The Miracles of the Young and the Old

 

So the tone of my last few posts has been pretty heavy. So for my next topic, I wanted to go with something more uplifting.

Kids are adorable and sweet. They can be rambunctious and crazy, and hard to handle. One thing that is certain, they have a way of looking at the world that no one else does. They are very perceptive, and they can see the joy and beauty in the world that often big people can’t. So you don’t think I’m fully idealizing kids here, I will also say they can be messy, loud, and tiring. They can demand a lot from you. It’s because children, by their nature, are meant to absorb, to soak in. They are learning about life, and crave any lessons that anyone can teach. At the end of the day, though, most people would agree that life is a whole lot better because of them.

People who are elderly, in my opinion, are generally really cool. They are wise, and calm.  Or they can be super feisty and won’t take crap from anyone. Many of them have a sparkle in their eye and an impish sense of humor. Having lived so much of their lives, they long now to give, to teach. They’ve absorbed wisdom, and experience, and have a great deal to share. Again, not to idealize; there are many challenges that come with being elderly. Accumulating health issues, combined with increasingly limited independence can be frustrating for both the individual as well as their loved ones. In situations with memory loss or personality changes, the feeling of loss for caregivers can be overwhelming. But again, at the end of the day, most people would agree that you would never stop loving someone because they grow old.

Not to get too philosophical here, but I’ve heard it said in different ways that kids and people who are elderly are in fact two sides of the same coin, and it is in reality the people in the middle who are so different. In that space between youth and age, it can be natural to become caught up in the daily concerns of life, and to lose touch somewhat with what really matters. Somehow, though, children and the elderly always seem to remember that.

But, unfortunately, these people are often lost in the shuffle. It is often easier to push them away in favor of something easier, something digital maybe, that doesn’t demand anything of you like they do. I know this because too many times I’ve made that mistake myself.

But there are some really exciting programs out that recognize how maybe kids and the elderly are perfectly matched to give and receive. In these new models, the nursing homes and elder care facilities are hosting preschools in their homes.

This approach has so many benefits. It helps to combat the loneliness and depression that elders often experience because of isolation. It helps keep them mentally sharp and stimulated because of their interaction with quick young minds. It gives them a sense of purpose and usefulness, as they are responsible to interact with the children. And maybe most importantly, it gives them a bond  of zany fun. And I think fun is pretty important in life.

It’s just as good for the kids, too. Kids may often be seen as a nuisance, and made to feel like they don’t matter. But in those moments when they interact with an elder, they can be made to feel like the most important person in the world. They can gain wisdom and insight that will guide them their whole lives. They can also develop a strong concept of the humanity of the elderly, which is often lacking in modern society. But as they grow up, and become the caregivers and policy makers (and as we grow old), don’t we want a generation of people who care?

Again, not to idealize- elder care facilities can be rough places. As time progresses, someone’s health may deteriorate, and that is hard for anyone to watch. It can especially be hard for a child who may have developed a bond with the elder, and may even have to watch them die. For someone so young, with most likely a very vague concept of what death even is, this could be traumatic. Some experts have mentioned that this may be ultimately positive, because our culture is so skittish about even acknowledging death. They think it may teach children the importance of accompanying people through this phase of their lives.

To be honest, I don’t know the answer to that question. I know if I were a parent, it would be instinct to keep my children away from that kind of pain, and it would kill me inside to watch them suffer. But at the same time, maybe early exposure to the realities of aging would make them less afraid, and allow them to have the right priorities and a richer life overall. Like most things in life, this isn’t a clear-cut situation. However, I also think, like most things in life, if you approach the situation with compassion and humanity, you’ll be a amazed of what can come of it.

Let’s talk about the border- Part VI

This is the last post in my series on Latino immigration, and offers some of my final reflections and ideas for how you can choose to become involved.

What now, and what Can I Do?

This series was pretty information dense, and somewhat un-bloglike, so kudos to you for making it to the end! I kept it that way on purpose, though, because this debate can become so emotionally charged, and somewhat disconnected from reality. I wanted to show that the facts in this debate really argue for themselves. When you look into the causes and effects of the system, anyone can see it that it is broken. It causes so much harm to people, both those who are hurt and those who do the hurting.

