You are browsing the archive for mexico.

A Halloween Nightmare in Juárez

3:03 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally published at In These Times


On October 24 in Ciudad Juárez, the Dulces Blueberry maquiladora, a low-wage manufacturing plant that specializes in American Halloween candy, turned into a real-life house of horrors when an industrial explosion killed four workers, injured several dozens more and showered the area with a cloud of dust.

According to the border-based outlet Frontera Norte Sur (FNS), as a result of the blast, “Fire broke out on the plant’s premises, fueled by spilled chemicals and sugar, and windows of homes in an adjacent residential district were reportedly shattered.” FNS has also revealed that the factory struck by the Halloween blast was known for producing gimmicky trick-or-treat candies like Real Annoying Orange and Plants vs. Zombies gummies.

Though the site of the collapsed factory is now under investigation by government authorities, officials reportedly left grieving family members in the dark for days and there is still little information available on the exact cause of the explosion. Texas-based WFAA initially quoted Rosario de la Torre Mesa, the mother of 20-year-old worker and father of two Miguel Angel, as saying: “Since yesterday at five in the morning when [Miguel] left for work, I haven’t seen him. I haven’t heard anything.”

By Saturday, WFAA reports, she’d only identified her son’s remains “after standing vigil outside the factory for two days.”

According to FNS Editor Kent Paterson, this disaster primarily “exposed the almost non-existent infrastructure in place [in Juárez] to respond to health and environmental emergencies.” The faulty organization was highlighted, he says, by the city’s halting emergency response to the explosion in the hours following the disaster. The chaotic aftermath was exacerbated, he continues, by longstanding resource gaps–hospitals that lacked the capacity to care for the injured and ambulances that “were not working or lacked gasoline.”]

As horrifying as the city’s lack of emergency response is, however, perhaps more chilling has been the dead silence from the American side of the border about the labor conditions in the factory itself. The Blueberry factory is associated with U.S. brand Sunrise Confections, a division of the El Paso-based Mount Franklin Foods. The company has yet to respond to employees’ families claims that workplace hazards directly contributed to the tragedy. As of Wednesday afternoon, Mount Franklin had also declined to answer inquiries from Working In These Times.

El Paso’s KTSM reports:

Read the rest of this entry →

Checkpoint: Sovereignty, Borders and Justice

4:01 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Damiana Cavanha leads the campaign to reclaim Guarani ancestral lands from a sugar cane plantation in Brazil. Courtesy Survival International

Originally published at CultureStrike

Damiana Cavanha, a member of the indigenous Guarani-Kaiowà people in rural Brazil, has almost nothing left to lose. She’s seen her community come under violent attack as a sugar plantation consumes her land. Several family members, including her husband and three children, have perished in their precarious encampment by the highway. As one of the last holdouts of her community, the grandmother and chief described her situation plainly to human rights advocates: “We are refugees in our own country.”

The idea of being a refugee in one’s own homeland disrupts the assumptions we often carry about who belongs where and about the legitimacy of one’s citizenship. Cavanha is locked in a unique position as an internal refugee as well as a native person. But if you listen to her words you hear the same sense of rage shared by dispossessed peoples across the hemisphere. These are people trying to defend their traditional indigenous lands, and they’re also those claiming the right to stay in the places where they’ve resettled and built new lives. The right to move and the right to stay both turn on the struggle for self-determination and sovereignty.

Earlier this month, many native communities celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a counterpoint to the conventional celebrations of Columbus Day, aiming to honor the histories and the cultural survival of indigenous communities despite centuries of cultural genocide and ecological destruction. Since the late 1970s, community groups and educators have used to the day to draw attention to ongoing struggles for land and cultural rights.

But it’s not just about honoring the past. The uprisings of indigenous folks that continue today resonate deeply with other social justice struggles, and increasingly, movements are turning to indigenous insurgencies as examples of how to organize communities across racial divides and national boundaries.

The familiar activist slogan “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us” bridges migrant and native resistance, from the first genocides of native peoples to the enslavement of Africans to contemporary campaigns for racial justice.

