Monday, March 17, 2008

Spring Break, Oh-8, Tomatoes, Sunshine and Slavery

Like Rover Publisher Kevin I spent my spring break in Florida. Like Kevin I went to the beach (albeit on Friday night at 11 o’clock). Unlike Kevin I wasn’t visiting friends and family. I was participating in the Center for Social Concerns Migrant Seminar in Immokalee, FL.

There is a sizable Haitian population at the local church

Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine at the local Catholic Church

In the last 120 years Southwest Florida has been logged, derricked for oil, herded for cattle and sown for agriculture. Immokalee (rhymes with broccoli, maybe the only word that does) in particular is known for its tomatoes. The small hamlet, which includes one motel, one high school, one grocery store, a WWII-era military landing strip, and 10000 or so migrant workers at any given time. Documented. Undocumented. Americans. Guest workers. Impoverished.

When the group of 12 students awoke on Sunday morning, our first in Immokalee, we were stricken by how unfamiliar Main Street Immokalee appeared from our room in the homeless shelter. The ‘tienditas’ with their calling card advertisements in Spanish, the dozens of brown-skinned men roaming the street without apparent destination, the empty lots and empty buildings. More like Mexico than America. Squalor is the word that comes to mind. It was confirmed when we had a home stay on Tuesday night. The 14 by 25 foot cinderblock shanty with seven people, no soap and a concrete floor didn’t bother me so much as the scarred and bloody cat that the children kept as a pet. We should have expected as much, but the shock was still there. And it was bolstered when we attended a Creole language Mass that lasted, by my count, 2 hours and 17 minutes. One of the church leaders graciously introduced us as Notre Dame students during the final announcements. This meant nothing to the vast majority of Haitians, who by now are used to students awkwardly sitting in on their celebrations. However, two loquacious youths seized on the rare opportunity and coolly harassed us on account of our embarrassing football team and proclaimed undying allegiance to Michigan State.

In spite of our culturally-enriching experiences and personal adventures (Creole Mass, flat tire, quail hunting, machete wielding, Aztec dancing) we were educated in the ills of the agrarian society. The long hours, the low pay, the employer abuse, the parental neglect and all the associated problems. For as much time as we spent smiling in communion with the people of the area, we spent just as much sitting in uneasy dismay of the situation—hiding our personal anguish behind inquisitive faces while relishing our independence to leave the town at will, a privilege that most who live there do not have.

The sad story of immigration in this part of the world is not news to most people who are educated about current events. Workers come from Mexico, Guatemala or Haiti seeking a better life, many rarely find it. Some are able to procure it for their children, but not under the auspices of justice but by the generosity of others. Habitat for Humanity, Redlands Christian Migrant Association, Guadalupe Social Services and Immokalee Non-profit Housing Association are only a few of the organizations active in the town. Unfortunately for many residents the police are also active. As enforcers of immigration.

Most police departments don’t want immigration duties because it takes their focus off of “real” crime. The Sheriff’s Department of Collier County thinks otherwise. By agreement with Homeland Security it enforces immigration law. As a result, “real” crimes haven’t been reported and some residents live in fear of deportation. I see no wrong in a single 20-something male being picked up for public intoxication and being sent back to Mexico if he doesn’t have residency, but the prospect of ripping families apart is unsettling.

Many families that live year round in Immokalee consist of foreign born parents and American children. By the 14th Amendment any child birthed on American soil is one of “us” regardless of the parents’ statuses. Among developed countries, America is the lone holdover that still has this law. Unfortunately overzealous policing can lead to the child without a country case. Undocumented parents get caught and are faced with deportation. The children are born in America, the judge can’t order them out of the country. Instead the parents are faced with the decision of taking their children back to the old country—where they could face worse poverty or violence—or release them to foster care in America never to be seen again. What do you do? A child that leaves goes with only a birth certificate and becomes a citizen without a country: an American to the country of her parents but unable to prove to US authorities that she is whom her birth certificate indicates. A child that stays wallows in the corruption and disappointment of the American foster care system. Nice dichotomy. Whatever happened to Leviticus 19:33-34? “You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt.” Or how about “Send me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-lost to me.”

