Sunday, March 30, 2008

"Do you ever think of us?"

This was the haunting, resonating question put to a group of white, educated, affluent Americans by a 19-year-old migrant worker in Orleans County New York on a cold day in late March. He walked over the U.S. Mexican border two years ago and traveled somehow to Rochester New York area to work in agriculture. He came because there is little work in his home state and what work there is does not pay enough to support a family. He could work a 12 hour day and earn 100 pesos--about $10. But he then pointed to a two liter soft drink bottle and told us that it would cost 20 pesos at home, 20 percent of his daily wage.

And so he came to the U.S. to work those same 12 hour days or more but to make at least U.S. minimum wage, the bulk of which he sends back to his family. His living and working conditions are abysmal by any standard. During the growing season from April through November, he can work 12 or more hours a day, seven days a week. There is no such thing as over time pay or regular breaks. Sunday is not a day of rest if work needs to be done. If he is sick or cannot work, he does not get paid. New York State and federal taxes are withheld from his pay check and because he fears the immigration implications of filing an income tax return, he does not receive the refund to which he is entitled. He pays Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes but there no possibility that he will ever receive any benefits. In fact, the money he pays into social security helps support the payments that I and others on social security receive!

He lives in constant fear that he will be apprehended by immigration and deported back to Mexico. As a result he tends to spend his time in the camps even when there is no work. He truly feels like "an alien in a strange land" and thus asks me the question: Do you ever think of us? The sad truth is that mostly I do not think of them, whose cheap labor puts food on my table. To think of them makes me uncomfortable...and guilty. Most of the workers we met were in their late teens or early twenties. (View a photo album of our day.) A few were older and had left their wives and children behind in order to have a chance to provide for them. As a father myself it was difficult t imagine how desperate their situations must have been to lead them to leave.

None of those we spoke with wanted to stay here more than one or two years. They missed their families and their homes. They lead lives on the margin, out of sight, and all too often out of mind. They are the victims of a dysfunctional economic system at home and a misguided political and legal system here. It is difficult and often dangerous for them to raise their voices to demand the human rights that we all should have. Some of them have traveled to Albany with groups advocating for migrant worker rights. I doubt that I would have the courage to do the same were I in their situation.

Imagine how wonderful it would be if they could enter our country legally to do the work on which we rely for food. They could live among us as the proud and talented people they are instead of hiding from us who too often seem to them to be at worst enemies and at best unaware beneficiaries of their work. They could return home freely and just as freely return for the work that awaits them. They could earn reasonable wages and have the same protections that the rest of us enjoy.

Shortly before 9/11 there was pending legislation that would have provided just such an arrangement. But the hysteria generated by that attack wrecked the political coalition among both democrats and republicans that could have passed that legislation. Creating a border that pretends to be impregnable is no solution to this problem. There is no border in the world that divides such poverty on one side and such affluence on the other. We would all benefit from the free movement of such workers. We certainly need to control our borders but our current system forces honest and decent people to become criminals to provide the basic necessities to their families.

I will be doing more research to understand the changes that can be made to normalize this situation. It is clear to me that this should be an issue separate from the status of undocumented immigrant who are living permanently in the U.S.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

If we have to have an enemy, can we admit it is us?

Retired General Anthony Zinni and retired Admiral Leighton Smith have penned an important op ed piece in today's USAToday: A Smarter Weapon. They call for an expansion of and greater reliance on non-military means to address international problems and issues. They note that they, like most of us, came to age and developed careers during the Cold War. By definition, the United States faced an enemy, the USSR. With collapse of the USSR and thus the end of the Cold War, we were left with no enemy to face...until 9/11.

Since that event, Al Quaeda specifically or extreme jihadists have come to assume that role. Eventually perhaps we could have developed a world view that did not need an enemy to make sense, but if that process was underway it was short circuited by Osama bin Laden and his followers. While this "enemy" has been used to structure our view of the view and to justify national actions that are clearly not in our best interests, the real danger has been a failure to recognize, as the General and the Admiral say, that "today, our 'enemies' are often conditions--poverty, infectious disease, political instability and corruption, global warming--which generate the biggest threats. By addressing them in meaningful way, we can forestall crises."

As I have commented before, the role of the United States in the political and economic sphere often creates or makes those problems worse. Our failure to be part of the Kyoto Treaty, our continued gross overconsumption of energy and food, our failure to act or to lead action to address horrendous human devastation, all these contribute to conditions that breed the anger and resentment that can generate enemies. Does it not make more sense to address the root causes, rather than symptoms fo social and economic stress?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Acid Test of Discipleship

"Acid test" is an interesting term. It originated in the 19th century and referred to a test to determine if what appeared to be gold was, in fact, gold. A drop of nitric acid would leave real gold untouched but would turn blue on "fool's gold" which contains some element of copper. By the 20th century, it had entered general usage referring to whatever kind of test would distinguish the real from merely the apparent.

As I was praying with Sacred Space this morning, I reflected on what would be the acid test for a Christian. Would an objective observer conclude from the way I live my life that God exists? Or would such an observer conclude that my "espoused values" were Christian but that my "values in action" reflected the prevailing values and attitudes of my culture? Am I a thoroughly acculturated 21st century American who espouses Christian values or am I a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ who lives a life "in but not of" this 21st century world? This is a constant question for anyone, regardless of religious belief or engagement. The terms--"espoused values" and "values in action"--are from the work of Chris Argyris, noted organizational behaviorist. He uses these concepts to analyze the very human trait of saying one thing (usually what we think people want or need to hear) and then doing another (usually what we want or need.) We have all heard the same thoughts expressed in different ways:
  • Values are not taught; they're taught.
  • "If I had ever met a Christian, I might be one." Ghandi
  • "Children pay more attention to what parents do, not what they say." Most any parent.
  • "The good that I will, I do not. The evil that I do not will, that is what I do." St. Paul
While Christianity is inherently counter-cultural, I know that it is impossible for me to act outside the culture of which I am a part. But I know that I can live in tension with that culture or in a barely conscious complicity with it. Setting aside overt religious observance, could an observer look at my behavior this past week and at least get a glimmer that there is something at work in my life other than the prevailing values of my culture? If so, what would those be exactly? Such an examination is an uncomfortable exercise but one that I want to make part of my life.