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Perspectives: Why People Come

On May 1, 2006, immigrants and their allies staged historic work stoppages and marches for justice across the United States and abroad. That day, I took the Whitman College students in my course on “Politics and Religion” to the main park in Walla Walla, Washington, where our college is located. As Mexican American teenagers shouted hip-hop riffs into a microphone, families spread out a pot-luck lunch, and community college students held break-out sessions on immigration reform, my students and I discussed contemporary Christian perspectives on immigration. We looked closely at two documents: the 2003 joint statement on migration by the U.S. and Mexican Catholic bishops, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope,” and a recent speech by Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention.

While the bishops’ letter included lengthy segments on distressing social conditions in Latin America, Land seemed uninterested in the question of why immigrants make the long, arduous, trek to the United States. Land’s focus was all on “us”: our security, our rights, our laws, our jobs. These concerns are not to be lightly dismissed. But what about the lives of immigrants – their rights, their families’ needs, their capacities and hopes for work, their languages and cultures? How does our perspective on justice change and grow when we try to understand what immigration is all about by listening to the voices of immigrants themselves?

Several years ago, I conducted a series of interviews with immigrant Mexican, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan food-processing workers in the U.S. West who had made extraordinary efforts to revitalize their unions and to challenge hazardous conditions in their workplaces. I wanted to find out why they relocated to the United States. How might knowing more about their experiences as immigrants help explain why they had so boldly taken action in the face of mammoth corporations like Tyson Foods and Cargill? And how could attending to their stories help shift the conversation about immigration from a preoccupation with how (or whether) immigrants can “assimilate” to our national culture toward appreciating how immigrants can help radically transform our undemocratic and unequal society?

Most of the workers I talked to came from genuinely poor families in Mexico: families who missed out on the general economic uplift Mexico experienced during its postwar expansion; families who, when economic catastrophe hit in the early 1980s, were forced to shut down their small businesses and earn wages in large garment factories and tourist hotels. These families watched the local populations in their rural villages steadily drain away as agricultural production dwindled, even before NAFTA intensified the corporate expropriation of farm land. And certainly, these immigrant workers were looking to gain the advantages they thought coming to the United States would enable them to have ─ access to better educational opportunities for their children, as well as higher incomes and wider consumer options for themselves.

The migration stories of these immigrant worker-activists also revealed, however, that for these individuals, deciding to immigrate was above all a matter of putting into practice their deep-seated commitments to personal and interpersonal ethics. Immigration provided a series of action-contexts where, to borrow terms from labor historian Vicki Ruiz in the book From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America, these individuals were not merely “victims of poverty” but also showed “agency” as they “made choices for themselves and for their families.” Thus, immigration became a crucible of ethical identity, for they made these choices on the basis of their core values of self-reliance and family responsibility. Once they had become established in the United States, these ethical commitments to oneself and one’s own blossomed into more inclusive forms of regard for, and joint action with, others.

Lucio and Teresa Moreno were leading activists in the 1995-2005 workers’ movement at Tyson’s plant in Pasco, Washington. Born in Jalisco, Mexico, Lucio first came to the United States in the 1980s, after having traveled through Mexico looking for work to support his young family. “I don’t live for free, I tell you,” said Lucio. “I pay with my sweat: to eat, to live. If I want to live well, I have to work harder. And that’s what I’m doing … . No one is giving me anything. I’m the one who’s earning it.”

Self-reliance is at the center of Moreno’s vision of what it means to live an ethical life. It is what motivated him to inspire fellow immigrant workers to unite, gathering mutual strength from their individual efforts to fight back against abusive supervisors at Tyson. He also played a key role in mustering the group solidarity that enabled the workers to carry out a major strike and to democratize the union so that it was effectively led by the immigrant rank and file. In short, Lucio Moreno came to the United States because he believed strongly in taking care of himself, and this same desire to prove his self-sufficiency led him to join others in an exemplary struggle for workplace democracy and human rights.

Lucio’s wife, Teresa, tells a different story, but one that once again shows the remarkable ethical agency of immigrants. After Lucio left and the family’s small store in Mérida, Yucatán, folded, Teresa moved to Cancún, leaving behind the comadre who had helped take care of her kids. She then spent two hard years cleaning in the hotels and worrying about her children, who now had to take care of themselves for most of the day. Teresa made up her mind to cross the border because she wanted to be a good mother: so she could find a work situation that would let her adequately care for her children, “so they could be with their dad,” and “so that they could get an education.”

When Teresa later got involved in organizing people to change the brutal conditions at Tyson, she used family life as a model for interpreting the workers’ democratic slogan, “¡Nosotros somos la unión!” [We are the union!]. “It’s like a home. I could come home and just stay there sitting around all the time, like I have nothing to do. Let’s say my children are there. If I set the example of standing up to do something, they’ve all got to get up to help.” By immigrating to the United States, Teresa Moreno acted on her dedication to her family, and that dedication eventually bore additional fruit by helping her define a distinctive, “familial” approach to grassroots democracy where collective empowerment and mutual support grow out of individual responsibility.

In the 1980s when Lucio and Teresa Moreno made their separate but entwined treks north of the Rio Grande and into Washington state, another national discussion on immigration reform was underway. That debate resulted in legislation that gave immediate legal status to the Morenos and virtually all their fellow activists at Tyson in Pasco. This legalization program, however, was only temporary; since then, the numbers of undocumented immigrants have risen to even greater levels than they had reached in 1986. As the current immigration dispute rages, we can gain some moral clarity by considering what immigrants say about their own experiences and their reasons for immigrating. We should also take note of how things ultimately turned out for the immigrants who benefited from the last major legalization initiative, and be open to seeing how beyond merely “adjusting” to U.S. society, immigrants can provide hope and ethical fortitude for re-making this society as a more humane community.

Dr. Paul Apostolidis, associate professor of politics at Whitman College and the Judge and Mrs. Timothy A. Paul Chair of Political Science, is author of Stations of the Cross: Adorno and Christian Right Radio. A version of this op-ed appeared in an issue of A Matter of Spirit, the quarterly newsletter of the Peace and Justice Center in Seattle.


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