Tuesday, July 31, 2012

I Was a Stranger

"What do we want the church to do? We ask for its presence with us, beside us, as Christ among us. We ask the church to sacrifice with the people for social change, for justice and for love of brother and sister. We don't ask for words. We ask for deeds. We don't ask for paternalism. We ask for servanthood." 
- César Chávez
In continuing my theme of social justice, I've been focusing on the United States before I move on to the rest of the world.  No discussion of injustice would be complete without including migrant workers.

I live in an area that depends heavily upon migrant work.  This is tobacco country which means there is a great need for farmworkers.  By law, tobacco farmers must advertise farmworker jobs to Americans before hiring foreign workers (usually from Mexico).  However, the reality is that Americans in our area do not want those jobs.  A neighboring farmer has told us that the few times he has hired local workers, they don't return after one day of work.  If he does not make arrangements for migrant workers but depends upon getting his employees locally, he would lose his crop, which he depends upon for his livelihood.  Thus, although farmers comply with the law by advertising for seasonal workers in the local newspapers, they all expect their crop to be harvested by foreign workers.

In a Google search, I found a list of statistics on the website of the Geneseo Migrant Center in New York, an organization that provides a variety of health care and educational opportunities to migrant workers.  Reading through the statistics, I reflected on the animosity I sometimes hear people express towards local migrant workers, people who feel that immigrants are taking jobs and opportunities away from citizens.  Here's a few facts I learned:

  • 81% of all farmworkers are foreign born; 77% were born in Mexico
  • 80% leave their families behind when they seek work
  • 12% earn less than minimum wage
  • 50% earn less than $7,500 per year (farmworker families earn less than $11,000)
  • Many farmworkers are not paid in bad weather; when waiting for crops to ripen; when they are sick; when traveling to another job
  • Only about 50% of farmworkers' children graduate high school due to constant traveling to follow the seasonal crops
  • Due to the hard physical labor, dangerous equipment, and exposure to chemicals, farm work is one of the most hazardous jobs (Source)
Children often work in the fields with their parents.  The National Center for Farmworker Health reports that between 300,000 and 800,000 children work on farms across the United States.  As many of these children are working illegally and due to the transitory nature of the work, statistics on the exact number are difficult to come by, but at least 6% of farmworkers are children between the ages of 14 and 17.  Children younger than 12 have been observed working in fields but there are no statistics available on the under 14 age group.  Farm work is extremely dangerous for children, causing a wide variety of health problems and sometimes even death.  For more information on child farmworkers, go here.  Below is a brief video summarizing what life is like for migrant children:
Being a Bible belt resident (and a Quaker), I am often struck by the contrast between what the Bible actually says and the behavior I often see modeled among Christians in my community.  Part of Matthew 25:35 says, "I was a stranger and you invited me in."   You can't be more of a stranger than an immigrant.  The Peace and Justice Support Network of the Mennonite Church USA points out that "some of the most selfish behavior in our churches goes by the name of hospitality. We act as though hospitality were another word for 'taking care of our own.'"  While most Christians in the Bible belt do a wonderful job of taking care of their own, they do a poor job of extending hospitality to the stranger - the immigrant.  Instead, migrant workers are eyed suspiciously, called lazy, and viewed as taking away American jobs, resources, and benefits.  Over and over again I hear people parrot what they have heard others say, spreading falsehoods about the strangers living in our midst.  

Farmworkers come to this country due to lack of opportunity in their own nation.  Any benefits they receive are earned benefits.  If they pay taxes, they receive the same benefits as any other taxpayer; if they don't pay taxes, they are not eligible for benefits.  They sacrifice their health and happiness in order to provide us with cheap food.  The least we can do is show them hospitality, to love our brothers and sisters.

1 comment:

Shona~ LALA dex press said...

Being from CA, Cesar Chavez is a hero of mine.

The thing that always strikes me is the sheer amount of courage it takes to risk your life and go into the unknown because anything is better that the present situation.