Read the rest of this entry →

Migrant Women Bring Voices to Capital

3:49 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Migrant women participated in the immigration rally in Washington D.C. on Oct. 8. (Centro de los Derechos del Migrante)

Originally published at In These Times

Adareli Ponce is a typical working woman in America, but her work experience is not typically “American.” Even though the products of the labor of women like her are everywhere, her story is invisible to many. As the main provider for her family back in Hidalgo, Mexico, the 31-year-old has spent years slogging away in U.S. chocolate and seafood processing facilities. Migration was her chance to escape the entrenched poverty that ensnares so many young women in her hometown, who she says are often excluded from sustainable job opportunities. But the journey has been fraught with hardship and loneliness.

Last week, she and a number of other women who have worked in the U.S. on “guestworker” visas went to Washington, D.C. with the bi-national labor advocacy group Centro de los Derechos del Migrante to testify about migrant women’s struggles.

Because most migrant workers are men, Ponce said in her public testimony, “migrant women are commonly excluded and made invisible in debates about immigration.” But they make up as much as over 40 percent of the low-wage immigrant labor force, according to some estimates, and they face gender-specific problems ranging from sexual harassment on the job to the challenges of transborder motherhood.

If migrant women are missing from the immigration debate, they are also excluded from conversations about U.S. women in the workforce, which tend to dwell on white-collar problems like the gender pay gap and the corporate “glass ceiling.” Migrant women face much more basic problems: how to stave off sexual abuse and cope with long-term separation from their children, which compound issues common to migrants of all genders, like crushing poverty or heat exhaustion and toxic fumes in farm fields.

Ironically, migrant women workers have propelled opportunities for middle-class Americans. Moms who work outside of the home can better achieve work/life balance thanks to options like a migrant nanny at home or frozen seafood dinners processed by the industries fueled by migrant women’s labor. Read the rest of this entry →

Mexico City Erupts Over Neoliberal Education Bill

1:34 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Teachers have gathered en masse in Mexico City to protest President Nieto’s new education reform legislation. (Eneas De Troya/Flickr)

Originally posted at In These Times

In Mexico City, school teachers are meting out some serious discipline to a government gone awry.

For the past several weeks, the metropolis has pulsed with a labor insurrection. There have beenfierce union-led rallies, clashes with police, and mass demonstrations that have paralyzed the city, climaxing with an estimated 12,000 teachers storming the streets on Wednesday. The catalyst is Mexico’s new education reform legislationchampioned by President Enrique Peña Nieto and his PRI party, which teachers union activists blast as a thinly veiled attack on organized labor.

After lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to implement the reforms last week, demonstrations flared across the capital, blocking traffic and drawing crowds around the French, Spanish and U.S. embassies. The National Education Workers Coordinating Committee (CNTE), a radical union faction representing a third of Mexico’s public school teachers, has mobilized tens of thousands of protesters. The conflict is now widely seen as as a principle test of Peña Nieto’s political strength, symbolizing the class and ideological tensions between Nieto’s center-right PRI party and Mexico’s embattled leftist movements.

The government maintains that the law, which amends articles of Mexico’s constitution that guarantee the right to public secular education, is necessary for improving management of Mexico’s school system and raising the quality of teaching. Reflecting the same neoliberal “reform” impulse that politicians have pushed in the United States with charter schools and draconian testing systems, the idea is to tighten controls on educators and students by imposing standardized tests and evaluations. The reforms would also ease the process for firing teachers, aiming to dismantle traditional union control and cronyism in employment decisions. As in the U.S., the “reformers” are pushing “merit-based” performance measures other market-oriented reforms.

Teachers see this as an assault on a sacrosanct public institution and view the law as a union-busting campaign masquerading as public-minded reform. In a Labor Notes report last December, Dan La Botz quoted Rubén Núñez Ginés of SNTE Local 22 in Oaxaca:

Read the rest of this entry →

Carnivals Are No Picnic for Migrant Workers

3:55 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Migrant workers who set up and take down rides at traveling fairs, like this one in North Texas, complain of wage theft and grueling hours. (Double H Photography/Wikimedia Commons).

