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California Farmworkers Often Forced to Live in Squalor, Says Report

4:09 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

For California’s farmworkers, toiling all day in the brutal, sun-scorched fields is hard enough; the homes they return to each night are often in even worse conditions.

Originally posted at In These Times

For California’s farmworkers, toiling all day in the brutal, sun-scorched fields is hard enough; the homes they return to each night are often in even worse conditions. Though the reforms won by previous generations have extended basic labor and safety protections to seasonal and immigrant farmworkers, many remain shut out of the right to decent accommodations.

According to a new report published by California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), the housing crisis in the agricultural workforce has worsened over the last generation. Despite the locavore fads and slow-food diets that have infused today’s farm-fresh produce with an air of glamour, as a workplace, the fields still echo the social marginalization and scandalous poverty that sparked the groundbreaking grape boycott of the late 1960s.

Don Villarejo, the longtime farmworker advocate who authored the report, tells In These Times that growers have “systematically” reduced investment in farmworker housing over the past 25 years in order to reduce overhead costs and to avoid the trouble of meeting state and federal regulations, which were established as part of a broader overhaul of agricultural labor, health and safety standards during the 1960s and 1980s. According to Villarejo, workers’ modern material circumstances are little improved from the old days of the Bracero system. That initiative—the precursor to our modern-day guestworker migrant program—became notorious for shunting laborers into spartan cabins, tents and other inhospitable dwellings on the farms themselves, beset with entrenched poverty and unhealthy, brutish conditions. Read the rest of this entry →

How Sandy Clean-Up Brought Day Laborers Out of the Shadows

6:34 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(El Centro de Immigrante)

Originally published at In These Times

When Sandy hit last October, the Northeast shoreline seemed to freeze: people were stranded in flooded homes, businesses shuttered, downtown Manhattan’s lights went eerily dark. But the paralysis wasn’t total—the area began buzzing immediately with invisible workers. The day after Sandy was just another day of honest work for the “casual” manual laborers who would spent months cleaning, gutting and rebuilding homes and businesses across the stricken area, often in grueling conditions with little protection from collapsing walls, toxic mold and other hazards.

A study published late last month by researchers with the City University of New York’s Baruch College reports that after Sandy, many of these day laborers—a workforce that is typically dominated by Latino immigrants and considered a “casual” or irregular part of the construction trade—were unnecessarily put in harm’s way amidst the haphazard recovery process.

Based on interviews with workers and advocacy groups in New York and surrounding areas, the researchers found that while demand for day laborers spiked post-Sandy, working conditions sank even lower than usual. Flooded areas were quickly awash in contractors and desperate homeowners seeking quick, cheap labor to fix their property damage, which led to a perfect storm of risks, ranging from injuries and toxic exposures to wage theft by crooked subcontractors.

The researchers note that many day labor sites belied major safety threats, such as “industrial cleanups involving warehouses that stored pharmaceuticals and in hospitals.” And in many cases, homeowners who informally hired day laborers for immediate clean-up did not understand the complex hazards involved with clean-up, demolition and rebuilding, leaving workers even more vulnerable. Read the rest of this entry →

Rogue State: Jeff Biggers on the ‘Arizonification of America’

7:10 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Summit Photography

Originally posted at CultureStrike

For most of his life, Jeff Biggers has been on his way home. The author and activist has navigated multiple worlds to chronicle the forgotten Americas—the obscure, the misunderstood, or the proudly resistant communities in Appalachia and the southwestern border lands. As a politically inspired journalist in the tradition of folk historians like Studs Terkel, Biggers has unearthed nuggets of rebellion, even radicalism, in places that the media tend to write off as backwaters or mythologized clichés. In his new book, State Out of the Union, Biggers examines a region he’s been entangled in a “love-hate affair” with since boyhood.

In elucidating Arizona, Biggers sculpts a narrative of cultural and social conflict centered on a tumultuous struggle over immigration and racial politics. Looking beyond the headlines about the state’s various anti-immigrant policies, including the notorious “papers, please” SB 1070 law, Biggers finds strange continuity in Arizona’s evolution as an embodiment of the country’s contradictions. Though the face of Arizona is changing, alongside the nation’s diversifying demographics, the rifts of race, gender and age resonate with the state’s fraught history as the ultimate borderland—and as a muse for storytellers seeking crooked plot lines.

