In the last few weeks I have met several people, some of them very young men, teenagers, really, who have arrived in the U.S. in the last two or three years. I've met them because they are -- no big surprise here -- working for employers (or temporary agencies) who do not pay them overtime, or pay them late or not at all, and they come to the Centro Comunitario looking for some assistance and justice. The other day we were talking with a young man who was just 17, and had been here for two years. That means he made the hard journey across the border himself at age 15. s
Other recent arrivals include the daughter of someone I know in Guatemala, who left a small child with her parents. She already has several relatives here and so it was relatively easy, so I heard, for her to settle in and find work. Her family is not desperately poor; as migration scholars know, the poorest of the poor are not the ones who migrate as they lack the resources to pay for the journey or secure a loan. I am not certain about what prompted her decision to leave; she has some education and training, but am not sure that she was able to find a job commensurate with her training.
And so the community in New Bedford is continually changing, or gradually changing. In my weekly English class, there is a young couple who have only been here a few years. This is in a town where there was an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid six years ago, the repercussions of which are still felt in the community. We recently helped organize an event around the unresolved cases of the former Michael Bianco employees, many of whom are still traumatized by the memory of their encounters with the detention system -- some of the guards and officials were rude, humiliating and racist -- and who still have to report in weekly; a few have to wear electronic surveillance bracelets at all times. So they still live in uncertainty.
The conditions in Guatemala have worsened for many; people still lack enough land, in many cases, to support their families and there are few jobs in the rural communities other than going to work on coastal plantations. Yes, Virginia, there are still feudal-like conditions throughout Guatemala, where people who are too poor to own a piece of land are "allowed" to squat on land held by wealthy landlords, and keep the produce of their labor, in exchange for virtually unpaid work on those same landlords' coastal plantations.
So, this gives me a somewhat different angle on the current immigration debate raging in our congress. The Senate bill is bad -- the 10 year path to citizenship is too long, and truly cruel -- and whatever the House is going to come up with will undoubtedly be worse. But other than making the lives of struggling people like the ones I've worked with even more unpleasant, and making it more dangerous and risky and costly for them to get here, I don't think it will stop people from making the effort. The amount of money that will be spend on expanding the fence and paying all those extra Border Patrol agents could probably support some development projects-- repairing some of the damage caused by NAFTA and earlier policies that produced the economic equivalent of "scorched earth" -- that would give people a reason to stay in Mexico or Guatemala.