A couple of years ago I visited the Eastern Shore for Professor Arries’ medical interpretation externship, where worked mainly with migrant farmworkers. I really recommend it if you are at all interested. I got to see a taste of the terrible abuses of the system. I visited camps.  I saw an old, broken, two-story house with 40 people living inside. I saw how close the pesticide dispensers were to the camps- in fact, our car got sprayed with them as we drove there. I saw people sick with chronic illnesses that spiraled out of control because they lacked the resources to care for them. I saw agricultural businesses with so little accountability for the way that workers were treated that I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“Where there’s life, there’s hope.”  Even with things as bleak as they are, hope can’t be lost. There are so many ways that we, even as young adults, can become part of the efforts to reform the system, at any level that we feel comfortable with.

Border Relief Centers

Kino Border Initiative-They offer food, shelter, and medical support to migrants.

No More Deaths- They offer humanitarian aid in the desert, keep records of abuses, and work with local community groups to help migrants after deportation.

Houston Catholic Worker- Casa Juan Diego- They offer multiple services, including food, clothing,  services for pregnant women and women who have been abused, and for people with disabilities.

Advocacy

Manos Unidas- CITA- They help workers obtain visas, advocate for improved working conditions, and help workers find jobs.

National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights- They work to combat abuse of immigrants at a local level, as well as documenting abuses and advocating to organizations such as the United Nations.

National Immigration Law Center- They provide legal counsel to immigrants with low incomes, as well as advocate for legal protections.

Farmworker Justice- They advocate for improved conditions for farmworkers.

Local Opportunities

Eastern Shore Medical Interpretation Externship- You work with Professor Arries to work with Eastern Shore Rural Health to medically interpret over the summer.

Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services- They offer case management, assistance with legal counsel, and resettlement assistance.

Sacred Heart Center, Richmond- They offer English language classes, adult education programs, family services, and economic initiatives.

So there you have it- just a few ways that you could choose to become involved. There is so much to be done, and so many changes that must be made. But when you try, please, above all, remember the dignity of the people you work with. Ask them what their experience is, what they need. If you let that guide your efforts, the results will amaze you.

Emily Mahoney- Living Outside the Box

OCE Student Profile Series

by Laura Stephens

Recent graduate Emily Mahoney has a heart for everyone she meets. Kind and humble, she is quick to laugh and be silly. She looks for opportunities to welcome others and make them feel comfortable. But she also is an accomplished researcher, who has worked with Dr. Scott Ickes in his public health research for years. During college, she also gave her time to MANOS, or Medical Aid Nicaragua: Outreach Scholarship. Currently in Uganda, she shared some of her reflections with us on what community engagement has meant to her. 

Office of Community Engagement: How are you involved in community engagement at William & Mary?

Emily Mahoney: I was involved in Medical Aid Nicaragua: Outreach Scholarship (MANOS) for 3 years.

OCE: How has this work contributed to community needs?

EM: MANOS is a student-led research team that partners with a small, rural community in Nicaragua in order to identify and address the community’s needs in a collaborative manner.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean for you?

EM: Active citizenship means cultivating an awareness of the problems going on in your community–both locally and globally–and then seeking to imagine and create something different alongside fellow community members.

OCE: How has your experience working in the community affected your educational career at William & Mary?

EM: MANOS entirely shifted the way that I approached academics. It made me hypersensitive to sweeping assumptions made in the classroom and an advocate for practice-informed research. Being an “active citizen” in the classroom really taught me to think critically.

OCE: How do you plan to use what you’ve learned as an engaged citizen beyond William & Mary?

EM: No matter what I do, I plan to use this active citizen perspective to think critically about my place in the world.

OCE: What is the most memorable or striking moment you experienced during your engagement work?

EM: While working with MANOS, we got to see the project grow by leaps and bounds. It was incredible to see how community members took more ownership over incoming resources and began to advocate for themselves and for their communities. It was really exciting to see measured, sustainable change taking place.