Originally published at In These Times

A trip to the carnival is the quintessential American summer pastime. But for workers who run the show, the hard labor of making our holidays carefree can be shockingly grim.

lawsuit lauched last week by two migrant workers illustrates the ugly side of the leisure industry. Over a period of several years, while park patrons enjoyed the fun and rides of the Butler Amusements, the migrants say they were systematically exploited. The suit, filed in a California federal district court, lists them only as John Doe 1 and John Doe 2, because, as is typical in this sector, they fear retaliation from labor recruiters in their hometowns in Mexico.

A decade ago, the workers paid a recruiter hundreds of dollars just for the privilege of arranging a coveted job in the United States. But, they say, in approximately seven years working for Butler, they were consistently underpaid for their drudge work—setting up, breaking down, transporting and maintaining machinery and equipment at industry giant’s numerous fair sites, which stretched across California, Arizona, Nevada and Idaho. On a typical day they toiled 10 to 14 hours for wages that amounted to about $5 an hour, they say.

These carnival workers were not the undocumented migrants of the “underground economy” as depicted in the news. They were legally hired, thanks to the federal H-2B visa program for temporary foreign labor. In other words, the lawsuit underscores the fact that even with official papers, many “guestworkers” have virtually no power to resist abuse.

According to a recent report by Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM)—the advocacy group that, along with Legal Aid Society–Employment Law Center, is representing the Butler workers—the fair and carnival industry relies on the H-2B visas to fill slots for exhausting, often hazardous seasonal work in a business built on itinerant entertainment and fast profits. Under the influence of apowerful hospitality and leisure industry lobby, Congress has maintained a large H-2B visa program, currently capped at 66,000 H-2B visas annually, to staff hotels, resorts and entertainment facilities. While the leisure sectors in general are fueled by a trasient, precarious workforce, the industry of seasonal amusement businesses like summer carnival companies, which in 2011 secured about 5,000 H-2B visas, mostly from Mexico, benefit from especially lax oversight under federal labor law.

The cheap thrills come at a high price for workers. Employers often withhold or underpay wages, or pay out only in lump sums, and workers could end up earning under $300 a week. Wages are further undercut by massive debts owed to predatory labor recruiters in Mexico. One worker interviewed in the report said a workday could run as long as 24 hours straight if he had to break down and set up a ride. Another worker lamented, “We couldn’t even support ourselves, let alone send money home, which is why we came.”

For traveling carnival shows, the migrants pass through various states with different labor regulations, which poses an obstacle to monitoring employers and enforcing workplace protections.

Read the rest of this entry →

On Both Sides of the Border, Teachers Fight Corporatization

9:49 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

The Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación has been fighting for greater respect for Mexican teachers, often against the country's teachers union itself. (Saúl Arroyo Morales / CNTE)

Originally posted at In These Times

Last month, the success of the Chicago teachers’ strike forced the mainstream media to present a rare picture of public school teachers: as organized, defiant and victorious. But prior to the Chicago teachers winning a major deal, there was no shortage of dismissive, condescending and misleading coverage of teachers unions.

Recently, that disdainful media gaze has turned southward. Various outlets–public radioUSA TodayMcClatchythe Economist and Washington Post–have depicted the Mexican teachers union as a sinister force in the national struggle over public education policy. The reports generally focus on Mexico’s poor academic performance in international rankings and zero in on the “boss” of the National Education Workers’ Union (SNTE), Elba Esther Gordillo, who is cartoonishly portrayed as an authoritarian collector of fancy handbags.

A June Washington Post report on Mexico’s crumbling schools, published on the eve of a landmark national election, said, “Twenty percent of the country’s budget goes to education, about $30 billion a year. More than 90 percent goes to salaries–negotiated by the teachers union, which dictates policy.” The piece quotes education scholar Carlos Ornelos of the Autonomous Metropolitan University about the alleged black market in teaching jobs: “The group Mexicans First estimates that 40 percent of the teaching jobs are still sold, or inherited, or exchanged for political or even sexual favors.” Yikes.

