Friday, January 26, 2018

Migrant families caught in a broken immigration system and torn apart because of it

(Father Michael McAndrew)

OXFORD, Miss. – Rigoberto Salas, his wife, and their five children of nearby Batesville, Mississippi, were elated last March when a Homeland Security court in Jena, Louisiana, agreed to cancel an order that would have deported Salas back to his native Mexico. Still, he was held in detention pending a federal appeal.

Eight months later the Immigration Board of Appeals reversed the court decision and ordered him deported due to his lack of documentation. He has lived in the United States since 1992.  His children, aged 3 to 14, grew up here.

Despite testimony that “two of his daughters are suffering from depression, his son suffers from learning disabilities and is in special education classes, and his youngest daughter is having nightmares and waking up screaming at night,” the Board of Appeals decided the children “will be cared for and supported” by their mother even though she is also undocumented. The Salas family has appealed this decision.

The Salas family is one of many in Mississippi and across the country caught in the madness of the immigration debate and politicians’ failure to pass real and meaningful reform of a broken system. As nationally syndicated columnist Michael Reagan, son of the former president, wrote recently, these families have become “a bargaining chip” in the battles between Republicans, Democrats and President Trump.

Trump owes his presidency in part to his demagoguery of the immigrant issue. He has ordered the end to DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), the program that provides some protection to undocumented children. He continues his ridiculous demand for a 1000-mile, $20 billion wall on the Mexican border.

Like Trump, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant occupies the state’s highest office in part because of his own anti-immigrant blusterings, including a highly questioned claim that migrant workers cost the state $25 million a year (where’s the thanks for rebuilding the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina?).

Migrant workers came to the United States in droves after NAFTA was signed in 1994. Countless numbers farmed small plots or held other jobs that NAFTA destroyed. The legendary independent journalist John Ross explained it succinctly: NAFTA “dumped so much bad corn in Mexico that millions … abandoned their homes and headed north.”

Even Trump recognizes that NAFTA was a bad deal, but he fails to make the connect to the hard-working migrants who had to leave behind home, extended family, and culture to make a livelihood for their loved ones.

“There are forces that crush the spirit of people on the move,” Father Michael McAndrew wrote in his 2013 book Migrant Faith.  Based in Greenwood and Bruce, Mississippi, the Catholic priest has worked with migrant workers for decades. “There is the separation from loved ones. There are feelings of guilt when the migrant is unable to be present with a parent or relative when they are ill or dying.”

Then there are those torn from their families and forced to return after building a new life here for years.

Seven days after the birth of his third child in March 2017, Miguel Torres of Batesville found himself in the custody of federal immigration officers and soon deported from the land he had called home for 15 years. Martin Duron of Greenwood, father of five, was a prospering businessman in irrigation systems management and on the parish council of his church in April 2017 when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested him. He and his family departed for Mexico in June.  

ICE arrests have increased 40 percent under Trump. Last year judges rejected 60 percent of those seeking asylum in the United States. Often those returning to Mexico do so in great danger.

Deportees are “prime targets for crime, since they (are) presumed to have money,” writes Sarah Stillman in a recent article on the issue in the New Yorker. 

“`Why do Americans hate Mexicans?’” a young Mexican named Samantha once asked Father McAndrew during a 2007 sabbatical in Mexico. “It was a question filled with pain and simply not understanding the animosity of so many Americans.”

It’s a question that shouldn’t have to be asked.

This column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Labor South Roundup: Organizing in the Big Easy, a pro-union U.S. Senator in Alabama, and a new Poor People's Campaign out of North Carolina

(The Rev. William Barber II of North Carolina during a visit to Selma, Alabama, in 2015)

Looking ahead at 2018 reveals some few hopeful signs on the horizon despite the scary mess in the White House and continuing Republican rule across much of the land.

Organizing in the Big Easy

In New Orleans, workers in the hospitality industry have organized to improve their lives at the workplace, a grassroots effort that is showing some real promise. A recent article in Gambit by Kat Stromquist says members of the New Orleans Hospitality Workers Committee (NOHWC) want to stop “the manager who skims tips from employees” and stop the practice making waitstaff pay “for kitchen mistakes out of their paychecks.”

They’d also like a “guaranteed 40-hour work week and a chance to earn overtime.”

Tourism is a big industry in post-Katrina New Orleans with 10.45 million people going to the Big Easy in 2016 and spending $7.41 billion while there, Stromquist reports.

Yet hospitality workers earn some of the lousiest wages in New Orleans, generally less than $10 an hour.

The NOHWC has proposed a 10-point Work Week Ordinance to give workers more say in their working lives, including input into scheduling and shift assignments.

A year ago this month, approximately 500 workers in the hotel industry joined UNITE HERE Local 2262, which already had representation at Harrahs New Orleans Hotel and Casino, Loew's New Orleans Hotel, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.

