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No Fence High Enough

 By age 18, Kelvin already had tried twice, unsuccessfully, to cross into the United States after traveling hundreds of miles from his home in Honduras. The first time, he said, he was beaten and his backpack taken by thieves. 

“Mi,” who was robbed while riding atop a train on his way to the United States, lived for five years in Texas before being deported because his work permit expired. 

Both Kelvin and Mi laughed when asked if they could support themselves on the salary offered by the vast maquiladora (maquila) network of factories stretching throughout Central America. 

“I worked two jobs in Texas, at the 7–Eleven and the Stop & Go,” Mi said. “I could make more money working two jobs in Texas than I can at the maquila.” Yet work in the maquilas is the best most Central American countries have to offer. 

And despite the risks, both intended to keep trying to get into the United States, crossing the guarded borders of two nations until they succeeded—or were killed. 

I met Mi and Kelvin several years ago at the Casa del Migrante, a temporary shelter for deported migrants on the Guatemalan-Mexican border. Just south of the Suchiate River in Tecun Uman, the shelter is run by the Scalabrini Order of Roman Catholic priests whose mission is providing shelters for the migrants among us. The labor-human rights trip was sponsored through STITCH, a network of U.S. women unionists and activists seeking to build connections between Central American and U.S. women organizing for economic justice. 

Filing in for lunch in a sweltering, dark room where fat flies were the first to feast on the bowls of rice, meat and greenish bread, dozens of migrants took their places, saying grace before they ate. They shared their stories and their hopes. 

Across the room, a man from El Salvador described how he had migrated to the United States and earned enough money to come back and build a house—which was destroyed in a hurricane. With nothing left in El Salvador, he was trying to return to the United States to start the process all over again. 

While the debate over who can enter the United States roils the nation, the priests at Casa del Migrante know that no matter how onerous the bureaucratic loops to citizenship or how high the borders erected along the Rio Grande, people seeking to support themselves and their families will continue to risk everything to—in a word—survive. 

Maquilas—the system of factories where workers assemble garments for multinational firms like Liz Claiborne—were supposed to provide a place for impoverished workers to step into the global economy as well-paid participants. Instead, workers often face sweatshop conditions and universally long hours and low pay. Working 12 hours a day, six days a week, many throughout Mexico and Central America can only afford to live in cardboard and aluminum homes with no electricity or running water. 

Many of the maquilas throughout Central America are owned by Korean or Taiwanese firms, whose Latino employees assemble clothes and other goods for exports to the United States and other western nations. 

Corporate globalization hasn’t succeeded in enabling millions of workers throughout the world to support their families. But it has succeeded in tying together national economies—and that means if workers are treated unfairly in one country, it’s a problem for all nations. These connections are especially clear in recent so-called free trade agreements. 

Says Dr. Gabriela Lemus, executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), an AFL-CIO constituency group: 

Within the framework of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for example, productivity has increased in all three countries affected, simultaneously, average wages in all three countries have dropped on average by approximately 30 percent. In the case of the relationship between Mexico and the United States, in the 1970s, for every $3 earned by an American workers, a Mexican worker earned $1—today for every $6 earned by an American worker, a Mexican worker earns one. The insistence of policymakers to not explore the inter-relationships of globalization, international trade policy and immigration has created a quagmire for immigrants and the communities in which they live. 

Instead, with its “guest worker” provision, the current immigration proposal now in Congress would create a 21st century version of the nation’s failed bracero program in which tens of thousands of immigrants were exploited for use by greedy corporations in the mid-20th century.  

Sen. Byron Dorgan neatly sums up the guest worker provision:  

It is, simply put, a plan that would bring cheap labor in the back door in the form of millions of foreign workers, even as we continue to export good paying American jobs to other countries. 

As drafted, the immigration proposal also would go against decades of U.S. immigration policy by separating families. (Pach has a great post on the bill’s lack of family reunification and more here.) This month, Asian Pacific Americans held a two-day rally on Capitol Hill to urge Congress to “Keep Families Together” and reject President Bush’s proposal to eliminate the family reunification provision. The Asian Pacific American National Mobilization was separate from the nationwide May Day demonstration staged by Latino groups, but other activist Asian American groups joined the nationwide May 1 immigration rallies in major cities across the nation. The AFL-CIO constituency group, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) was among the participants. The AFL-CIO opposes both the provision that would create a guest worker program and separate families. 

Back in Guatemala, the Rev. Ademar Barilli, who heads Casa del Migrante, told me he had seen more than 4,600 people come through his doors since the shelter’s founding in 1995 and 2001. By 2005, some 16,000 people passed through Casa del Migrante that year alone, up from 14,400 the year before, even though the freight train to the border—the migrants’ primary means of transport—stopped running after Hurricane Stan devastated Guatemala in October. 

Surviving on donations and support from his religious order, the Brazilian-born priest says he tries to convince people not to go to the United States. 

But as long as one day’s wages in the United States is the same as a month’s here, you can’t convince anyone. 

At Casa del Migrante that afternoon several years ago, Kelvin, who planned to try crossing both borders again the next day, knew what he wanted to do if he made it to the United States: 

Work hard, help my family and buy a Harley. 

Now, that’s American.

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Tula Connell

Tula Connell