In this Q&A, Biggers, a longtime CultureStrike contributor, talks with editor Michelle Chen about the origins of the book and his meandering journeys in journalism and politics. (Note: Asian American Writers Workshop is hosting an event on Biggers’s new book on September 24 in New York City.)


Michelle Chen: What was the genesis of this book? What led you to Arizona?

Jeff Biggers: I’ve had a love-hate affair with Arizona since my family arrived in Tucson in 1970 in my Dad’s old ’60 Chevy, fleeing the demise of the Midwestern coal towns, intent on finding a new life in the “Sun Belt.” Within a short time, I found myself on a local TV program, discussing Arizona history as a school kid. I’ve never stopped investigating the state’s unique history. In 1991, after living out of the region for a decade, I did a “walkabout” and oral history project in the Sonoran Desert (borderlands), trying to understand our indigenous, Mexican, immigrant and pioneer cultures. I’ve also lived on the other side of the US-Mexico border, which I chronicled in my book, In the Sierra Madre. Nearly forty years after my family’s arrival—and all of my immediate family still lives in Arizona—I was outraged by the rise of political interlopers and an extremist state legislature that passed Arizona’s punitive immigration law (the infamous SB 1070 “papers, please” law) in 2010, and then crafted a bill to outlaw Mexican American Studies in Tucson. As a cultural historian, that was the last straw for me; this wasn’t “my Arizona,” and I felt I needed to go home, recover some of the lost voices in the state’s history, and chronicle a new chapter over the civil rights showdown taking place today.

I think a lot of writers like myself, raised in Arizona, felt the same in 2010: What’s the matter with Arizona? Read the rest of this entry →

Terror in Anaheim

6:06 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen


Originally posted at CultureStrike, a project on immigration, art and activism

Last weekend, news cameras zoomed in on a theater in Aurora, where many moviegoers were shot down, apparently by a gunman trying to act out a crazed fantasy. While the mass killing reignited a nationwide debate on gun control, a different, but similar, tragedy unfolded not too far away in Anaheim, California. The difference was that this time, the cops did the shooting. And while the victims of the violent outbreak were also ordinary community members, unlike the Aurora residents, they had placed themselves in the line of fire by confronting a police force that works above the law.

It started when police shot an unarmed man while chasing him down an alley. The circumstances surrounding the incident remain unclear, but we know the young man’s name:  Manuel Angel Diaz, 25, pronounced dead that night at a local hospital.

Read the rest of this entry →

Will Obama grant the DREAM in fragments?

10:33 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

DreamActivist via flickr

Cross-posted from Culture/Strike

The news is out–and so are undocumented youth around the country who hope that this time, there may be real change ahead. The Obama administration today announced that he will grant undocumented young people temporary immigration relief via an administrative directive by the Department of Homeland Security. The policy would apparently partially fulfill the goals of the DREAM Act campaign by allowing many undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation if they were “brought to the United States before they turned 16 and are younger than 30,” according to the Associated Press, and have obtained a high school education or served in the military, and have no criminal record. Though it is not a comprehensive path toward full citizenship, the policy would reportedly help several hundred thousand youth avoid deportation and allow them to “apply for a work permit that will be good for two years with no limits on how many times it can be renewed.”

It appears that this is the administration’s effort to respond to this week’s nationwide mobilization for undocumented youth, coupled with the heightened media attention surrounding Jose Antonio Vargas’s TIME Magazine cover story (featuring CultureStrike’s own Julio Salgado).

Jose Antonio Vargas and his project Define American hailed the new policy as a validation of the struggles of DREAMers and their allies–and acknowledged that many others are still seeking a just and humane immigration solution:

The journey is far from over for the remaining millions of undocumented Americans like me–at 31, I am past the age limit–but this is a big, bold and necessary step in the road to citizenship. Read the rest of this entry →

Cartoonist Sergio Hernández Depicts “Arizona’s Finest”

1:56 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Sergio Hernández

Cross-posted from CultureStrike.

