By Deborah Fink, a member of Iowa Yearly Meeting. She serves on FCNL's General Committee.
AMES, IA- I have experience with rural immigrant workers in Iowa. In 1992, I worked undercover in an IBP pork processing plant in rural Iowa. IBP was one of the notorious union-breaking outlaws that restructured the meatpacking industry in the 1980s primarily. Now it has been taken over by Tyson. When I worked in the plant, there were about 40% Anglos, 40% Latinos, and 20% Asians and Blacks combined. Since then it has gone to almost completely immigrant workers. I was instrumental in starting up the immigrant workers program in the North Central Region of AFSC in 1993. In 1998, I published a book called Cutting Into the Meatpacking Line about the changes in the lives of Midwestern rural workers.
When I was working in the plant, we got paid on Thursdays. On Thursday evening, my coworkers – many of them Mexicans – would go out and buy Iowa lottery tickets. I gave them a hard time about this: the odds are against you when you play the lottery, you are throwing away your money.
Not so, my Mexican friends replied.
For $5 a week, they could buy the hope of being able to return to live in Mexico. Without hope they could not get themselves to the grimy plant each morning.
They ached to return home.
My coworkers routinely sacrificed seniority to take a month or so to go back to Mexico and then return to the plant. This was expensive. For the undocumented, it was dangerous and there was always the possibility that they wouldn’t get back. They still wanted to go.
A Mexican co-worker told me this story. In Mexico, there was a tree that fell over a ditch or canal. People used it as a bridge, walking back and forth across the ditch. Then one day the tree righted itself and stood up straight. That was a miracle. In Mexico.
The Mexicans I worked with weren’t simple or gullible, but they maintained a mystical reverence for Mexico. If someone were sick, he or she would get better by going back to Mexico. The sun shines brighter there. There is color and music in Mexico. People are friendly and decent.
If there were any way they could live in Mexico, most of them would. I am convinced of that.
As important as uniting families in America is for those who want to stay, we must resist the ethnocentric assumption that everyone in the world wants to come to America. They don’t.
For Mexicans, living in Iowa is very hard in many, many ways.
The actions of the United States – going back for many years – have made life very difficult in Mexico. NAFTA is the tip of the iceberg. In my view, NAFTA is even something of a red herring. The larger story is much worse than NAFTA. It is outrageous that this story is not well known in the United States. I think that if American citizens did know this story they would be horrified.
I believe that ameliorative steps to lessen the suffering of Mexican immigrants are appropriate and should be done. Yet more important is going to the root of the “immigration problem” and looking at why so many Latinos are showing up in America to do our crappy, low-paying jobs.