply for national status:
Blood: If you are related by blood to a legal citizen, you may quality for citizenship. While this seems rather simple, the process is anything but. The “blood” status allows for a parent, sibling or child (over the age of 21) to begin the citizenship process on your behalf.
Sweat: Work visas for industries like laboratories, agriculture and oil. While this seems like a win-win – come to America for work to “earn” your citizenship – the process is incredibly taxing. Even with a work visa, immigrants are required to wait a period of 5 years before being eligible for most benefits. Even then, work visas must be renewed. Since many immigrant workers are on contract or considered “day laborers,” guaranteed work is few and far between.
Tears: Refugees. Not much needs to be said about this category. In today’s age and time, refugee status is untraditional and infrequent at best.
On any given year, we deport roughly 450,000 individuals. That equates to 1,100 people every day. This has nothing to do with natural origin, race or language. It has everything to do with people from around the world wishing to find their fit in the beautiful melting pot that is our country.
Surprising? It is and it should be.
Our Thursday began with an informational session followed by volunteer work at Enlace, a non-profit group aimed at ending domestic violence and promoting healthy families. Enlace began in 2000 with two employees and little confidence in sustainability. Today, the Enlace budget is $1.7M with 25 staff members including four case managers, three trained therapists, two attorneys and one AmeriCorp volunteer.
In direct service programs, nearly 600 families are served each year. Formal collaboration has been achieved with the sexual assault nurse examiners. There is tremendous fear for undocumented immigrants to work with formal and/or public service agencies. Many undocumented immigrants do not know the law well enough to know their rights and fear deportation from the slightest bit of diverted attention. This is especially troubling in cases of domestic violence. Victims are often forced to choose the lesser of two evils: stay with the abuser or report the problem and risk being exploited. Since 2010, force used by the Albuquerque Police Department has resulted in the deaths of 30 community members. Regardless of justification, it is no wonder fear and apprehension exist among immigrants in trusting the law.
Twenty-five people working for Enlace cannot end domestic violence. It takes a community to support the effort and make the change. The best leaders for enacting this change are the survivors themselves. We see this in our own community with organizations like Family Services, the Jackie Nitchke Center and Golden House. At times, the need can feel overwhelming. One resounding theme from this week of service has been the importance of people: people with two hands to help people in need.
Education and empowerment are the keys to triumph. Be part of the movement to make positive change happen.
Somos un Pueblo Unido
Wednesday afforded us the opportunity to head north, taking in the sites, sounds and eats of charming Santa Fe. Before going forth into the city for a leisurely afternoon, we had the great pleasure of spending time at Somos un Pueblo Unido, a non-profit organization with the purpose of giving people power against unjust laws and working conditions.
Of the measurable positive impact Somos has had on 10 counties in the 33-county state, perhaps the area of greatest effort has been on wage theft. A term many are likely unfamiliar with, wage theft is the act of an employer withholding pay owed to a worker. The most common form of wage theft is accomplished by compensating an employee with less than minimum wage. In spite of being the poorest state in our country, New Mexico has a diamond in the rough: Santa Fe now holds claim to offering the highest minimum wage rate – $10.66/hour – in the entire country (kudos to Somos for leading the charge on petitioning, legalizing and implementing this change). And yet, many workers are still struggling to be given what is owed to them.
In New Mexico alone, one in four immigrant workers face wage theft. Of those, only 12% have sought legal assistance for back pay and/or settlement damages. Of the 12%, only four cases have been awarded retribution.
Undocumented workers may face an even more dismal fate. Threat of being exposed, and ultimately deported, become justified tactics by employers wishing to withhold pay. Immigrants may be deemed “day workers” to avoid being paid for actual hours on the job (i.e., think being expected to arrive at 6AM when “clock time” begins at 8AM). Employers may label a mandatory learning period as “training” so as to avoid compensating the employee (which, by the way, is illegal). Employers may also draft a policy against paying overtime, when in fact, employees are required/expected to work far more than 40 hours each week.
While wage theft has greatly impacted the immigrant workers of New Mexico, it is not a problem unique to the Southwest. Construction workers, landscapers and dairy workers, to name a few, may all fall victim to employer wage theft, even in Wisconsin. So, what can one do?
Start by becoming an ally to organizations like Somos un Pueblo Unido. Educate yourself on the issues that affect your neighbors, your allies and your community. Strength is found in numbers; there certainly is no shortage of workers needing help, even in our local communities.
Tuesday morning began with communal prayer with the Norbertines and breakfast fellowship with our group. From there, we journeyed across town to the University of New Mexico campus with the charge of learning from a real life Dream Team.