The source Ornelos cites, Mexicanos Primero, is a think tank that seems to closely align its politics (and name) with high-power U.S. reform groups like Students First. In the vein of “Won’t Back Down”, Mexicanos Primero has sponsored its own cinematic screed on teachers, “¡de Panzazo!” (“barely passing”), depicting corruption and incompetence throughout Mexico’s education system.

Both ¡de Panzazo!’s claims and the American press’s disdain for Mexico’s teachers show only one sliver of a complex, often misrepresented political context. Yes, there is documented evidence of rampant corruption as well as [certain] persistent cronyistic practices in the Mexican teachers union, such as reserving teaching positions for family members. But that’s not the whole story.

Read the rest of this entry →

Labor Day Showdown: Can Advocates Stop ‘NAFTA of the Pacific’?

4:27 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from

This Labor Day, the Pacific Rim will wash into the Midwest’s flagship city, and activists will confront the tides of global commerce with a demand for global economic justice.

At trade talks in Chicago, the Obama administration will work with other officials to develop a trade agreement that will incorporate Vietnam, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Peru. Labor, environmental and human rights groups will gather in the city to warn that the structure, and guiding ideology, of the emerging trade deal could expand a model of free-marketeering that has displaced masses of workers across the globe and granted multinationals unprecedented powers to flout national and international laws.

The provisions of the Trans-Pacific Free Trade Agreement or Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are still under wraps. But the general outline seems to mimic the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and similar pacts that have brought political and economic turmoil to rich and poor countries alike. The new negotiations are also taking place amid political friction over pending trade deals with South Korea and Colombia, which have run into opposition over concerns about labor abuses abroad and offshoring of U.S. jobs. Yet the White House continues to push free trade as a path toward the country’s economic revitalization.

So on Monday, activists with Stand Up! Chicago and other groups hope to get ahead of political deal-making by demanding that any new trade deal give greater priority to environmental, labor, and health concerns. The ongoing trade talks offer a tiny opening for advocates to put forward ideas for making trade less hostile to ordinary people. In a way, they’re taking the Obama administration on its own word, because the TPP has been billed as a “21st century” trade pact that will presumably improve on previous trade agreements.

Read the rest of this entry →

Thousands of Migrant Kids Trapped Inside the World’s Border Politics

8:45 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

A 17-year-old girl looks over her shoulder in Altar, Mexico, where immigrant smuggling is pronounced.

Cross-posted from

Yolanda had barely made it to the U.S. border after being beaten and raped by smugglers on the route up from El Salvador. When border agents discovered the 16 year old, she was sent to a hospital, stripped and shackled to a bed—just as a precaution, presumably, to ensure she wouldn’t run away.

Yolanda was part of an endless stream of children on the run, attempting to enter the U.S. on their own for work, family or just personal safety. Each year, thousands of these “unaccompanied minors” risk their lives to slip through the gates, and end up falling through the cracks.

According to a 2010 article by Wendy Young and Megan McKenna, of the advocacy coalition Kids in Need of Defense, the unaccompanied youth population spans the scope of global crises: some are simply trying to get out of poverty. Others are displaced by war, or fleeing abuse, female genital mutilation or forced marriage. Some are struggling to escape local gang violence. Government data indicates that most originate from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

The term “unaccompanied” tells only part of their story. Many of these kids seek to reach a parent or relative on the other side of the border. But they must travel alone, exposed to brutal conditions as well as abuse by the coyotes hired to guide them.

While many youth trying to enter from Mexico are ensnared by border police and deported straight away, others enter as undocumented immigrants. They are routed to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which places them in a disturbingly wide range of settings, from juvenile detention to foster care.

In an assessment of immigration detention in the U.S., the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recently reported satisfactory conditions at the two youth facilities it visited, while voicing concern about reports of abuse of children in federal custody. Their main conclusion, however, was that under international principles of children’s rights, migrant and refugee children should not be detained at all except as a last resort.