It’s Fair to Hope in Alabama

Democrat Doug Jones’ victory over Neanderthal Roy Moore in the recent U.S. Senate race may be just some kind of quirk to Fox News, but it provides a platform for a proud, much needed pro-union voice in the millionaires’ club known as the Senate.

Jones is the grandson of card-carrying union member steelworkers, and Jones himself was a steelworkers member at US Steel Fairfield Works during his college summers. He boasted of his union ties while on the campaign trail.

An openly pro-union Democrat from the Deep South in Congress? The Clintonistas must be as disgruntled about that as Republicans!

A Poor People’s Campaign coming out of North Carolina

The Rev. William Barber II, leader of North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement and one of the most dynamic social justice advocates in the country today, helped launched a new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival in December, taking inspiration from the Poor People’s campaign that Martin Luther King Jr. started 50 years earlier in December 1967.

According to Facing South, the campaign has “plans for massive civil disobedience at state legislatures to challenge regressive public policies that hurt the poor.”

Martin Luther King is smiling from heaven.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Hoping for fewer Scrooges among the politicians in charge in Mississippi

(1870s depiction by Fred Barnard of Bob Cratchit holding Tiny Tim)

This was my Christmas 2017 column for the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi, a column that looks to Charles Dickens to give us some hope for better things in 2018.

OXFORD, Miss. – I settled comfortably into my favorite chair one recent night and popped in a DVD of the best Christmas movie ever, the 1951 version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”.

No one ever portrayed a better Ebenezer Scrooge than Scottish actor Alastair Sim, who plays to perfection the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” whose ghost-and-spirit-inspired conversion later in the story will have him declaring, “I’m not the man I was!”

“I have endeavored in this ghostly little book to raise the ghost of an idea,” Dickens once wrote about his 1843 tale. “May it haunt (readers’) pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it by.”

I’ve seen the film a dozen times, yet I keep discovering new things in it. “You were a good man of business,” Scrooge tells the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley. “Business!” cries out Marley, rattling the heavy chains his life of greed and lack of compassion for the poor earned him in eternity. “Mankind was my business! Their common welfare was my business!”

Dickens scholar Norrie Epstein says the writer “never failed to weep” whenever he read his story out loud.  I’m afraid he’d be sobbing uncontrollably today if he saw how his “ghost of an idea” has fallen on deaf ears.

Here in Mississippi, nearly one out of every three children live in poverty worse than that of Tiny Tim, whose father Bob Cratchit is so poorly paid by Scrooge than he can’t get Tim the medical treatment he needs to save his life.

In fact, Tiny Tim might consider himself fortunate even to be alive if he were in Mississippi, which has the highest infant mortality rate in the nation. Mississippians are more likely to die prematurely than people from any other state. The fact is Mississippians, young or old, typically don’t live as long as people from other states.

When Bob Cratchit begs to take Christmas day off, Scrooge grumbles, “a poor excuse to pick a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December.” Who knows how the old miser (before his conversion) would’ve reacted if Bob had slipped and hurt himself after coming back to work on December 26?

Probably much like Mississippi’s Republican leadership. With their gutting of the state’s Workers’ Compensation protections in 2012, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and his fellow Scrooges in the state Legislature have made sure workers here are the nation’s least compensated for work-related injuries and thus the least protected. They are among the country’s most at-risk workers. A Mississippi worker is twice as likely to be killed on the job as the typical U.S. worker.

In fact, no one really knows how bad workers have it here in Mississippi because this is one of the nine states that refuse to collect reliable data on serious workplace injuries. Yet hear Gov. Bryant’s response to the 2012 Workers’ Compensation gutting—which added a host of hurdles for workers to jump before they can qualify for compensation: Mississippi has “the most job-friendly environment in America.” Friendly for whom? You know.

Here’s another way to say it: employers in Mississippi don’t have to worry about the “humbug” of being responsible for the safety of their workers.

Like Dickens himself, I confess to shedding a tear or two every time I get toward the end of “A Christmas Carol”. After Jacob Marley scares the wits out of the skinflint and then the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future do their work on him, Scrooge is a changed man. No more is he the soulless moneylender who tells a Christmas donation seeker that the poor might be better off dead. That way they could help “decrease the surplus population.”

At the end, Scrooge is indeed a new man, one whom people would come to say, “no man could keep Christmas as well as Ebenezer Scrooge.”

Dickens offers us hope at the end of his tale. Indeed, isn’t hope the very heart of the Christmas story? Maybe there’s hope even in poor ol’ Mississippi, hope that political leaders one day will see in those less fortunate a common humanity—not simply shirkers or ne’er-do-wells—and thus realize “their common welfare” is the business of us all.