Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Seeing migration from the bottom up...

By Sarah Monroe

In the United States, the controversy over immigration is heating up. In my own community in rural Washington state, there is fear that immigrants are taking jobs from an already severely depressed economy and a suspicion of foreigners who are changing the demographic of a predominately white community. I came on this delegation after several years of research, interviews and activism surrounding immigration and immigrant rights in western Washington.

I had heard the stories of immigrants from the perspective of those who had already crossed and were trying to reconstruct their lives on the other side of the border. I had seen the level of fear in immigrant communities, fear of being seperated from their loved ones and being deported back to Mexico or Central America. But this was the first time I was able to talk to people who were getting ready to cross.

As part of this delegation, we visited a migrant center here in Oaxaca, La Casa del Buen Samaritano. There, we had conversations with Central American migrants who had come from El Salvador and Guatemala. A shy 27-year-old was going to join his brothers in the states because there was nothing left for him in El Salvador. ¨There is no education, no jobs. I have no choice,¨he said. His eyes filled with tears when he talked about his parents, left behind in El Salvador. When we asked how he planned on crossing the border, he shrugged and said, ¨I will cross with God´s help.¨

A man from Guatemala had a family in the states, a wife and a child, and had just spent 6 months in a U.S. detention before being deported back to Guatemala and dropped off without any resources. He was determined to reunite with his family and spoke about the dangers he had faced jumping a freight train to cross the Guatemala-Mexico border and the danger from bandits who prey on migrants. He talked about his fear of the rest of the trip, facing both the Mexican police and gangs, who both are known to extort and assault migrants traveling north.

A crucial question for all of us on this trip was what was fueling this migration north. Oaxaca itself sends many migrants to the United States. In San Juan Sosola, a tiny town in the indigenous Mizteca Alta, we met the people left behind. The streets and schools were nearly empty of children and we were greeted by older members of the community. Members of the shrinking community were working hard to develop sustainable agricultural techniques to offset the depleted soil from modern agricultural techniques, the severe erosion from centuries of deforestation, the incursion of mines and recent climate changes that have affected harvest. We learned that the sale of corn, the primary crop in the region, was being undercut by large scale agribusiness in the United States and that neoliberal policies that laid that groundwork for free trade agreements like NAFTA had cut off farm subsidies to small farms. Don Gregorio informed us that this area had been settled before the time of Christ, though only 50 members of the community now remain. The poverty, lack of opportunity for young people, and hunger had taken its toll.

As I return to rural western Washington, I wonder if the farmers and small town folk I know will be able to relate to this community, as we too face increasing poverty and lack of opportunity for our young people. Small farms in my community also cannot compete with large scale agribusiness. Is it possible that the global trade agreements and large corporations that have reduced opportunity and sustainability in southern Mexico are also affecting my own local community? Could the communities that send migrants and the communities that are receiving them have a common enemy to fight?

I think so.

Sarah Monroe recently traveled to Mexico with a Witness for Peace delegation.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Senselessness of Hate

by Mark Stevens

I recently saw an article on that investigates whether Arizona law SB1070 has sparked or intensified anti-immigrant sentiments and violence. As I read about the growing number of these hate crimes, I immediately thought about those people I have met here in Nicaragua who have told me why they decided to venture to the U.S. illegally. With these stories in mind, the facts the article reported no longer made sense to me.

Maybe it was my awareness of the fairly recent history between the United States and Nicaragua that made the internet article seem illogical. Here’s the basic story: In 1979, a revolution occurred against a family of U.S.-backed dictators that had held power in Nicaragua for nearly 40 years. The government that was born out of the revolution was socialist, led by the Sandinistas. The United States was fearful that Nicaragua would be drawn into the Soviet-led bloc of leftist countries, becoming another Cuba. This led Ronald Reagan’s administration to financially and militarily support an insurgency against the Sandinista government in the mid-1980s. Essentially, he started a civil war in Nicaragua, fought between the Sandinista government and the rebel “contras.”

What happens when a government has to fight a war against its own people, on its own land? Here are a few consequences:
  • Families broken up by violence. Imagine the deterioration of the Nicaraguan family structure when fathers (and even sons) would go off to fight, many never to return.
  • War over development. The Nicaraguan government had to use what little money it had to finance the war instead of using that money for the country’s development.
  • Little or no economic growth. Why would businesses want to invest in a country ravaged by war? Unemployment is an obvious consequence of little economic progress.

Clearly the effects of these problems are still felt in Nicaragua, where the poverty rate is greater than 45% and where 65% of the population does not have a formal job. The war that we started in this Central American nation isn’t fully responsible for its status as the 2nd poorest nation of the Western Hemisphere of course, but we can’t deny that it was a contributor. Now that we’re clear on the facts, hopefully you understand my bewilderment. After nearly destroying a country from the inside only 2 or 3 decades ago, now some are infuriated because the victims of our destruction want to find a way to survive in our country? This is not to say that undocumented migration is right, or that all those without papers in the U.S. come from countries with this kind of history. To practice such abject discrimination against those who have so been negatively affected by U.S. foreign policy, however, is simply senseless.

Mark is an intern with Witness for Peace studying the causes of migration in Nicaragua.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Delegation to Mexico: Learning from the Heart

By Arnie Alpert

Don Gregorio was one of the first people our Witness for Peace group met in San Juan Sosola, a small village in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca. One of the first things he told us was a story about a young woman from the village who had died in Los Angeles without her family being able to contact her.

You don’t even have to scratch the surface in Oaxaca to learn something about Mexico-U.S. migration. Talk to just about anyone and they’ll ask, “where are you from?” Once you say, “the USA,” you’ll hear stories about brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins living north of the border. The challenges facing separated families are painful, even without workplace raids, desert border crossings, and deportations.

