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SOLIDARIDAD: Witness for Peace Delegates Win a Victory for Immigrant Rights and the TRADE Act

October 14th, 2010

By Sandra Dunn

This spring, a Long Island teenager accused of killing an Ecuadorean immigrant was convicted of manslaughter as a hate crime. Marcelo Lucero and a friend were surrounded by seven teenagers at a train station when the boys attacked Lucero and his companion, hurling racial insults and taunts. Although his friend escaped, Lucero was not so lucky.   The teens began punching Lucero in the face. When he tried to defend himself by brandishing his belt, one of the teens pulled out a knife and stabbed Lucero to death.

The hate crime against Lucero put a spotlight on rising anti-immigrant violence on Long Island.   According to reports, Latinos in Suffolk County have been beaten with baseball bats and crowbars, hit with rocks and shot with pellet guns, among many other despicable acts of violence. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, over the past decade the anti-immigrant policies pursued by some Suffolk elected officials set the stage for acts of violence against Latino immigrants.  Meanwhile, the teen convicted of first-degree manslaughter was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

In the aftermath of the Lucero killing and in response to rising tensions around immigration on Long Island, 15 Nassau and Suffolk county residents joined a Witness for Peace delegation to Mexico to learn more about why people from Latin America are migrating to Long Island in the first place.  Delegates included teachers with immigrant children in their classrooms, police, clergy and other local leaders.  The group traveled to Oaxaca, a region many residents have left to search for work on Long Island.

What the delegates learned in Mexico was that as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the quantity of cheap imported corn in Mexico exploded, undercutting the locally grown product and driving small farmers out of business.  It was a heady blow in a country where 10 million people—a quarter of the workforce—live off the land. Since NAFTA was enacted in 1994, roughly 2 million people have been displaced from the Mexican agricultural sector while the rural poverty rate has climbed to 85 percent. At the same time, nearly 600,000 Mexican farmers have been forced to migrate to the U.S.  In Oaxaca, the delegates met with members of many divided families, some of whose loved ones now live in the States.

 “Grasping the dire need of impoverished communities on the brink of extinction—a poverty that forces individuals to leave family, culture and country—was an unforgettable experience,” said delegate Sergio Argueta.

After returning to Long Island, the delegates swung into action, compelled to bring immigrants and native-born residents together to discuss local immigration policies and reform.  They spoke with reporters, published opinion pieces and gave presentations in schools and to the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission and community organizations.  As delegate Daphney Pierre explained, “I grew as an individual and as an American citizen during this delegation. I was changed, as were the other delegates. From there I decided to be a part of this movement and help in any way I can. I mostly learned that as a college student I can be a voice and activist for those who are ignored and denied justice.”

But it was clear from the delegates’ experience in Mexico that change isn’t just necessary for immigration policy:  migration must be addressed at a foreign policy level as well as.  As long as free trade makes life unlivable for so many people south of the border, the immigration issue will be unsolvable.
But the Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment (TRADE) Act, introduced in 2009, would renegotiate NAFTA and addresses the economic policies that have devastated Mexico.  By allowing countries like Mexico to protect their own agricultural system, the TRADE Act supports rather than displaces small-scale farmers, allowing those who wish to stay in their communities to do so.  

After returning to Long Island, several Witness for Peace delegates set up a meeting with Congressman Tim Bishop of New York’s first district.  Within two weeks of the initial meeting, the congressman had signed on as a cosponsor.
The Long Island/Oaxaca delegation represents a Witness for Peace educational model that eases tensions between long-time residents and newly-arrived immigrants.  The idea is to create champions for progressive immigration reform by sponsoring the travel of key local leaders to the “sending” Mexican communities of recent immigrants.  As delegate Rahsmia Zatar said, “I … gain[ed] a deeper understanding of the complexities behind immigration while increasing my motivation for educating Americans on how we can create positive change for us all.”

But with draconian immigration policies like Arizona’s SB 1070 threatening immigrant rights and safety, addressing the roots of migration becomes more and more urgent.  Without any analysis of unfair trade or mention of displaced farmers, anti-immigrant legislation like that being pursued by Arizona will continue to cultivate an environment where crimes like Lucero’s murder are likely. 

But with the Witness for Peace model, community leaders in the States are forming personal relationships with their counterparts in “sending” communities in Mexico. Local policymakers are hearing first-hand a clear articulation of the links between U.S. economic policies and the roots of migration. Hundreds – if not thousands - of U.S. citizens will be more educated about these important policy issues as well.  

And in the longer-term, these personal relationships and new understandings will pave the way for just and humane immigration policy in the future.

Sandra Dunn is the Program Officer for the Immigration Portfolio at the Hagedorn Foundation.


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