Avalon- A Place of Refuge and Empowerment

OCE Community Profile Series

by Laura Stephens

For sexual assault survivors, and for people in abusive situations, it can often feel like there is no where to turn. Without outside assistance, it can often be very challenging or dangerous financially, emotionally, and physically to remove oneself from a destructive situation. Often times, in such situations, one’s self-worth has been so eroded that it can be hard to see a way out. That is why Avalon is such a vital force in our community- by providing support for people in these situations, they not only provide physical safety, but a place to rebuild one’s sense of self.

Office of Community Engagement: Tell us about your role in the community.

Avalon:  Avalon: A Center for Women and Children provides shelter and support to those experiencing domestic violence and sexual assault in the Greater Williamsburg area. By offering tools for safety, self-sufficiency, and empowerment, we work to break the cycle of abuse and help create a positive future. We offer an emergency shelter, counseling and support groups, legal advocacy, and much more to survivors in our community. As the only emergency shelter in this community, we also serve those experiencing homelessness as space allows.

OCE: What role do William and Mary students play at Avalon?

A:  William and Mary students play an important role at Avalon. Many of our volunteers are students, and are able to take advantage of their flexible class schedules to help all throughout the day. They assist in all aspects of our work, from administrative and office help to childcare and working in the emergency shelter. We also work closely with student and staff advocates to bring information about domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as about Avalon’s programs and services to the campus. We work closely with The Haven to support survivors and the volunteers working with them, including providing training for the volunteers.

OCE: What benefits does your organization derive from working with William and Mary students, and how do you see the students benefiting from their work?

A:  The students who volunteer with us benefit in many ways. They are able to learn about working in a nonprofit and begin gaining leadership and work skills. They also gain new awareness of issues facing this community and experiences with people from all walks of life. We also offer our services, like counseling and support, to students, and have seen an increase in the number of students accessing these services.

OCE: How does your organization help educate the student volunteers about community needs?

A: Avalon works to keep all our volunteers, not just student volunteers, aware of our needs and ways people can help. We do our best to educate volunteers through their training and as they volunteer with us. We also engage with staff and faculty at William and Mary who will pass on information about Avalon and our needs to students who may be interested in giving a hand.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean to you?

A: For Avalon, active citizenship is what it sounds like – being an active participant in one’s life and community. It means finding one’s passion or mission or heart and actively working to make the community a better place. For those interested in social justice, women’s and children’s issues, or wanting to help people, Avalon is a great place to help.

Head Start- The Right Start to Life

OCE Community Profile Series

by Laura Stephens

The early years of childhood are vitally important for development from all angles, whether mentally, physically, or emotionally. However, often times, when parents are of lower income and are trying to support their children, it can be difficult for them to provide enough stimulation and enrichment to their children in an affordable way. Head Start offers that lifeline- a safe place for young children to go, where they can learn, socialize, and be supported in a positive environment.

Office of Community Engagement: Tell us about your role in the community.

Head Start: The Head Start program in Williamsburg-James City County provides comprehensive services that includes early childhood education, nutrition, medical, social development, parent involvement, and transportation services for children ages 3- 5 to develop skills that will enable them to be successful when they enter Kindergarten.  We also assist parents with setting goals for themselves and their children.  We empower the parents to be advocates for themselves and their children.  In doing so, we help them to become self-sufficient.

OCE: What role do William and Mary students play at Head Start?

HS: William and Mary students volunteer in our classrooms to work with individual students or small groups to increase the ability of children to feel successful in the classroom setting.  They have also spread mulch for our playground and painted classrooms.  Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority reads to our children twice a month and raises money so that our children can take home books to read.  They also partner with us at our Fun Festival day to create an awareness of the importance of reading.

We generally have an intern that works with our Head Start program during the spring semester as well.

OCE: What benefits does your organization derive from working with William and Mary students, and how do you see the students benefiting from their work?

HS: The William & Mary students assist our teaching staff and increases the opportunity for a teacher/student engaged learning experience for our students by providing individual or small group learning opportunities.   They are able to assist the teaching staff in accomplishing many things in a shorter time frame.

Students who volunteer say that by coming to work in the classroom they are able to keep their work in perspective at William & Mary.  They feel like they make a difference.  The children almost immediate are attached to them and appreciate the attention they get from the students.  Showing encouragement and support for our children increases their chance for success when they get to the public school.

OCE: How does your organization help educate the student volunteers about community needs?