Despite some significant reforms in recent years, the government’s treatment of unaccompanied youth is not guided by humanitarian precepts, but rather by the logistics of “warehousing” kids until their legal status is resolved. According to a 2009 report by the Women’s Refugee Commission, many unaccompanied children, after braving hell to reach the U.S., are left vulnerable to mistreatment and the crippling loneliness of institutionalization.

While it’s hard to expect the immigration bureaucracy to provide quality child care, the system has tried to make itself more kid friendly in recent years, thanks in part to legal challenges over the treatment of child detainees. But investigations by WRC, which documented Yolanda’s case among others, found that while some children were placed in decent settings like group homes, others were placed in “secure” institutions that treated them essentially like youth offenders.

Children are particularly exposed to harsh treatment when they initially arrive. In some of the interviews conducted by WRC, children describe the degrading conditions they experienced after they were first “caught” at the border:

Border Patrol agents would shout to wake them up at night, calling them dogs, spitting and giving them food the children described as moldy.

Researchers found that children initially detained by ICE authorities generally lacked basic health care and had “no systematic access to legal representation or rights presentations … and often have no guardian or advocate defending their rights or best interest.” That is, they might technically be able to access legal services, but a terrified kid stuck at a detention facility would probably have trouble understanding her basic rights, much less how to locate a free attorney.

She may have some other problems to deal with. It’s not uncommon for kids who are in custody to show signs of trauma, either from their experiences in their home countries or from the more acute hardships of their migration. According to research published in WRC’s 2009 report:

Facility staff estimated that between 30 and 50 percent of children need mental health services. Facilities reported that very high percentages of up to 50 percent of children were on psychiatric medication.

This kind of institutionalization only amplifies the trauma that young people experience trying to reach the U.S. But while countless unaccompanied minors are neglected by the system, many do have ties to American communities. A large portion are in fact eventually released to the care of family members or designated sponsors. However, ICE’s hardline enforcement strategies complicate the process of reconnecting youth with their families. Relatives may be deterred by the fear that ICE agents would “use children as ‘bait’” to lure in undocumented adults. One child’s testimony summed up the irony of the chilling effect of these tactics:

I know that I am allowed to have visitors but I have no one to visit me. My parents don’t have papers so they will not come to get me.

The byzantine legal system makes it harder for unaccompanied migrant children to reunify with family, especially when the parents are undocumented. Children typically have little or no control over how their case is handled, even though they should be able to petition independently for relief before a judge.Though they might qualify for asylum or relief as victims of trafficking, their cases are threatened by the courts’ narrow legal interpretations and general lack of legal help. Certain asylum claims, like being targeted by a gang, are especially hard to prove in court, according to Young and McKenna.

Jennifer Podkul, program officer for the Detention and Asylum Program of the Women’s Refugee Commission, told Colorlines, “The whole crux of it is that these kids are not given attorneys, and so they don’t really have a voice, they don’t really know their options, they don’t know if they have their own claim or not. And that’s probably the biggest problem, and probably the root of this confusion.”

Outside the U.S., youth who migrate alone have just as little hope of finding refuge. In some European countries, unaccompanied migrant children are extremely vulnerable to abuse and trafficking. In Australia, where anti-immigrant anxieties have surged in reaction to an influx of “boat people,” refugee kids are treated as contraband, reports The Australian:

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has signalled his concern at the steady increase in numbers of unaccompanied children arriving in Australia as an “anchor” to secure safe passage for family. Spokeswoman for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre Pamela Curr says Immigration has sent letters to 15-year-old refugees in Melbourne informing them that family reunion applications will not be processed within three years. “This means they will have to stand in line in the humanitarian stream with thousands of others. Everything is now premised on deterrence,” she said.

“Deterrence” may be the endgame, but officials should understand that even the most deplorable conditions wouldn’t stem the flow of desperate migrants fleeing economic devastation, death or torture. And any child who arrives alone isn’t going to get turned around easily.

Not girls like Yolanda, who discovered she was pregnant as the result of getting raped on her way to the border. Her journey was a one-way trip.