With migrant farm workers crossing illegally into the United States from Mexico every year, a heated debate has arisen over their status: should they be allowed to enroll in public schools? Should they be subject to minimum wage requirements?
Last Thursday afternoon, these questions came to the forefront when the 1999 documentary In the Land of Plenty was shown in the McKenna and Peter rooms of the University Center. The documentary was shown as part of Carnegie Mellon's Hispanic Heritage Month activities. The event was hosted by Jennifer Church, associate dean of Student Affairs, who first became interested in the plight of migrant workers when she lived in Arizona and Washington. A discussion was held after the film so attendees could exchange thoughts, ideas, and personal stories. Focused on a few Mexican families working in the strawberry fields of California, In the Land of Plenty shows the dismal conditions in which migrant immigrants live and work. "People in the fields still don't have their civil rights," said history professor John Soluri. "You have to look at economics and racial discrimination." Church described immigrant farm workers as the United States' "silent population." As fleshed out in the film and in the following discussion, politicians have little to gain from standing up for these immigrants because they are not in the country legally and cannot vote. The United Farm Workers of America is a union organization whose lawyers and volunteers were featured in In the Land of Plenty. The organization helps immigrant farm workers fight against mistreatment. However, it is difficult to convince workers to unionize because of the omnipresent threat of deportation. One woman interviewed in the film, a US citizen who lived in a house behind the strawberry field where the documentary was filmed, recounted a story about the deadly amount of pesticides used there. According to her, as she and her neighbors were evacuated from the area due to poisonous levels of pesticides in the water and air, she could still see workers picking strawberries in the fields."No one told me anything about pesticides. I needed the money, so I kept working," said one of the migrant workers. When she was pregnant, she was taken to the hospital because pesticides from the fields had infected her blood and lungs. Pesticide poisoning is only one of the problems that immigrant farm workers face every picking season. Ten-hour days of difficult labor also contribute to generally poor health. The life expectancy for a farm worker is only 49 years. Hospital bills are especially difficult to pay because most farm workers have no medical insurance and their average yearly income is $9,000, placing most immigrant families well below the poverty line. "There's this image of immigrants coming over and cheating the [economic] system," said Quelcy Kogel, a junior in CFA. "But they're really adding to it."
The film stated that because immigrant workers are paid so little, but still create and purchase goods in the US, they contribute on average $100 billion more to the economy than they receive. This is partly because they often have federal taxes removed from their paychecks, but cannot benefit from tax returns because they are undocumented.A mother in one of the immigrant families said she continually wondered why the United States government spent time and money on keeping Mexican workers out of the States: "[United States citizens] have documents. They don't want these jobs full of handicaps and humiliation." All of the Mexican workers interviewed in the film made it clear that they worked in the United States simply because their employment prospects in Mexico were even scarcer. On average, one day's pay in Mexico is equivalent to one hour's in the United States for unskilled laborers. "It's such a gap in not only lifestyle, but also [a] financial gap," said Kevin Manley, an HSS junior, as he told the group about his experience visiting Tijuana.
In Tijuana, which rides the border between California and Mexico, two of the immigrants followed in In the Land of Plenty literally climbed over the border to the United States. There, they were able to quickly find a "coyote," a guide who assisted them in safely crossing the border. Many people in the discussion brought up how different the United States' northern and southern borders are. Although this has changed since September 11 due to alterations in the national security policies, it used to be possible to travel between Canada and the United States without a passport.
"There are no barbed wire fences between Canada and the United States," said Emily Half, coordinator of student development in the office of the dean of student affairs.
No comments have been posted, yet. Be the first to post!
Share your opinion with other Pulse readers. Login below or register
to begin posting.