The Work Americans Won’t Do: How Latinos Bear the Brunt of Local, National, and Global Policy

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

“Food harvesters have always been treated he worst
and paid the least inAm eri c a ,”Hu gh Phill i p s , the director of E l
Cen tro, l oc a ted at 4 Bu ena Vista Co u rt in Urb a n a , points out .
After slavery ended, unofficial economic slavery began in
the form of crop-sharing, chain gangs, and homesteaders who
depended on children and hired hands to keep their farms
running. Factory workers in the era of emerging industry
faced injuries, long hours, inhumane treatment, and little pay.
After the Dust Bowl and during the Great Depression, destitute
Americans and newly-arrived immigrants from Europe
and Asia scrambled to find work and feed their families. And
as agribusiness grew throughout the twentieth century and
America became the world’s economic and cultural powerhouse,
millions of Latinos detassled the corn, hoed the potatoes
and beets, picked the fruit, and took care of the animals.
The shift into a servi ce – b a s ed econ omy has seen the growt h
of an urban migrant pop u l a ti on that works under harsh and
c a llous con d i ti ons of f actori e s , re s t a u rants and hotel s . More
m i grants are working in urban set ti n gs , but the probl em of
ex p l oi ting workers in all set ti n gs — i n cluding agri c u l tu re — s ti ll
ex i s t s . Perhaps su rpri s i n gly, Ill i n ois has the sixth largest Lati n o
pop u l a ti on in the co u n try and relies heavi ly on that parti c u l a r
pop u l a ti on for both urban and agri c u l tu ral labor.
Champaign-Urbana is surrounded by seed corn, the harvesting
of which wholly depends upon migrant workers,
many of them Latino-Americans who arrive from south Texas
and Mexico to spend eight weeks detassling corn, as Phillips
explained in our interview. Combined with the local urban
migrant population, our area is in fact temporarily home to
some 5,000 migrant laborers from Eastern Europe,Asia,Mexi
co, and Cen tral and So uth Am eri c a . De s p i te Am eri c a s’
dependence on migrant labor, these workers are often denied
basic rights including education, medical care, housing, and
fair wages by uncaring corporations, malicious business owners,
and public ignorance.
Wh en Hu gh Phillips came to Ch a m p a i gn – Urbana ten ye a rs
a go, a f ter working for several dec ades in Ca l i fornia and ye a rs
with Cesar Ch avez and the Un i ted Fa rm Workers , t h ere were
a pprox i m a tely 500 migrants in the are a . Af ter Phillips was
c a ll ed to the hospital to tra n s l a te for a Latino worker su f feri n g
f rom infectious herpe s , he establ i s h ed El Cen tro por los Tra b ajadores—
the cen ter for workers . El Cen tro was fo u n ded in
1994 to help fight for the ri ghts of m i grantworkers and has for
a dec ade now of fered a va ri ety of s ervi ces to migrant laborers .
One of t h eir recent obj ectives has inclu ded iden ti f ying all
m i grant laborers in Ch a m p a i gn Co u n ty. El Cen tro then provi
des the workers with iden ti f i c a ti on cards that all ow them to
do things su ch as cash ch ecks in area banks. Ot h er servi ce s
i n clu de aid in findingwork , tra n s port a ti on and tra n s l a ti on for
health care and legal servi ce s , as well as va rious edu c a ti on a l
s ervi ces including English as a second language , Spanish literac
y, and head start cl a s s e s . El Cen tro also works to com b a t
em p l oyers that vi o l a te the basic ri ghts of m i grant laborers .
The organization faces a difficult challenge because it
offers help to migrant workers regardless of legal status,which
negates the possibility of government funding. The organization
instead relies totally on donations from the public and
volunteers to accomplish its goals. El Centro needs a constant
stream of donations as well as volunteers, particularly bi-lingual
volunteers, to continue improving the lives of migrants
in Champaign-Urbana.
According to Phillips, the community offers a tremendous
amount of support for the work of El Centro; for example, a
recent food and clothing drive yielded 4000 lbs of donations
in one week.Despite the community support, Phillips can still
cite many instances of racism–including a brutal physical
assault he survived. On a national scale, too, despite the fact
that nearly half of the American population is non-white,
physical and economic violence overwhelmingly affects people
of color and their advocates. Thus the local work of El
Centro reflects larger social issues of race, economics, labor,
and migration.
NAFTA, for example, has devastated Mexicans, sending
them into pollution-spewing, worker-exploiting, Americanowned
maquiladora factories and forcing many to pay coyotes
to help them across the border for the dream of supporting
their families back home. Remittances are second only to oil
in the Mexican economy and are the highest source of income
for Cuba, which America continues to embargo. Latinos from
Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America
come to the United States thinking they will earn better
wages, sometimes only to find that free trade has gutted manufacturing