El Centro de la Raza is an ever-evolving and symbiotic group of students, faculty, staff community members and families, striving to stand together against oppression and transcend geographic and cultural communities for the achievement of collective power through life-long learning. The organization was established in the 1960s for students and by students to provide a safe haven to learn, experience and grow. El Centro is home to some dynamic individuals, passionate about finding educational opportunities for everyone, especially friends from the south who have crossed the border illegally. These vibrant, hard-working advocates are affectionately known as the Dream Team.
Like any well-oiled machine, many unique moving parts are needed in order for the whole to function properly. El Centro is comprised of folks from all walks of life; those with citizen status and those considered undocumented immigrants. I’d like to share the very personal story of the latter.
In order to truly grasp the depth of someone’s struggle, one must first strive to identify the person. Many advocates and allies of the Dream Team risk deportation simply from attaching their name to such a public outreach effort. For the purpose of this story, I’ll refer to the subject as “Lee.” Born in Mexico, Lee came from a good family. Her mother was a nurse and her father was a respected police officer. Lee came to the U.S. with an official passport on a near-yearly basis to visit extended family living in New Mexico. Because of these trips, she became quite familiar with the Albuquerque area, though never in her wildest dreams did she believe it would one day become her home.
As time went on, the safe family life Lee once knew in Mexico became filled with uncertainty. Police began being targeted by vigilante groups, resulting in the deaths of many officers. After a string of attacks, Lee’s family believed it was only a matter of time before her father was targeted and killed. Thus, they made the difficult decision to leave behind the life they knew for the hope of a better life across the border.
Lee’s transition to the U.S. was not an easy one. School was wrought with bullying, depression and a lack of social graces so often expected and revered by our youth. Without a social security number, Lee couldn’t get a job or even attend college . . . so she thought.
In the mid-2000s, New Mexico passed legislation to allow undocumented immigrants admission to state schools for the price of in-state tuition. This became the yellow brick road that Lee needed to break her stride. She began working towards DACA status for herself and her brother, as well as becoming heavily involved in El Centro. Today, Lee acts as the high school outreach coordinator, providing education and training to undocumented high school students wishing to make the dream of higher education their reality.
Stories like Lee’s, while moving and unique, are not uncommon. Millions have left behind families, homes, cultures and history to pursue a better life on U.S. soil. It may seem absurd to those of us fortune enough to be a natural born citizen. And yet, if roles were reversed, how hard would you work to make the dream of a better life for you and your family come true?
There is peace in solitude when you quiet your mind long enough to hear it. The gentle rustling of leaves, the low hum of a distant airplane engine, the steady beat of insects frolicking, the hesitant munching of a rabbit on southwestern vegetation, the soothing coo of a morning dove keeping watch over her nest.
As I sit, and listen, these are the chords of nature’s purest music.
As a means for acclimating to our week of service, we began with an overview of immigration issues and misperceptions. The reflection was led by Deacon Juan Barajas, friend to our ABQ Norbertine brothers. Deacon Juan has spent his life both advocating for and bridging the divide of immigrants and ministry.
Throughout the Deacon’s reflection, his own life’s journey was woven in beautifully to the harsh realities many immigrants face. The notion that immigrants, particularly illegal immigrants, are criminals out to take our jobs an our benefits is wholly ignorant. Quite frankly, such opinions are just plain ridiculous. Hispanics engage in no more crime than any other group. Hispanics often take jobs that most natives refuse to do. And because of their status, undocumented immigrants do not qualify for the benefits we seem to hold so dear. As the Deacon explained, misinformation, prejudice, and blatant hatred comes from so many sources; perhaps most surprisingly, from the church.
The most poignant story Deacon Juan shared had to do with an invitation he had received to meet President Bush. When the opportunity presented itself, the Deacon simply asked, “Mr. President, what do you plan to do about immigration?” In nearly 20 minutes, President Bush detailed a plan for bridging the ever-growing divide between Mexico people wishing to become American. Bush stated, “Anyone who walks 500 miles through the desert for a job seems like a damn good worker to me.” Following their meeting, President Bush had planned to meet with the president of Mexico to begin the process of amnesty. Three weeks later, 9/11 rocked the American dream from both sides of the border. Once deemed “damn good workers,” hispanics now became criminals, terrorists and illegals.
What had changed in three weeks time? It certainly wasn’t the people.
Many people in the Southwest are familiar with the beautiful Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe. At the recommendation of friends native to the area, Dave and I decided to make the easy drive north to attend a service on the holy day.
The church itself was stunning. Elegant white stucco offset by brilliant stained glass hues depicting the life and works of various saints. To our left, a life-sized sculpture of Jesus nailed to the cross while his mother and Mary Magdalene mourned at his feet. All around, words – His words – embossed in gold. Magnificent as the physical structure was, I couldn’t help but marvel at the people filling the pews. Walkers, sneakers, jeans, suits, braided black hair, a soft bun of blonde, fresh faces and worn faces, pale and sun-kissed. The contents of the church were as contrasting as the structural features. Yet, like the almost eclectic cathedral, everyone had his place.