Your fresh tomatoes are bought from farms at a rate that translates to 40-50 cents per 32-pound bucket. McDonald’s and Taco Bell used to pay 70-80 per 32-pound bucket, but there has been a backlash from other fast food companies (Burger King) and industry trade associations. For every step forward, it seems that there are greater forces pushing farm workers back. Visit the website of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers ( to learn more about the specific struggles and initiatives of farm workers in the area. I would like to proudly point out that one of the few CIW staff members not from Immokalee is Melody Gonzalez, ND Class of 2005.

Melody in Father Malloy's office in 2004.

A worker hauling a 32-pound bucket back to the truck, he will receive 40-50 cents for all those tomatoes, which will fetch about 50 dollars in supermarkets and restaurants

Slavery, oppression, neglect. That’s the world from which your produce comes. Not just semantic slavery, real slavery. Men chained inside U-Hauls so that they can’t exercise their right to walk the streets. Six slavery cases have been successfully prosecuted in South Florida in the last decade. Oppression that includes unfair housing practices (including the burning alive of a family that was locked in their trailer), reducing the hours on workers’ timesheets, and black listing those who attend meetings to learn about their rights. Neglect of the children in Immokalee, while their parents work they have no supervision and consistently fall behind in school. Many never catch up. Some go to the fields as early as 14. Companies don’t care, they don’t even check for the agricultural worker IDs that they sponsor. It’s exploitation in America.

Catholic Social Teaching holds that People have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families; A country has the right to regulate
its borders and to control immigration; and A country must regulate its borders with justice and mercy. I’d say that we are failing on all three charges. It shouldn’t take charities like the ones that I listed above to help people just get by. It should be the inherent justice of the society that allows each person to control his own life without relying on the generosity of others except in extreme circumstances. Unfortunately too many people live in these extreme circumstances in Southwest Florida. We can start to follow the radical call of the Gospels just by being informed. I am no expert. I was only there for a week, but what an educational week that it was. Yet I still have much learning to do. I can’t write about all of my experiences but I think that I have been able to highlight a few and my major thoughts from the week. I encourage everyone to visit the website for the CIW and post a comment.

These are few words that my classmate Laura Bradley has written about the experience and the situation:

As a Catholic, as someone who claims to desire to follow Christ, this situation in Immokalee and the attitude towards immigration in the US are not ok. These unjust conditions in Immokalee are simply unacceptable, and human rights are being violated all over the place! At the end of this experience, I have to ask myself if my faith is really important to me. If it is, then what does it require of me and what does it challenge me to do? Does being a Catholic mean simply going to Mass and praying about these issues, praying for these workers? If I have learned anything from my time at Notre Dame, I have learned that my Catholic faith requires me to act. The principles of Catholic Social Teaching are the principles on which I must base my life. I cannot be comfortable the rest of my life and be oblivious to the problems of this world. I must act out of love in everything that I say and do. I must love by fighting against injustice and work for equality for everyone. I must love by giving a voice to these migrant workers and to everyone else living in the shadows.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any answers for how to change the situation in Immokalee overnight. I also don’t have any solutions to the complex issue of immigration in the US or the problem of poverty in developing countries. All I know is that I must continue to ask the questions and I must continue to love, every day. If we all strive to love just a little bit more, maybe we can get rid of the hatred and racism that pervade our society today. Maybe then we can start overcoming the vicious cycle of poverty, both in the US and abroad. Maybe then, more people will begin fighting with, rather than against, the migrant workers in Immokalee.


Brian Boyd said...

wow, man. that was pretty overwhelming.
i don't know what else to say besides thank you for putting that out there and shaking up the Rover norm. it'll definitely make me look differently at the CIW protests we get now and then at ND.

Joseph Lawler said...

What an eye-opening experience that must have been, Brandon. Do you have a policy recommendation? Do you think there is a possible policy solution?
It amazes me that immigrants prefer the conditions you describe to those of their home countries. I once worked with a Mexican who described his dangerous passage across the border and back whenever he wanted to visit his family. He did this twice a year or so for his undocumented job as a handyman's assistant (also my job) and his moonlight job as a minimum wage dishwasher at Chili's. How bad is Mexico that this could happen?