As a senior Spanish education major at Valdosta State University, I had the opportunity this past semester to work with adult English language learners at the Plaza Comunitaria in Statenville, Ga. I became acquainted with many Mexican immigrants who live and work in south Georgia.
One student at the plaza has lived in the United States for 11 years and is the father to three beautiful girls, all of whom were born in the United States and have dual citizenship in the United States and Mexico.
He works 8-10 hours a day, six days a week at a dairy farm. If this were your family’s sole source of income, how much would you want to be paid for this labor-intensive, outdoor job? How many breaks would you want during your shift? If your shift was extended, would you expect to receive overtime pay? If you maintained this job for some time, would you expect a raise? Would you want vacation days? If you were injured at work, would you want your boss to be responsible for your medical bills?
After hearing this man describe the conditions of his job, I will never again complain about my job at a sandwich shop. I am paid above minimum wage for each hour of work, can take lunch breaks, have the opportunity for a raise, and can request days off, such as Christmas or my birthday. These privileges aren’t afforded to most migrant farm workers.
My friend from the plaza receives $60 per shift at the dairy farm, whether it lasts eight or 12 hours. Do the math: That’s $1,440 per month for a family of five, well below the poverty line. He is not allowed any breaks. He is required to work Christmas and other holidays. Recently, two of his coworkers asked for a raise and immediately were fired. Others were injured while on the job and received no financial assistance from their employer. How many American citizens would apply for a job like this?
This situation is the norm for many Hispanic-American migrant families. Their extreme poverty keeps our economy afloat. Ever think about how much a tomato would cost if the person picking it was paid by the hour rather than by how many boxes were filled? How much would your sub sandwich cost if all the vegetables on it were picked by union workers? Migrant farm workers do the work that most American citizens consider themselves too dignified to do.
Like every other group of immigrants (Irish, Italian, Eastern European, Chinese, Indian, Korean, etc.) who once journeyed into the states, most Hispanic-Americans are searching for better opportunities for their families. Is this not the most basic, purest form of the American dream?
Politicians are competing to see who can formulate the harshest immigration reform. These laws range from requiring public schools to check the immigration status of students, to police officers being able to check the status of anyone who is stopped for any other reason, including DUI roadblocks and routine traffic stops.
There was more than one night during the semester that my English students didn’t show up, calling to say they heard about a roadblock in the area and did not want to drive across town for fear of being deported.
The politicians behind these laws seem to forget that their own families once were immigrants, too. Unless you are a full-blooded American Indian, there likely is an “illegal” immigrant somewhere in your family tree. He or she probably endured similar hardships to those being experienced by Hispanic-Americans today: learning a new language, blending in with a new culture, finding work, and feeding their children.
Hispanic culture, specifically Mexican culture, is not so different from American culture. We haven’t been neighbors all this time without taking a few ideas from each other. These are hard-working, salt-of-the-earth people who deserve to be treated like human beings, not like second-class creatures because of their immigration status, accent or skin tone.
So what does this mean for you? What can you do to change the way our society treats immigrants and migrant workers? What can you do to appreciate hard-working people rather than encourage the racism and intolerance that is all too evident in current immigration laws? As with anything else, change starts with yourself. Voting is always important, as is voicing your opinion to local, state and federal government officials. You can also help by donating to Harvest of Hope, a non-profit organization that assists migrant farm workers and their families (www.harvestofhope.net), as well as educating yourself on your own culture and the cultures around you.
In my work with the Plaza Comunitaria, I helped migrant workers learn English, and in doing so was able to practice my Spanish. I can attest firsthand that learning a second language is extremely difficult, and English is no exception. Migrant workers spend tireless days at hard labor, and after their 10-hour shift they arrive at the plaza to learn English, simply because they know it will help them adjust to life in the United States.
I challenge all who are vehemently anti-immigration to put themselves in the shoes of Hispanic immigrants by trying to learn a second language, such as Spanish – a beautiful language that would help them communicate with more than 34 million fellow Americans.
I’m sure that would be easier than an all-day, no-break shift at the dairy farm.
(Eleanor Paschal, a senior at Valdosta State University, is a 2008 graduate of Lakeside High School. She is the daughter of News-Times Publisher Barry Paschal)