The second reading came from 1 Peter reminding us that all who believe are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own.” Young, old, man, woman, brown, black or white – it makes no difference. ALL who believe are the chosen race. The very essence of God’s love and, of communio, is available to everyone. All may come. All are welcome to receive.
The beauty of communio is found in the communion we share with one another. Prior to the close of service, the congregation was called to lift our voices in song to Psalm 118 – “Este Es dl Dia – This is the Day.” Without instruction and without missing a beat, the entire congregation made this proclamation in a seamless blend words, both Spanish and English. There was no divide, no “right.” When you take away the expectation, the misperception, all that remains is harmony. For it is then we find peace in communio.
Sitting next to this random, chance travel companion proved very much to be a lesson in communio. Tate shared that at 53 years of age, he had never been married nor had children. Much like Abraham, Tate believes with all his heart that God has promised him a deep family line, beginning with a wife and children of his own. Admittedly, this promise is not about leaning on his own understanding of logic, or biology for that matter, but rather the promise that God has a plan for his life.
Tate’s journey began nearly 15 years ago with a mission trip to South Africa; interesting, especially since Dave and I will be embarking on a similar trip to the very same location in 8 short days (moments like this affirm that God has a great sense of humor). Upon his return home, Tate fell into a deep state of meditation and reflection. While many of his mission trip travel companions felt called into ministry abroad, Tate struggled to find his vocation. It became very clear to him that God’s message was “love THY community.” As Christians, we spend so much time going forth into the world for evangelism that we forget about educating and nurturing our own. Thus, “community” became Tate’s calling.
While much of his energy is spent locally, Tate has also felt called to communities abroad. Twice he has traveled to Israel; twice he has received both an affirmation of his vocation and a very clear message from above. Without a wife, fiancé or even partner back at home, Tate was led to purchase a beautifully cut stone from a diamond mine near Jerusalem. The message was clear: flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bone. One day, Tate would meet the future owner/bearer/promise-keeper of this ring. The second such message resulted in the purchase of a hand-crafted nativity scene from a Middle Eastern market. Tate was very clearly directed to purchase this masterful artwork to pass onto generations – HIS generations.
As the flight wore on, Tate uncovered much more of his life and personal struggle to find peace in waiting. I found myself growing anxious that God had crafted such a special interaction without the slightest bit of usefulness on my part. Wouldn’t it make sense that God could use me as a vessel to deliver a message to Tate? That somehow, in all my 32 years, I could offer some semblance of wisdom in exchange for Tate pouring out his life’s story? Wouldn’t that make sense? Well, maybe it would. Maybe if it was about me or about my plan. And therein lies the point – it’s not.
We often don’t know the reason for interactions such as this until long after the moment has passed. I gather that I will reflect on this experience for a great time to come. What exactly defines communio? I suspect the very act of defining such a generous, all-encompassing subject – and quite frankly, action – limits our ability to truly be “community.”
And so in the spirit of communio, thus begins the adventure . . .
I had the good fortune of traveling to ABQ a few days early for some R&R with my wonderful husband and co-pilot adventurer, Dave. In spite of the long weekend we would share, the journey to the Southwest turned out to be an individual one. As it happened, we were scheduled on different flights with separate airlines. While I found this to be somewhat taxing initially, it didn’t take long to realize the moments that can be experienced when you’re flying solo.
Normally when traveling, I hunker down with a magazine, book or some work and become very introverted. I walk in a determined manner through the airport so as not to engage in (what I sometimes feel is) unnecessary conversation. Boarding the plane can be especially stressful with the perceived expectation that my travel companion will want to chat for the duration of the flight. I actually find myself praying that I will be seated next to and/or across from someone just as interaction-adverse as me. **Side note: In typing this, I realize how poorly I must be coming across, especially when my role at St. Norbert involves having conversations to build relationships with the hope of fundraising. I love what I do, and I truly do care about people. When I’m “off-the-clock,” however, I prefer to hang in my own personal hamster ball.**
Now that I’ve set the stage for how normally adverse I am to random interaction, let me also add that our plan is rarely God’s, and vice versa. As I cozied into my window seat, I was immediately greeted by my new travel companion, Tate. He was a friendly, unassuming man, fully of questions about the why-come’s and how-to’s of my trip to ABQ. Despite my nearly one word answers, Tate had gathered that I was traveling for the purpose of a Norbertine service learning trip. What happened next was serendipitous, if not almost a little magical.