Yesterday morning I sat down to write a reflection on the Immigration Reform Bill passed by the Senate but I received a series of e-mails from a local non-profit group and then personal appeals from several friends, all calling for support for a group of striking farm workers nearby. So my wife and I dropped our plans and headed for the workers’ camp. Because we were part of a small group who planned and walked a 140 mile pilgrimage for immigration justice a few years ago, there were several people who know us in the group. It was both a reunion and a refresher course since our first intensive exposure to the lives and stories of migrant workers before and during the pilgrimage.
The workers are striking for better pay, as many other workers have before them. Many, maybe a majority, are undocumented migrant workers and their families. That is relevant, because behind this strike lies the workers’ fear that their employer will replace them with guest workers who are documented and who will be paid the state-mandated price for their work, calculated not as an hourly wage but as the amount of berries the workers pick; that’s about twice what the striking workers were being paid. The economics are clear and the workers’ fears are real since the grower in this case has refused to raise the rate the undocumented workers get for their labor.
All of the signs I saw at the strike bore one or more of these words: respect, justice, dignity. This is at the heart of the workers’ grievance, and at the heart of the immigration reform debate. Why is it legal to label some human beings as “illegal”? No human being is illegal, only some human actions are. Why are there so many different voices in the immigration reform debate? Because so many of the people whose lives will be changed by a new law fear their dignity and right to just treatment will be disregarded.
That includes the legal immigrants patiently waiting for an inefficient and overburdened system to grant them their green cards. It includes the children brought here as minors who have watched the promise of the DREAM Act fade repeatedly. It includes Border Patrol agents and other federal officials charged with safeguarding our borders: they know that the undocumented workers are not criminals but they also know it is worth their jobs to point out the solution is just immigration reform. It includes the farm owners, who depend for their livelihood on their ability to hire and retain reliable workers.
The immigration bill passed by the Senate last month is not perfect and certainly does not address some central problems such as the long delays in granting legal-resident status to those who have obeyed existing immigration laws, but it is a step forward. The House’s unwillingness to pass a version of the Senate bill that might begin to address the longing for dignity expressed by the strikers’ signs is not simply discouraging, it is sinful. It behooves each of us to demand of our representatives that they stop playing games and start acting in the common interest by passing a more just version of the immigration reform bill as a way to respect the citizens, legal residents, and undocumented workers who are tired of waiting, tired of being exploited and tired of epithets thrown at them by the children and grandchildren of earlier waves of immigrants.