Sergio Hernández is a California-based artist and cartoonist. This is his take on the latest goings-on in Arizona, where education and law enforcement authorities have formed an axis of xenophobia:

There has been a very aggressive move in Arizona by those in power to erase all Latino, Chicano, Mexican American culture from the state. This movement is cloaked under the guise of homeland security and border control. What is really happening is the destruction of fundamental rights of a population of people who are being demonized because of the color of their skin, culture and the language that they speak.

If Arpaio and Pedicone are successful, then where does it stop?

Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Superintendent of TUSD John Pedicone are the front men for a very unjust movement. This image depicts the real feelings of these evil men.

Read the rest of this entry →

Beyond May Day, Frustrated Immigrant Movement Forges Ahead

7:05 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

May Day rally in San Francisco (courtesy Patricia Jackson, via IndyBay)

The waves of protests and rallies on May Day 2012 had barely cleared out when police happened upon more than 100 undocumented immigrants locked in isolated houses near the Texas border. After being trapped for days deprived of food and water, they were turned over to the border patrol. May First is supposed to be a day to remember the struggles of labor and the poor, but these migrants were forgotten, like so many of the border’s economic refugees.

May Day has historically had a pro-migrant message, from its origins in 19th-century working-class Chicago, to its revival in 2006 as a day of protest for immigration reform. But this year, even with the added momentum of Occupy Wall Street, the pro-immigrant mobilizations were relatively modest, according to advocates, though the struggles facing immigrants are growing more dire.

While the Occupy banner blanketed much of May Day, demonstrations in several U.S. cities incorporated immigrant rights groups, including protests against Arizona’s draconian immigration law SB 1070, currently under review by the Supreme Court, and the Obama administration’s sweeping deportation policies. New York City’s May Day Solidarity Coalition brought together groups that link labor, immigration, and economic justice, like the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Domestic Workers United.

But immigration issues weren’t highlighted as they were in May Day 2006–possibly a reflection of activist fatigue that’s sunk in after so many years of stonewalling by politicians. And tactically, it might be hard to wrap the purposefully amorphous Occupy ethos around the everyday struggles of immigrants who live in perpetual fear of being ripped apart from their families and deported. Occupy’s focus on direct action and building alternative political communities might not resonate with immigrants who are frightened to even venture outside their homes.

Catherine Tactaquin, executive director of National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights told In These Times that some of the challenges stemmed from legal obstacles that could impede many immigrant activists: Read the rest of this entry →

Children of Immigrants Targeted by Tax Warfare in Congress

6:43 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Evan Finn / Creative Commons

The fundamental injustice of the tax system grows clearer as tax day looms ominously over working people and a few horde more and more of the nation’s wealth. Short of a total collapse of capitalism, the primary redistributive remedy for this would be progressive taxation. But our tax policy gets it exactly backward, and it’s about to get a bit worse. And as with so many wars of attrition against the working class, this one begins by shafting disenfranchised communities, especially immigrants.

While the rich are rolling in tax giveaways, a few credits actually give poor folks a break. One of these, the refundable child tax credit (CTC), applies to middle-class and poor parents alike and was claimed by some 21 million taxpayers in 2011, “which averaged about $676 per child and totaled $26.1 billion,” according to Politico. For poor families, the CTC, together with its big sister the Earned Income Tax Credit, provides a lifeline to keep them from plunging below the poverty line.

Now some lawmakers advocate cutting off the child tax credit for tax filers who lack of Social Security number. The move is unabashedly aimed at making life harder for undocumented workers, even taxpaying ones, specifically by punishing their children.

Currently, the CTC is one federal tax benefit that people can claim using an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN) instead of a social security number. This effectively makes it available to undocumented workers—those who lack formal authorization.