and certain agricultural industries. Indeed, almost
half of the workers in the U.S. manufacturing industry whose
jobs have been lost because of NAFTA are Latino-American.
The issue of global trade is a complex one that would be
better suited for address elsewhere; however, it is important to
note that economic unrest in the U.S. and throughout the
Americas is related to trade pacts including CAFTA (the proposed
Central American Free Trade Agreement) and FTAA
(the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas).Additionally,
changes in economic and political conditions such as the
failed recall vote in Venezuela, the popular support for the
president of Brazil, and the influence of Cuba as a political
player in hemispheric politics all have implications that range
from the local to the global.
While El Centro has received local news coverage and periodic
influxes of donations and volunteerism, the long-term
structural questions surrounding economics and immigration
in a post-9/11 world are second to the immediacy of
food, clothing, and day-to-day existence for both workers and
advocates. Furthermore, the impact of NAFTA and other
trade agreements is largely industry-specific. Whereas the
conditions for migrant laborers in Illinois who detassle corn
have deteriorated because large-scale seed companies can
increase exports and profit margins, for example, conditions
for grape pickers in certain areas of Mexico have improved
because they can finally compete with Californian wineries.
To contextualize the needs of local migrants and immigrants
in terms of national and global economic and social
conditions, then, requires a grasp on concepts of international
trade and domestic policy that are beyond the scope of this
article. But it is safe to say that the basic human rights of Latinos
who, whether immigrants, migrant workers, or permanent
U.S. residents, are at risk. Policies such as the 2002 Bush
Doctrine, NAFTA, CAFTA, and the FTAA, or harsh immigration
enforcement, affect Latinos to the degree that they are
dying on our borders, are permanently injured in our factori
e s , and our toiling for minimal wages in our fiel d s .
Since 9/11 the U.S. economy has become complicated and
unpredictable, and the effects of free trade are being felt on
both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. According to Phillips,
Americans who are scrambling for work are once again
becoming interested in jobs that before were left to migrant
workers. Whereas a few years ago major companies, restaurants
and farms would often call asking if El Centro knew of
migrant laborers looking for work, the calls have all but
stopped in recent years. Moreover, because of the slumping
national economy and USA Patriot Act, Latino immigrants
and migrants are facing stricter rules for deportation and
often harassment, as law enforcement is increasingly working
hand-in-hand with immigration officers.
Sen. Kennedy (D-MA) and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL)
have sought to address the pressing issue of migrant labor
with “The Safe, Orderly Legal Visas and Enforcement Act”
(SOLVE Act) which has been referred to the Subcommittee on
Immigration, Border Security, and Claims. The SOLVE Act
would be applicable to undocumented aliens and their wives
and children who have lived and worked in the United States
for at least five years. The bill would grant amnesty and allow
migrants to work towards citizenship, adjust social security
records, offer a grievance procedure to get paybacks from
unfair employment practices, and grant visas to immigrants
not eligible for citizenship.
Kennedy argues the SOLVE Act would “create a genuine
earned legalization program for undocumented workers and
revised temporary worker program with protection for both
U.S. and foreign workers.”Kennedy added that the bill would
improve both wages and working conditions, reunite families,
and benefit national security.
Both Sen.Kennedy and Rep.Gutierrez have criticized President
Bush’s approach to immigrants, citing the recent Republican
block vote that defeated the farm worker reform bill in
the Senate. Rep. Gutierrez has openly criticized Bush’s plan,
which would only grant a three year reprieve for undocumented
aliens before sending them back to their native countries.
Phillips supports the SOLVE Act, adding that it would
allow migrant workers support from labor unions. Unions, in
turn, could begin to help these workers by pressuring their
employers to adopt livable wages, better working conditions,
fair compensation for overtime hours, health services, and
access to social programs.Kennedy has stated forcefully that it
is time to update immigrant legislation to recognize that
“immigrants have an essential role in the nation’s life, contributing
immeasurably to the strength of our country.”
El Centro’s web site is available at;
see also Senator Kennedy’s web site for information on
the SOLVE Act at and for Representative
Gutierrez’s web site see; for
poignant and damning creative accounts of border issues, see
the work of filmmaker Alex Rivera at

This entry was posted in Human Rights, Latino/a. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.