HS: We participate in the S.H.O.W. day for freshmen and begin to tell them about the Community Action Agency.  When students choose to volunteer in our program, they must first participate in an orientation which explains our program and the requirements of it.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean to you?

HS: Active citizenship is citizens who are willing to give of their time and talents to serve and make a positive difference in the community.  The change can be minor or significant depending on the magnitude of the program and how many people will be impacted by their efforts.  It requires putting forth effort and using areas of expertise to increase skills, abilities, and/or self-esteem of another individual(s).

Nadia Asmal- A Globe-Sized Heart

OCE Student Profile Series

by Laura Stephens

Nadia Asmal was one of the first friends I met during college, on the OCE 7G trip, and I’m so lucky to have known her. Her parents are diplomats, which has taken her all over the world. It’s definitely given her a global perspective and a deep empathy for everyone she meets. She always looks for opportunities to serve and make the lives of others better, and I’m so lucky to know her.She received the  President’s Award for Service to the Community in 2013, so I know I’m not the only one who thinks she’s awesome. She’s currently living her post-grad life working at an embassy in Malawi.

Office of Community Engagement: How are you involved in community engagement at William & Mary?

Nadia Asmal: While I was a student at WM I was involved in several service groups at William and Mary.  I was an Exec Board member and mentor with Campus Kitchen, and a co-founder and Vice President of the Gleaning Club.

OCE: How has this work contributed to community needs?

NA: My work with Campus Kitchen and the Gleaning Club helped to alleviate hunger in the area.  Hunger is a big issue in Williamsburg, and both organizations work to tackle the issue by recovering food and produce that might otherwise be wasted.

In addition to tackling hunger related issues, my work with the Education and Programming section of Campus Kitchen contributed to community needs by providing mentorship and tutoring to local youths in low-income housing.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean for you?

NA: To me, being an active citizen means being the most helpful citizen you can be for your community.  It means making a difference, be it big or small, in your little corner of the world.

OCE: How has your experience working in the community affected your educational career at William & Mary?

NA: My experience working in the community actually inspired me to take one of my favorite courses at William and Mary, “Community Engagement in Context.”  The course covered all sorts of topics, from social good through business to art and social change.

OCE: How do you plan to use what you’ve learned as an engaged citizen beyond William & Mary?

William and Mary’s community engagement programs taught me that connecting to your community – whatever community that may be – makes for a more positive and more meaningful experience for everyone.  I think that’s an important lesson as we all go off into new communities after we graduate.

One of the most important pieces of advice I gained during my work with W&M’s Community Engagement team is that you need to understand your community in order to make a meaningful contribution to it.  I’m working overseas now and have really taken that message to heart.

OCE: What is the most memorable or striking moment you experienced during your engagement work?

NA: Sophomore year I volunteered with Dream Catchers Therapeutic Riding Center.  It’s a wonderful organization that offers horseback riding lessons for children with disabilities.  At one of the lessons an 11-year-old student said his first word – the horse’s name.

Adriane López- Raising Awareness, Raising Compassion

OCE Student Profile Series

by Laura Stephens

Adriane López understands the power of information. She realizes that often times, when people lack compassion for others, it is often simply because they don’t know the real story. This problem can be especially challenging in issues like immigration. But Adriane is determined that the real stories will be told, and does everything she can to make that happen. At the Latin American Studies Program events she helps to coordinate, she can see in the faces of the attendees and in the questions that they ask that their perspectives are changing, and their hearts are becoming more open. And when people look at those around them as truly human, that is when real compassion can grow.

Office of Community Engagement: How are you involved in community engagement at William & Mary?

Adriane López: I work for the Latin American Studies Program, and through this position, I’ve been able to help put on events to educate our campus community about important human rights issues. These events ranged from screening the documentary Food Chains and hosting the Coalition of Immokalee Workers from Florida to facilitating a roundtable discussion on immigration and human rights in Argentina and at the U.S.-Mexico border.  We also held cultural events, like the concert by a Brazilian band called Marcelo Fruet & Os Cozinheiros. Check out our Facebook page to stay updated with upcoming events!

OCE: How has this work contributed to community needs?

