Walking to the Promised Land

Francisco, a man in his mid-40s, hobbled painfully to the van and sat on the step. Removing his shoe he exposed a raw blister the size of the palm in his leathery hand. He had walked for five days through the southwestern desert to enter the U.S. after paying his smuggler and guide, a.k.a. the coyote, $2,000.

Needed but Vulnerable

The number of unauthorized workers in the U.S. varies form estimate to estimate, but probably their number exceeds 5.3 million workers over the age of 18. Their presence contributes significantly to the economy. They account for roughly 10 percent of all restaurant workers, nearly a quarter of private household workers and more than half of the 1.6 million agricultural field workers.

One study by the University of Illinois-Chicago reported that 91 percent of the unauthorized immigrants sampled around Chicago contributed more than $5 billion to the area's economy. And, although 70 percent pay taxes, only 12 percent receive federal aid like Medicare/Medicaid, food stamps or social security. All workers have basic rights under U.S. labor law, but only 29 percent of unauthorized workers apply for worker's compensation when injured. Undocumented workers, while filling the shortfall for workers in significant sectors in the economy, contribute to the nations' growth, but remain the most vulnerable group in the workforce.

Risking Health and Life to Work

In Phoenix he was packed into a truck and then, to avoid detection by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, driven for two days with no food, water or bathroom breaks. When he finally arrived in south Georgia to work the onion and tobacco fields, he was hurting. The church worker visiting the migrant camp fetched some clean gauze for his wound to stave off infection, but the next week Francisco was working beside other undocumented workers tending the tobacco crop.

Every day hundreds of workers from Mexico and other Central American countries risk health and life to cross unforgiving terrain to find jobs in the U.S. Annually, an estimated 150,000 Mexican migrants alone enter the U.S. without authorization. Since 1998 more than 2,000 migrants trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico boarder died from environmental causes like heat stroke, hypothermia, dehydration or drowning.

Right of Border Control is Conditional

The Catholic bishops of Mexico and the United States issued a joint pastoral letter recently about immigration. They recognize that migration is a human right and that “migration between our two nations is necessary and beneficial.” The letter maintains that given the global conditions where poverty is rampant “the presumption is that persons must migrate in order to support and protect themselves.” While sovereign states have a right to control their borders, no such right is absolute, but rather conditioned on the needs of the immigrants and the host country. Addressing the situation of undocumented workers, the letter advocates a program of amnesty and legalization plus reflects the teaching of John Paul II that identifies the elimination of underdevelopment as the long term antidote to illegal immigration.

Miguel, age 57, intends staying only one year to earn enough in southern agriculture to fix his house and replace his roof in Mexico. He earns $160 to $200 per week from his 10-hour days in the fields, but also pays weekly $50 for food and $100 to his coyote. He raised nine kids, and until recently, earned a modest living from his seven acres of orange and coffee trees. But, when global forces squeezed small farmers and dramatically depressed produce prices, he was forced north. He contracted with a coyote to cross the border, then walked into the invisible and exploited ranks of undocumented workers.

Fr. Rausch is a Glenmary priest who lives, writes and organizes in Appalachia.

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

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