December 30, 2005

Where are the Immigrants in the Immigration Debate?

By Eduardo Stanley

The House last week passed a highly punitive immigration bill, heightening the controversy over the issue of immigration reform. But even as the debate over immigration policy promises to be a divisive issue in the coming midterm elections, the voices of immigrants themselves are missing from the discussion.

“We’re not participating,” says Claudia (not her real name), a Fresno resident and mother of one. “We don’t know whom to talk to about it.”

“We are worried about what’s going to happen,” says Rosa (not her real name) of Madera, an agricultural worker and mother of four. To her, proposals in other bills for a new guest worker plan that leave out the nearly 11 million immigrants who are already here don’t make sense.

“We know they want to bring workers, so what will happen to us?” she asks.

Rosa, who has been in the United States for 15 years, says she hasn’t participated in the immigration debate because she doesn’t know how or where to voice her concerns. She’s also critical of activists who are supporting immigrants. “The people who know the laws don’t explain them to us,” she says. “We need more information.”

Both women share a sense of frustration. For years they have worked hard to support their families, aware of their role in the economies of the two countries, yet knowing that no one will ask for their opinion, even when the policy being discussed will decide their own fate.

“I talk about it at work and with my friends and family,” says José (not his real name) of Madera, a father of four children. “But in public it’s different because you’re afraid of the police. If something happens, they can deport you.”

The bill recently approved by the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 239 to 182 tightens border enforcement, eases deportations and stiffens sanctions against businesses that hire undocumented immigrants. It calls for a 700 mile-long fence along parts of the U.S.-Mexico border.

More drastic, it would convert almost 11 million immigrants into felons. The bill sponsored by Reps. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Peter King (R-NY), would penalize anyone — whether they are relatives, clergy or others — who helps an undocumented immigrant.

The bill drew harsh criticism from numerous religious organizations, immigrant rights groups and Democrats, while President George W. Bush focused on pushing for a guest worker program to be included, without giving amnesty or legal regulation to those who already live and work in the country. Political analysts predict that the U.S. Senate will not approve the bill, but it will no doubt set the tone for the immigration debate in 2006.

The immigrants interviewed by New America Media agree that an amnesty is the only way they could come out from under the shadows, where live in constant fear and shame. They see the importance of expressing their own views on immigration but, Claudia says, “The people who are proposing laws don’t ask us what we think either.”

For José, the most important vehicle for immigrants’ voices is the ethnic media that serve them. They need to speak with journalists, he says, “so they know how we feel and can publish it.”

Miguel Báez, editor of the Spanish-language newspaper Noticiero Semanal in Porterville, publishes immigrants’ perspectives on the debate in its Letters to the Editor section. “When we ask people, they say they don’t agree with a guest worker plan; they support amnesty,” he says. “Wherever you go, that’s what they say.”

“Our audience doesn’t participate very much (in any political debate), not just about immigration issues,” says Carlos Ortíz of Radio Campesina in Bakersfield. “We come from a culture of very low political participation and from societies where politicians have failed the people.

Ortiz adds that Spanish-language media are also partly to blame. “As media outlets, we have the responsibility in the information process, but the majority of media are only interested in their ratings and how much money they’re making. They don’t inform the public or promote social participation,” he says, referring to new Spanish radio stations cropping up across the country.

Many immigrants are not so quick to fault Spanish media. “Many immigrants in Cali-fornia’s Central Valley are indigenous people who don’t know how to read or write in Spanish,” explains Claudia.

José adds that Spanish television doesn’t always reach populations of immigrant workers. “We work all day and when we get home, they’ve already aired (the evening news) and we are already asleep by the time they broadcast the late news.”

Por su parte, José asegura que la televisión en español no siempre llega a los inmigrantes. “Trabajamos todo el día y cuando llegamos ya pasó (el noticiero de la tarde) y para el de la noche ya estamos dormidos”.

The best way to stay informed, some say, is through community meetings.

But Leonel Flores, a Fresno activist with the Union of Ex-Braceros and Immigrants in the Valley, says immigrants often don’t have a voice even within many of the organizations that claim to defend them.

“Organizations don’t represent us well,” agrees Claudia. “But we need to demand more of them.”

To make their voices heard, Flores stresses the need for immigrant rights groups to establish a common agenda and to put pressure on Congress, something he says they have not yet been able to accomplish.

Some immigrants cite weak leadership by activists in immigrant rights. “I think this movement should be led by immigrants,” Flores says.

Others are also self-critical. “Many people think activism is the responsibility of organizations, so they become disengaged and don’t participate,” says Claudia, who adds that immigrants should make a greater effort to be heard.

“The economy of this country would not be the same without us,” she says. “It’s time they listened to us.”

Translated by Elena Shore

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