AL: By inviting guest speakers to come to our campus, and holding documentary screenings and open discussions, I think we have created a space for anyone who is interested in Latin America, and human rights more broadly, to continue learning about the complexities behind various issues in the region. While considering how to solve these issues may seem overwhelming and daunting, focusing on specific stories shared by individuals through an in-person discussion or a documentary remind us of the lives affected by such struggles against injustice and human rights abuses. These stories stick with you long after they have been told, and serve as a motivator to keep learning and working towards social change.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean for you?

AL: For me, active citizenship means taking note of the world beyond what you know and are familiar with, and integrating yourself through education and relationship building with different communities. It requires one to seek out experiences that present an opportunity to see life through a unique lens.

OCE: How has your experience working in the community affected your educational career at William & Mary?

AL: I would say that it has allowed me to grow as an individual—to be mindful and aware of the world around me, and to be empowered by the experiences and stories that people have shared with me. Working in the community has also provided me with valuable leadership skills, particularly with being able to relate to individuals and create meaningful connections among different groups.

OCE: How do you plan to use what you’ve learned as an engaged citizen beyond William & Mary?

I hope to continue being able to listen to people’s stories and use these experiences to inform policy. As a Public Policy major, I have enjoyed learning about the policy-making process, what is considered, how different views are balanced, and so on. I enjoy being politically active and encouraging those around me to take an interest in social justice/human rights.

OCE: What is the most memorable or striking moment you experienced during your engagement work?

AL: In late March, Mike Wilson, a human rights and border activist, came to campus for a few days. His presentation on his work at the U.S.-Mexico border was incredible; he shared the daily struggle for life that goes on at the border. He referred to the situation at the border as “Manifest Destiny 2.0,” and called for coalition building to overcome institutional racism. As a first generation American, the topic of immigration hits home for me. Being that we are on the East Coast, and thus very far from the U.S.-Mexico border, it is easy for many of us to overlook the human rights violations that are going on right now, at this very moment, in our country.  Mr. Wilson’s presentation was tremendously powerful for me and for many other students. Seeing how well-attended his lecture was, and the interest that many individuals took in his work made me realize how important it is to bring a topic like immigration to the forefront of our campus discussion, as there is much work to be done.

Mary Ellen Garrett- Big Acts, Individual Focus

OCE Student Profile Series

by Laura Stephens

Dynamic, driven, compassionate and fun are all words I would use to describe Mary Ellen Garrett. With her wide variety of social justice interests, including protecting the environment and advocating for immigration reform, it is obvious that she understands that community engagement is complex and multi-faceted. However, she never loses sight of what it is all about- she also has a strong desire to meet individuals where they are and make personal connections. Also, she’s been skydiving, so that’s pretty awesome.

Office of Community Engagement: How are you involved in community engagement at William & Mary?

Mary Ellen Garrett: Well, I think it depends on your definition of community engagement. I’ll first mention my most conventional “community engagement.” I co-lead a Catholic Campus Ministry service learning trip during spring break. We travel to Richmond to engage with the elderly poor, the formerly incarcerated, and low-income Hispanic families. I also volunteer with CCM’s Hispanic ministry and teach a class for local 5-year-olds. I also coordinate a sustainability campaign called Take Back the Tap which aims to eliminate disposable plastic water bottles on campus.

Now moving to less traditional conceptions of “community engagement.” I direct public relations for William and Mary’s TEDx conference. I am also a trip leader for the Tribe Adventure Program. I also went to the US-Mexico border to do anthropology research last winter break. Finally, I worked as a medical interpreter at a rural community health center on the Eastern Shore of Virginia over this past summer.

OCE: How has this work contributed to community needs?

MEG: I would say the common denominator in all of my community engagement is that I try to connect with people and communities that benefit less from the status quo than I do. With the spring break trip, the aim is two-fold. Firstly, it is deliberately local. It is the opposite of exotic. It forces me to acknowledge ingrained and persistent problems within my own community. Secondly, it is designed to engage with especially marginalized communities. The elderly poor, the formerly incarcerated, and poorer Hispanic people do not get a large share of attention.

