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In the Face of Immigrant Bashing

Immigrant bashing is the order of the day, never mind that we brag that we are a nation of immigrants and never mind that except for the indigenous peoples (about 1 percent of the population) we all come from what demographers call, “foreign stock.”

Our ancestors, white Americans and black slaves worked hard. Early immigrants – western Europeans who came in large numbers around 1850 – worked hard, and then so did those who came in large numbers between 1880 and 1927 — such as the Irish, Italians, Poles, and Russians. So do Latinos today. The German, Irish, Italians, Poles, and Russians, like contemporary Latinos, came to the US to work. Enterprise and labor were needed in earlier times just as the enterprise and labor of Latino immigrants are needed today. All suffered discrimination, but arguably we would expect less discrimination today compared to, say, a hundred years ago. There are, after all, global standards (treaties) and increasingly widely shared global values against discrimination.

But how can these standards be effective in the US since the US recognizes no human rights treaty? These treaties are all specialized, of course, but every single one of them stresses nondiscrimination, equality, and human dignity.  Just to recognize one single treaty — which we do not do —would put Americans on record that we are opposed to discrimination and in favor of equality and human dignity.

There is one difference between Latinos/as and those who came before them (except Africans). That is their brown skin, which in contemporary America can trigger racism, making their accommodation more difficult than for other groups. However, resembling millions of earlier migrants, they have arrived as a result of global economic dislocation, and as a result of the loss of jobs and increasing precarious job conditions in their home countries. This may account for why Latinos/as endure social exclusion and brutal exploitation by employers (“wage theft”) in receiving communities. They receive insufferable treatment at the hands of local law enforcement officers who are deputized by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and are denied health care and basic social services. Between 12 and 20 million unauthorized immigrants live (and work) in the US, welcomed by employers with open arms (as cheap labor), but given no path to citizenship. Yet the US does not recognize the International Convention for the Protection of All Migrant Workers and Their Families, which protects all immigrants from such egregious harms as these. Many Americans fail to recognize that Latinos/as are contributing their labor – in construction, landscaping, farming, and as domestic workers – as well through their tax dollars. Besides, studies show that immigrants without documentation – especially Latinos/as – have much lower crime rates than Americans. The paradox is painful. Overall, Latino/as are excellent workers, admirable social citizens, but cast as outlaws.

But their organizing is nearly out of the question. Their response to questions about mobilizing for local justice goes something like this: “Yo no quiero meterme en problemas con la policía. Yo nomás quiero trabajar y ganar un poco de dinero para mí familia.(“I do not want to get into trouble with the police. I just want to work and earn some money for my family.”)

The Latino/a population does have a voice, mostly through United Farm Workers, La Raza and Reform Immigration FOR America, but these are national organizations and cannot easily be the voices of local communities.  We can be. At least in one tiny patch of America. The Human Rights Center of Chapel Hill & Carrboro is located in the largest barrio in the county. Except for the three of us and a school teacher, our comrades are about 50 undergraduates. A big plus is that the students are tremendously diverse – Indians, Pakistanis, Iranians, Greeks, Africans, African Americans, white Americans, Latino/as, etc. The University of North Carolina prides itself on its diverse student body, but our class on Human Rights is especially likely to attract students from other countries. We have discovered that diversity brings with it a special chemistry.

A main program is an afterschool-program that the Center runs jointly with an elementary school. The formal goal is remediation, necessary in an extremely poor immigrant community, but the norms of the after-school program emphasize affirmation of the dignity and worth of every child, consistent with The Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is a “virtuous circle.” Such affirmation spurs high motivation to achieve.

The Center is also engaged in advocacy. For example, we presented a petition in Carrboro Town Hall to make wage theft a criminal offense, and both towns – Carrboro and Chapel Hill – have adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that we proposed. We regularly put the towns’ police forces on notice that we are watching them watching our neighbors. No hanky-panky. We check on banks to make sure that they are treating Latinos like everybody else. We especially check on employers because we know for sure that many employers cheat our neighbors. When they do we report them to the Department of Labor, confront them, and sometimes are successful, through shame tactics, even in closing their businesses. Carrboro and Chapel Hill are progressive towns, but capitalism is pretty nasty everywhere.

We at the Human Rights Center justify everything we do in terms of the localization of international human rights treaties, such as advocating decent work for our neighbors,  occasionally celebrating their festivals with them, and demanding that the larger community does not discriminate against them. We give workshops on “know your labor rights,” and “know your legal rights.” We also involve undergraduates as much as possible in the work of the Center, especially in our after-school program. One student group affiliated with the Center received a grant to install wireless in the entire apartment complex and refurbished computers to households. Access to information is a human right: it was thus declared so in Oslo, 2006. We provide space for another nonprofit to distribute food. After all, food is a human right. On Saturday and Sunday, our students play soccer with the kids in the community. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is clear that “children have the right to engage in play and recreational activities.”

We also have programs to promote social inclusion – LINC or Linking Immigrants to New Communities – run mostly by Latina students – and a family outreach program – Madres para Ninos – developed by a faculty member in the School of Education but mainly run by college students. Yes, the goal is to improve immigrants’ employability, as spelled out in The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, but it also advances their autonomy and dignity, which is highlighted in every Human Rights Treaty. Both programs welcome both men and women, but they also see as their mission the empowerment of women, consistent with the human rights treaty on the rights of women.

One of the most sustaining visions we have is to celebrate our neighbors, and, to illustrate how, we ask them where they come from, and when they are at the Center to find their home town or rural community using Google. Most come from Mexico, but some from Ecuador, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. “What was it like?” “What do you miss?” “Are your relatives still there?” We believe this validates their culture, something they do not commonly experience in the United States. We do the same with the children. Everyone has the right to a cultural identity and society is better off if we uphold cultural pluralism. This is why we celebrated one night of Las Posadas with our neighbors, and why we will celebrate the Burmese Festival, Thingyan, in the spring. Our neighbors tell us that they had not celebrated Las Posadas since coming to the U.S., fearful that they might have been met with disapproval.

We mentioned the undergraduates. They cannot possibly know how important they are in motivating and and winning over the children (but the teacher, Nancy, knows), and we can see the social and learning growth. We can see them flourish. The children are growing intellectually and socially in ways we never anticipated, and they probably didn’t either. They are more confident and eager to get to their homework. Part of this we believe has to do with the fact that since the college students come in “all flavors,” the children feel secure and the college students who come from India or Pakistan, Iran, or an African country have a special empathy with children who come from another country.

This semester – our first full one – has been totally thrilling. Now we will learn to tack and jibe to keep the Center pursuing all its missions, with the balance that seems right to our neighbors and to us.

Judith Blau is Director of the Center and professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. jrblau@email.unc.edu

M. Rafael Gallegos Lerma is the Associate Director of the Center and a graduate student in sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill mrlerma@email.unc.edu

Alfonso Hernandez is Assistant Director of the Center and a student at Durham Tech. hernandez-alfonso@hotmail.com