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DELEGATE ANALYSIS: Immigrants in my Community

By Cynthia Brown

As a longtime activist and worker’s rights organizer, my peers and I advocated against the North American Free Trade Agreement because of its anticipated and now realized negative impact on workers and the environment within and outside U.S. borders. I have long since been concerned about the very real conflicts that have emerged over the years between African-American and Latino workers. The displacement experienced by African-American workers is a very real source of tension as a growing number of workers from Mexico, Latin- and Central America migrate into North Carolina and other states throughout the United States. I have observed and heard from poultry, textile and construction workers how that tension is exacerbated as employers make disparaging remarks to workers from both communities pitting them against each other. It is apparent this conflict between workers benefits employers who exploit the cheaper labor of documented and undocumented immigrants with the effect of suppressing the wages of all workers. 

So, it was no surprise that I felt an affinity to my brother and sister immigrant workers from Mexico before I participated in the recent 10 day “Roots of Migration” trip with Witness for Peace. What amazed me was how deeply connected are the experiences of Mexican and other immigrants with that of the experiences of those of us who are descended of proud Africans who were enslaved here in the United States.

I was reminded of the experiences of enslaved people’s dangerous journey north within the United States toward freedom that was deeply dependent on stops in safe harbors along the Underground Railroad, as I sat in horror listening to the danger encountered by a Honduran woman leaving her home to seek work in the U.S. South. When I asked her why she had chosen to undertake the dangerous northward journey, she immediately recounted the fact that she and her husband had lost work in plants that had gone further south. Deeply emotional, she talked with tear-stained cheeks about the pain of not being able to pay her mortgage and feed her children. She talked about the vulnerability, danger and exploitation migrants face from “coyotes” — human traffickers who promise to help you across the U.S. border for an exorbitant fee. I was horrified by her experience of being left inside Guatemala so that to get first to Mexico, then to the US border, she had to hold on to the outside of a fast-moving train for five hours as she feared being raped and beaten by men traveling on the train and riding throughout the border area to prey on those like her desperately seeking a way to access work since there is no more work in her home country. Like those fleeing enslavement, she was clear that her safety to that point when we met her in Oaxaca City, had been deeply dependent on the kindness of strangers in a network of safe places she had been provided along her way. 

As we visited with families in the remote, rural mountain community, we heard over and over how families would rather stay at home if there were work. Instead time and again, able bodied male and female workers migrate north to toil in jobs that provide them enough money to send home to support children left behind with relatives for food, housing and school fees. Listening to these stories, conjured up memories of the Great Migration, the movement of approximately 7 million African Americans out of the Southern United States to the North, Midwest and West from 1916 to 1930. My ancestors migrated to escape racism, and like Mexican immigrants, left children with relatives “down South” as they sought employment opportunities in industrial cities, and better education for their children, all of which were widely perceived as leading to a better life.

The parallels were endless as I thought of a U.S. economy that was built on the backs of free slave labor provided by my ancestors’ generations ago and the current U.S. policy of exploiting the cheap and sometimes free labor of immigrants. Mexican advocacy for human rights protections from sometimes corrupt government operatives reminded me of African American struggles for civil, economic and political rights on the U.S. side of the border.

This trip deepened my understanding of the reality that when one worker is oppressed all workers are vulnerable in a global economy. To strengthen workers’ conditions on both sides of the border will require a more just and humane immigration policy, a renegotiation of NAFTA that includes universal worker protections and a shift in U.S. investment away from a failed strategy of increased police and military funding to fight a drug war to investment in living-wage job creation on both sides of the border and community-based drug treatment on the U.S. side of the border to decrease or eliminate the demand for drugs.

Cynthia Brown, former member of the Durham City Council, is a 25-year social justice activist and organizer, part-time employee of the Conservation Fund, and founder/principal consultant of The Sojourner Group established in 2001. She has engaged community and non-profit organizational leaders in coalition building, organizing and advocacy on economic justice issues like workers’ rights, worker health and safety, welfare reform, fair trade, living wage work, environmental justice and sustainable development.