My work for Take Back the Tap is an acknowledgment that pollution and deterioration of public water supply affects poorer folks more. That’s why, for me, environmental justice is social justice. Part of creating more equitable communities is creating more sustainable communities. This requires changing mindsets and changing assumptions. Bringing disposable water bottles to the front of everyone’s minds is a way to do this.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean for you?

MEG: Active citizenship, for me, is rooted in a deep investment in the idea of “community.” It is an acknowledgment of our interconnected futures. It means that I must endeavor to pay attention to injustice: everywhere and every time. This is an overwhelming and exhausting proposition. It leads to uncomfortable questions and infuriating answers. It means questioning my assumptions. In practice, it means that I ask “why” a lot. I try my best to pay attention, think deeply, and take action.

OCE: How has your experience working in the community affected your educational career at William & Mary?

MEG: Working in the community has given my education teeth. It is a constant reminder that I should never measure my life with my resume or with my awards. Instead, I am forced to recognize that my responsibility is so much broader. My responsibility is to actively pursue justice; especially when it is difficult.

OCE: How do you plan to use what you’ve learned as an engaged citizen beyond William & Mary?

MEG: I’m not sure yet. I think that my job right now is to keep listening and learning. Every time I work in the community, I realize how much I don’t know. I realize how many structural issues I had never considered. I realize how many benefits I derive from the current state of affairs. And I realize that some things need to change. That, in my opinion, is my duty upon leaving William & Mary.

OCE: What is the most memorable or striking moment you experienced during your engagement work?

MEG: My most striking moment was nothing particularly thrilling. It was sitting at the simple lunch tables with elderly folks during my service trips to Richmond. I remember sitting there and thinking that they were some of the coolest people I had met. We talked, we listened, and we shared. I asked them about themselves without regard for the length or complexity of the answer. They did the same for me. We raved about Julie Andrews, shared opinions about food justice, and recounted crazy travel stories. In those moments I was reminded of the duty we have to listen to each other, care for each other, and fight for each other. That’s what it’s all about for me.

Adryan Flores- Compassion and Active Citizenship

OCE Student Profile Series

by Laura Stephens

It’s hard to think of a better example of an active citizen than Adryan Flores. He is humble and funny, but he is serious about social justice. He always looks for opportunities to serve, whether in big or small ways, understanding that both are equally important. Among other activities, he has worked with Circle K, Campus Kitchens, the Office of Community Engagement, and Catholic Campus Ministry. If there is a need he will look to fill it, because of his genuine compassion for everyone.

Office of Community Engagement: How are you involved in community engagement at William & Mary?

Adryan Flores: During my time at William and Mary, I have done service with Circle K, Campus Kitchens, and Office of Community Engagement. But most of the service I have done has been through participation in Catholic Campus Ministry’s Social Justice Ministry doing various community service projects such as giving food assistance to those in need, doing clothing and food drives, helping with the FISH organization’s costume sale, walking in the March for Life, running a homeless shelter for a night in Newport News, planning a service retreat to Chippokes State Park, and going on service trips to Richmond, Savannah GA, and Hurley VA.

OCE: How has this work contributed to community needs?

AF: The work I have been a part of has contributed to the community needs directly through supporting those in need with food, shelter, and clothing and indirectly through supporting organizations that help to support those in need.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean for you?

AF: Active citizenship means building relationships with those around me. Active citizenship means understanding my neighbor’s struggles, fears, hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. By understanding and knowing those around me, the act of service community engagement naturally follows. There can be no community without relationships, and no service without knowing our neighbors.

OCE: How has your experience working in the community affected your educational career at William & Mary?

AF: My experience working in the community has provided meaning and motivation towards my educational career. Understanding that using the knowledge and credibility we gain through education can be used to help those in need in the future motivates me to continue in my educational career.

OCE: How do you plan to use what you’ve learned as an engaged citizen beyond William & Mary?

AF: I will always carry a social consciousness that I gained through being an active citizen at William and Mary with me after I graduate and for the rest of my life. I will continue to be cognizant of the needs of those around me, especially those who have the least, and continue to work towards a better community. No matter what I end up doing professionally, I will try to continue to develop relationships with those around me to help create a more unified community that works and lives to help each other.

OCE: What is the most memorable or striking moment you experienced during your engagement work?

