Written by Karen Mahoney, Special to your Catholic Herald Wednesday, 19 May 2010 11:09
Each day, whether it is in sweltering heat, monsoons, or subzero temperatures, immigrants work long hours as landscapers, maids, dishwashers, cooks, farmers, car detailers and dairy farmers. Their rates are reasonable because most are unable to get jobs doing anything else.
On April 21, approximately 40-50 Racine area teens championing for immigration reform assembled at U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s Racine office. The group rallied for rights of illegal immigrant workers, especially those working in the state’s dairy farms.
Ryan was not present for the rally, but in a prepared statement said he appreciated the group’s efforts and promised to support reforms that do not reward illegal behavior. He supports stronger border security, employee verification systems and enforceable guest worker programs.
“It is critical that we work toward improving our immigration system so needed workers and eligible people are allowed to receive visas in a timely manner or have their applications for citizenship be considered more efficiently,” he wrote.
According to Maria Morales, coordinator for Voces de la Frontera in Racine, Ryan needs to quell the tough talk and practice more humane efforts toward immigrants.
“Spending millions on border patrol and ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is bleeding us dry,” she said. “He needs to show real leadership and support humane and fair immigration reform.”
The students, armed with approximately 600 milk cartons each signed by one of Ryan’s constituents to show support for reform, argued that without immigrant workers, Wisconsin would not be known as the Dairy State.
“We were marching around the block and holding our milk cartons and yelling out phrases that made people question what we were talking about,” said Christian Pacheco, a St. Catherine High School, Racine, junior, and member of Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES). “We wanted to tell them that without immigrants we would have no milk because nearly half of the milk produced in Wisconsin is from immigrant labor and we are known as the Dairy State, so that should mean something.”
In a 2009 study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, immigrant workers comprise 42 percent of all hired by the $26 billion dairy industry. Of those workers, nearly half are non-documented immigrants.
Rally organizers say these workers and other immigrants need reform, and are hoping that laws will change to give immigrants more rights, legal citizenship, the availability of drivers licenses and college options.
The youth noted that education, not deportation, is the key to reform. Many of the teens present were United States citizens, but, like their undocumented peers, they are frequent victims of racial profiling and slurs.
While Pacheco, a member of St. Patrick Parish, Racine, admitted that people often joke to him about deportation and his Hispanic heritage, he realizes that the ones who are more vocal don’t know what they are talking about since immigrant children merely followed their parents as they came to the United States to make a better life for their families.
“None of the children made the choice to come here; they are the innocent ones and are often treated as if they committed a crime,” said Pacheco. “If you are a teen or a 5-year-old kid, you don’t know what is going on – you are just trying to follow your parents, behave and do what they say. If we are trying to get our grades up and do something to better the world, there are people who are trying to take that away from you and I don’t think it is right.”
Two years ago, Mario Aranda, also a junior at St. Catherine High School, joined YES to share his voice about the plight of the immigrant worker. Although he is a natural born United States citizen, he has felt the sting of racial comments, but realizes that ignorance is a problem among all nationalities.
“I could be from Nigeria and people would tell me to go back to Nigeria,” he said. “I have just learned to ignore the comments, let them be and go on with my life.”
Going on with life is one of the primary reasons, Aranda, a member of St. Richard Parish, Racine, participated in the rally.
“I feel like Paul Ryan prefers that I work in the fields,” he said. “I am a U.S citizen, but people think that because I go to rallies that I am only concerned with myself. I want everyone else to have the same chance and equal opportunities as me. I don’t want to be picked over someone else for a job or college because I am a citizen and they aren’t. The way I look at it, if I stick up for them, maybe someday someone will stick up for me. I’m not trying to be a hero – but I do want to get a point across.”
Pacheco said Ryan should think of everyone in his district, as well as in the state, because he needs all of the people for a greater spot in government.
“We all contribute to his seat in Congress and you need the people to remain in office. I also think he is a strong candidate for the presidency one day, and I feel he should support the Hispanic population,” he said. “If he turns his back on us now, then we might turn our backs on him later on.”
As Catholics, Aranda and Pacheco believe that by demonstrating and vocalizing their feelings, they are standing up for the principles of the church and following the ways of Jesus.
“Everyone deserves a chance,” said Aranda, adding, “And Jesus would stand up for the weak.”
Like Aranda and members of YES, Pacheco will continue to champion the rights of the immigrant children and adult workers.
“Most immigrants are here trying to make a living, working hard and not breaking the law,” he said. “Some people think they are here just to freeload, but if you look at the statistics, immigrants put in more than they get, and when people say they are here for the benefits, I think they need to check their numbers. I think our Catholic Church believes in justice and equality and I will always speak out for that.”