If you do scratch the surface, you can learn why beautiful, peaceful villages like San Juan Sosola are pretty much empty of young adults, most of whom leave as soon as they are old enough to travel on their own. Some reasons, like soil erosion caused by excessive logging, go back centuries to the time of Spanish colonialism. Others are more recent, like the pressures put on Mexico in the 1980s to reduce price supports for tortillas, and the flood of subsidized corn from the USA which entered Mexican markets after the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994.

According to Jesus Leon Santos, of CEDICAM, the Center for Integral Development of Small Farmers of the High Mixteca, the region has experienced longer periods of drought and periods of intense rain brought on by global climatic change. Moreover, he says, chemical inputs of the “green revolution” made the land less productive.

Miguel Angel Vásquez, of EDUCA, Services for an Alternative Education, says 60% of the Mexican youth who enter the labor market every year are unable to find work. Oaxaca is Mexico’s second poorest state, and according to some figures, a third of its people are now living in the USA.

And it’s not just Mexico. In a religiously affiliated shelter in the city of Oaxaca we met 3 young men from El Salvador and Guatemala, trying to make their way through Mexico past migration police and criminal gangs. A Salvadoran man says, “If I could stay in my country and make money I’d never leave.” But he’s making his second attempt to reach the USA – the first ended with arrest in northern Mexico – despite his knowledge of the perils of the road. It’s not like he expects money to fall from the sky, he says. He expects to work hard so he can send money home to his mom.

When the farm economy is failing, rural people migrate. That’s the story of US history in the 19th century, of modern China, of modern Mexico and Central America. But unlike the “mill girls” who left my state’s small towns in the 1830s and 1840s for the bustling new cities of New England, and unlike the workers in Chinese sweatshops now, Mexicans and Central Americans have to cross a highly militarized border and face a climate of racism and persecution if they reach the other side.

Our ten days with Witness for Peace deepened my understanding that “immigration reform” requires addressing the reasons why so many people are forced to migrate in the first place. My passport will enable me to return across the border to my own community with new insights, and with my heart enriched by the people I’ve met.

Arnie Alpert is New Hampshire Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Calling all activists for our annual Roots of Migration campaign!

With each passing day, the joint demands for just immigration reform and just trade reform grow increasingly urgent. To unite and advance these twin struggles, our upcoming fall campaign will boldly connect the dots between unjust trade and forced migration. The next two months provide an opportunity for immigrant rights activists, trade activists, unionists, students, people of faith and all concerned individuals to work in solidarity for a common cause.
Thousands of participants will join for fun, educational events that highlight the trade-and-migration link through poetry, videos and crafts. Schools, churches and community groups across the country will host public performances and rallies to generate media coverage of the underreported roots of migration. Advocates will speak up in town halls to pressure electoral candidates to take a firm stand for trade and immigration justice.

It is only with your support and activism that we will achieve immigration reform that truly respects immigrants and rectifies the trade injustice at root. Please join us this September and October. To get involved, or contact WFP’s National Grassroots Organizer, Catalina Nieto ( Stay tuned for campaign alerts and resources.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Searching for the “American Dream”and falling victim to the “American Nightmare”

At a recent workshop for migrants and their families that Servicio Jesuita para los Migrantes hosted in rural Nicaragua, one of the participants was willing to share his tragic, but not uncommon, story. Pedro has four children, and like any father, he wants the best for them. He knows that having an education gives them a chance to escape from the poverty that afflicts his home country, but his family lacked the financial resources to put them through school. With virtually no opportunities available for him, it was out of sheer desperation that he decided to search for work in the United States.

He was not successful in making it to the U.S. But his determination to give his children a better future would not allow him to quit. He made the journey two more times, in spite of the perils and difficulties of the journey north to Nicaragua. He would not be as lucky on his fourth attempt, receiving irreversible damage to his feet while trying to board a fast moving train.

“Sometimes the American dream is an American nightmare,” he admits. “And that dream will kill you.”

Heartrending stories such as Pedro’s reveal that there is a crucial element missing from the immigration debate: the fact that U.S. economic policies force many of Latin America’s poorest to try their luck on the journey to the U.S., even when the odds are so heavily stacked against them. Unfortunately, very little has been said about how U.S. foreign policy encourages or perpetuates the economic weaknesses that prevented Pedro from being able to find work in his community.

Through international education and grassroots advocacy, Witness for Peace calls for Congress to consider these economic realities as representatives prepare to craft legislation for immigration reform. We must ask our legislators this question: Does it truly make sense to create laws addressing symptoms of migration without addressing the root causes?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Mexico Supports Lawsuit Against the SB 1070

Mexico has formally offered its support for the lawsuit being put forth by a wide list of civil rights organizations calling on the Supreme Court of Arizona to declare SB 1070 unconstitutional. The announcement followed a visit to the U.S. where Calderón’s openly criticized SB 1070 before Congress.

Mexico’s stance on the law brings into question the country's own position on migration. While Mexico wants an immigration policy that allows Mexican workers to safely work in the U.S., joint economic policies continue to push millions of Mexicans to make the difficult and dangerous journey north .

Many immigrant rights advocates consider Mexico’s stance to be hypocritical, as Central American migrants passing through the country hoping to reach the U.S. often face severe human rights abuses both at the hands of Mexican authorities and organized crime. Failing to address the roots of migration for both Central American and Mexican migrants ensures that mass immigration will continue. While this link remains missing in government debate, Obama and Calderón’s joint stance against SB 1070 law does acknowledge that the legal and social system that many workers will continue are entering does need fixing.