AF: One of the more memorable moments I experienced was when I was in Savannah Georgia and we were working for Old Savannah City Mission, an organization that helped the homeless and the recently incarcerated. We were working in the back storeroom helping sort donated linens to sell in their thrift shop when Mrs. Stiles, one of the general managers burst into the room and excitedly told us that they had just received a large grant. What stood out to me however was that all of the excitement she had wasn’t because of the money, or that they were going to use it to do something nice for herself, but that finally, after waiting for so long, they could get a new dishwasher. I had seen other acts of selflessness before but for some reason this particular moment with Mrs. Stiles made it clear to me that this was someone who dedicating every ounce of her being towards helping those who came to Old Savannah in a true spirit of selflessness.

Let’s talk about the border- Part V

This is Part V of a series about some of the challenges for Latino immigrants in the United States, and this post talks about the H-2A law and worker exploitation.

The Migrant Labor System

Estimates of the percentages of farmworkers who labor without documentation range from 50-70 percent. In past legislative debates, agricultural companies have actually worked against immigration policies that would facilitate workers being hired with documentation- because it would regulate the way that they would treat their workers and drive up their own production costs. Claims of their own financial difficulties are undercut by the statistic that “Between 1997 and 2007, the agriculture industry enjoyed a nearly 80 percent average annual increase in corporate profits…Over the same period, the average real wage of a farm worker remained stagnant.”

The H-2A program has been some of the most influential agricultural immigration policy over the last few decades.  It is extremely common for employers to knowingly hire workers without documentation; however, the H-2A program is another, more officially “legal” route to a cheap labor pool.

The process begins in the home communities of the workers. The employers send H-2A recruiters, who promise hard work but high wages and a better life. Coupled with the popular perception of the United States as the “land of opportunity,” their promises can be hard to resist. However, these promises are not free- the workers must pay significant costs to obtain this passage to a new country, including paying for a visa, costs of transportation, and for the employment itself. Already, before they have begun earning any money, they owe money to the people who hire them.

When these workers arrive in the United States, they are greeted with low (or stolen) wages. They even can be subjected to forced labor- or, the real and ugly word, slavery. This system of “debt bondage” that H-2A promotes facilitates their captivity. When the workers arrive, they generally live in “housing” (I use that term loosely) provided by their employers, for which they are charged. According to antislavery.org, “Deductions are made from their wages for transport, accommodation, food, work equipment, and supposed tax and social security payments. Weekly wages are sporadic and in many instances workers are left with no pay.” So they build up more and more debt over time, which they are forced to try to continue to work off.

H-2A workers themselves are in a very unique legal situation. They can only work for a limited time with the employer who brought them to the United States. At any moment, the employer may choose to terminate their employment, resulting in their deportation. As one of the provisions of the H-2A law, the employers are not required to pay Social Security or unemployment taxes for H-2A workers.

H-2A workers are preferred over legal permanent residents because of the exploitation that employers are able to perpetrate. There have been cases in which legal permanent residents have been fired for the explicit reason that they must legally be paid higher wages, as well as the prohibition from forcing them to work such extensive hours.

The system also leaves room for exploitation in the requirement for employers to reimburse the workers for transportation costs from their home countries after they have worked for half of a season. However, the employers often choose to fire the workers just before this point, so they do not have to pay. This leaves workers not only without the cost of their travels, but without jobs as well.

The treatment of the workers themselves can betray slavery- conditions as well. They may be compelled to work in the hot sun, and around dangerous chemicals (especially pesticides), for 10-12 hours at a time. Exposure to these toxic chemicals can also include nicotine absorbed through the skin- and many of the people exposed to this are children. Workers often suffer dizziness, rashes, and headaches, or vomiting— or cancer, neurological disorders, birth defects, and death as a result. There have even been accounts of workers being sprayed down directly with DDT. Housing conditions can include trailers, barracks, dilapidated homes, or any combination of the above. Their common feature is overcrowding and lack of sanitation. Workers can be watched by armed guards to prevent escape, and told that if they attempt to advocate for themselves, either they or their families will suffer the consequences. Workers may be physically tortured with techniques such as whipping, and many women suffer sexual assault.

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In the last portion of this series, Part VI, I’ll offer some of my final thoughts and some of the ways that you can choose to become involved.