The debate centers on whether children of undocumented workers, who are in many cases U.S.-born, should have the same modest benefits afforded to other working families. According to the First Focus Campaign for Children, the policy “could raise taxes on the families of more than 5.5 million children, including 4.5 million of whom are U.S. citizens.” Children of immigrants are disproportionately Latino and poor, with an estimated two in five poor children growing up in the Latino community.

In addition to being cruel toward immigrant families in general, the proposal is inlaid with the pernicious stereotypes of children of undocumented immigrants, who have been demonized as “anchor babies.” In fact, the canard of immigrant hordes procreating in hopes of using US-born kids as a springboard toward legalization is a myth peddled by anti-immigrant groups to stoke Malthusian demographic panic. But hey, an election year means open season on immigrants and endless bloviating about securing the border. Undocumented workers and other immigrants who cannot vote (despite being breadwinners and taxpayers for their families) can only watch as xenophobic spew greases the campaign trail. Read the rest of this entry →

Immigrant Scapegoating: Not Just an American Pastime

1:15 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from

Around the world, as long as people keep moving, politicians will continue to talk breathlessly about the immigration “crisis.” It’s a campaign trail standard in the U.S., but in Britain and Western Europe as well, political figures waste no opportunity to project voters’ deepest fears and wildest misperceptions onto whatever group of newcomers is most visible—whether they’re Egyptian, Roma or Polish.

Here in the U.S., all the GOP presidential hopefuls are racing to brandish their nativist street cred. But Mitt Romney has pulled ahead in the meme-fest coming out of South Carolina’s primary. Despite his own immigrant lineage (due to his Mormon missionary roots), Romney has checked off all the boxes: supporting E-Verify, promising to beef up border security, and smacking down the DREAM Act for undocumented students. Appealing to law-and-order types, Romney touts the endorsement of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who helped craft Arizona’s SB1070 law. (South Carolina, too, boasts an SB1070 copycat bill.)

Not to be outdone, Rick Santorum has argued that once you’ve crossed the border illegally, regardless of what you do or the family you raise thereafter, “everything you’re doing while you’re here is against the law.”

The resurgent Newt Gingrich has touted a relatively “humane” reform plan based on a vaguely defined screening process that might legalize “about 1 million” undocumented immigrants. Though the plan would expel roughly “7 or 8 or 9 million” to their home countries before they can apply to return, even this proposal was immediately decried by rivals as “amnesty.”

But immigrant-bashing isn’t just an American pastime. Although Europe’s far-right movements have generally laid low since Anders Breivik’s murderous rampage against “multiculturalism” in Norway, the hard right remains a vocal minority in several countries.

France—the country the GOP vilifies as a bastion of wine-swilling egalitarian liberals—has stepped up deportations, according to the Washington Post. President Nicolas Sarkozy, himself a descendant of immigrants, has pushed for more deportations as he approaches a tough election. Squeezing the president even further to the right is the hardline National Front party, trumpeting a fiercely anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant platform. Read the rest of this entry →

Struggle for Immigrants’ Rights Highlights Split Within Organized Labor

2:01 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

Cross-posted from In these Times.

Trying to please all at once and disappointing everyone, the White House has long played a game of good-cop-bad-cop on immigration, promising reforms while clinging to some of the cruelest deportation policies.

Meanwhile, President Obama’s delicate waltz around immigration highlights complex frictions within the labor movement on immigration policy—revealing contrasts between immigration enforcement employees and the AFL-CIO leadership.

Though the mainstream labor movement has not always placed itself at the forefront of immigrants’ struggles for equality, the AFL-CIO has recently spoken out in defense of undocumented workers and their communities. The AFl-CIO Executive Council has joined a chorus of groups opposing Secure Communities, a notorious Homeland Security program that promotes the sharing of information between local and federal law enforcement authorities about the legal status of immigrants arrested by local police.

The AFL-CIO stated that the program encourages racial profiling, and demanded that the White House “Immediately terminate the operation of Secure Communities” and bar it from jurisdictions known to practice “discriminatory policing.” The statement, signed by the AFL-CIO and National Immigration Forum, specifically cited Alabama’s brutal new anti-immigrant law, which is currently being challenged in court. Read the rest of this entry →