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"The People United. . ."

To understand what moved people to join the National Immigrant Boycott, it helps to have worked side by side with them.

 

I just happened to be driving by at about 4 p.m. in Deming when I saw the sprawling, informal line of people with handmade signs on their brief walk from Court House Park to the stoplight at Pine and Gold. They were chanting "El pueblo unido/Jamas sera vencido" ("The people united / will never be defeated"), which has historical resonance from political struggles in Latin America and in the US. It gave me a bit of a shiver.

The marchers were local participants in the National Immigrant Boycott on May 1, about 50 in all, mostly middle- and high-school students with a few old ladies and children mixed in. It was probably the first Latino protest march ever in Deming, according to the editor of the Deming Headlight.

I tooted my horn in support along with a few other people in cars and trucks as the protesters stood on one corner, and then I drove down the street to deliver this newspaper. The protestors were standing on the other side of the street when I came back, and I tooted again.

It was just a little flurry of a demonstration, lasting about half an hour. But it made a bit of history.

I don't really grasp why this nationwide event seems to have backfired in terms of public opinion. I think the reason I sympathize might be because I've seen these immigrants, legal and illegal, from a perspective a lot of Americans haven't. I've often wondered why there haven't been protests before, because of the sub-minimum wages they often get and their often sub-minimum safety conditions.

One sign in the protest march that I could make out said, "We're hard-working immigrants, not criminals." I think the part of the proposed laws that sparked people's indignation the most and made them get out there and wave signs around was the proposal to make border crossing a felony.

The slogan "No human is illegal" has always seemed to me a piece of sophistry. Even the border crossers sometimes call themselves "ilegales." But someone's motive for breaking a law needs to be taken into account.

Everyone knows that the "push factor" for illegal immigration is poverty. But what's not discussed in the national dialogue is that it's extremely difficult to get legal permission to cross, even though immigrants are necessary for many jobs in the US.

Every border crosser knows this. "Why don' t you let us cross legally?" they say, insistently. "We're going there to work."

Over and over they tell how you go many times to an office in another city and have to pay a fee every time, how they sometimes sleep on the sidewalk there, and how virtually no one gets a permit. They don't seem to realize they're taking some jobs from Americans, but I don't know who's decided which jobs these are anyway.

A week ago a border crosser down in Palomas said to me, with quiet seriousness, "If they'd make it possible to get papers, I'd be the first in line to get them." It's extremely hard to cross illegally. I'd guess this guy was probably happy to hear Bush's plan for a guest worker program, though not sophisticated enough to realize it will limit his labor rights.

As for the "hard-working immigrant" part, I've worked in the chile fields about a dozen times and felt in the flesh how hard they work.

They call chile picking "back-breaking" work, but it's really your arms and thighs that ache afterwards. Women faint sometimes in the heat. It's not just me the gabacha who falls asleep the minute I get home from the fields because I'm so beat. I've heard a Mexican guy in his early 30s say the same thing (although a few top pickers say they don't get tired). Workers rarely take even a sip of water, even on the hottest days, because they're picking every last chile they can.

It was common on the night shift at the chile plant in Deming to hear mothers say they slept about five hours a night because they'd wake up to get their kids off to school in the morning. One woman said she slept only three hours because she'd get up and get her kids lunch, too. These guys work hard.

When I was distributing Desert Exposure on May 1, I got into lengthy conversations with people in the workplaces I visited (don't tell my boss!). One Hispanic woman in an office didn't join the protest. She said she asked her mother why did she participate when she had such a "cushy job" as a schoolteacher in Columbus. Border issues are replete with ironies.

I asked a man at another business what he thought of the march, and he told me he'd heard of a case in Utah 20 years ago of a Mexican who died in a mine and somebody left his body out in a snow bank because he was illegal. In his job at a power plant in Utah, the man also saw cases where they didn't know what to do with undocumented Mexicans who had died on the job or been seriously injured.

These stories weren't difficult to believe because I'd heard of cases, reported by Baldemar Velasquez of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, of fieldworkers who died of sunstroke a few years ago in the southeast. In one case the owner buried the worker on his property and in the other the man wandered off and was found two weeks later.

I sympathize with immigrants because they're often in abusive working conditions. Without really trying hard I've heard horrifying tales from Mexicans in Deming of bad safety conditions they've witnessed in meatpacking plants in the Midwest. A story of a man having his arm cut off, and of another whose head was cut off. Of men falling into a meat grinder on the floor, in one case killing a man and in another cutting off a man's legs. The worker who lifted out the latter man told me this.

There are too many stories to tell—of immigrants digging ditches whose sides aren't shored up, of people being run over by tractors in the fields, of people being harmed by chemicals at work. It's a wonder there hasn't been more of a movement to protect immigrants' rights before now.

Though I never heard anything about this stuff in all the coverage of the National Boycott, there's little doubt it was part of what moved some people to join the marches. This is what made my heart shake a bit and made me toot my horn in support of the marchers.

I'm writing this before the immigration legislation has been completed. By the time this is published, it may be a changed world on the border.

 

Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.

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