April 17, 2006
The New Oregon Trail Calls to Many
by Sherry Harbert
Walker Shapiro hadn’t planned on marching in Portland. He was heading to Washington from his home in California. Portland was just a stop along the way. But as 4,000 people flowed into the streets to protest anti-immigration legislation last month, Shapiro didn’t look for a way around the crowd—he joined them.
In a series of recent rallies to denounce H.R. 4437, U.S. and foreign-born individuals and groups have joined together. Although Portland’s numbers were small in comparison to rallies in other U.S. cities, (4,000 for the March 4th rally and 5,000 for the April 10th rally) the city’s response was impressive in size and dimension.
Yet numbers were not the reason why Shapiro and others marched. For Shapiro, it was about basic human rights. “The bill doesn’t address the root problems,” he said. “There are U.S. economic policies that are subjecting immigrants to Third World conditions.” Shapiro said he joined the march because of the generalizations of races in the country. “There is an increasing polarization taking place and it’s much stronger than before.”
It was a recurrent theme of both Hispanic and many non-Hispanics alike. One young Hispanic man, who felt he had to affirm his U.S. citizenship first, said he simply wanted to be treated equally. He joined the march to voice his opinion. “At least I can stand and say that the laws that are being passed in my country are bad.”
Between the individual comments, the marchers’ voices merged into seamless chants of “Si, se puede,” Spanish for “Yes, we can.” Much like the Civil Rights’ chant, “We shall overcome,” the Spanish expression has emerged as a unifying call for immigrant rights. It echoed through the crowd as they passed under the arch into Old Town Chinatown, along Naito Parkway and past the Oregon Historical Society’s signs commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The march took the route many protests follow in downtown Portland, yet never was the diverse immigrant history of the city more apparent than when this march took place.
The city’s diversity has been brought into question by H.R. 4437. Organizers claim it is inhumane and would affect all immigrants, not just those without proper documentation. Sponsored by U.S. Representative James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 was passed in the U.S. House last December and taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee in March. The bill has generated ardent support on both sides of Congress and across the nation. Many immigrant, legal, social and faith-based groups have joined together to fight the bill for its sweeping affects. The criminalization components of the bill generated the recent outpouring in the Hispanic community like never before.
For families separated by legal status, H.R. 4437 means permanent separation. Imagine being prosecuted for felony smuggling for helping your child across the border, or watch as parents are taken away from their children. That is what the bill unleashes against illegal immigrants. About 1,200 children marched in Portland April 14 to raise awareness of the thousands of U.S.-born children with illegal immigrant parents. The Migration Policy Institute finds that 70 percent of all immigrants entering the U.S. in 2003 were relatives of immigrants already in the country. In almost all surveys conducted on immigrants, family ties and jobs top the reasons why immigrants want to live in the U.S.
Oregon’s Immigrant Voices Slowly Emerge
The Hispanic community has largely been a silent voice in the state. Although Hispanic populations have rapidly increased in cities like Hillsboro, Gresham, Canby and Woodburn since 1990, they are perceived by many anti-immigrant forces as non-inclusive. Language barriers are the main cause for much of the assimilation problems, which in turn fuels resentment from anti-immigrants groups like Oregonians for Immigration Reform (OIR). To make matters worse, funding deficits have eliminated many English as a Second Language (ESL) programs outside of educational settings that would foster English-speaking skills. Without knowing the English language, many Hispanics are forced into the background of society.
One of the silent marchers in the March 4 rally was an older Hispanic man, walking quietly with the crowd. Unlike many who were carrying individual signs, he was one of three people holding onto a cardboard sign of a painted brick wall to represent the 700-mile wall proposed by H.R. 4437.
He didn’t respond when asked about the sign. He just smiled and shook his head. It took another try before it was evident he couldn’t speak English—that is, except for a single phrase. He smiled and said, “thank you.” Then he looked straight ahead and continued with the crowd.
Of all the words to learn in a new language, “thank you” expressed more than the energetic speeches given before the march. His simple gesture illustrated what many in the march felt about their new homeland, legal or not. He was simply grateful.
Such sentiment is rarely considered in the immigration debate. To many in Congress and throughout the U.S., he is just a number, one of 11 to 12 million illegal immigrants that are at the forefront of the immigration debate. With little voice in mainstream America, Mexicans have become the face of anti-immigration forces in Washington, D.C., and across the nation. Oregon is no exception.
It would be rare to anyone in the Portland area who hasn’t heard someone make disparaging comments against the Hispanic participants in the marches. Most center on illegal immigrants and how they should be “rounded up” and deported. It shows little understanding of the Hispanic community and immigrants in general. It does show the effects anti-immigrants groups have on the population. Even in subtle ways, anti-immigration permeates in every aspect of life in Oregon. It is mostly based on fear which has generated new levels of isolationist attitudes since September 11, 2001.
Bordering on Fear
The anti-immigration proponents have issued their own edict for the immigration debate. Their focus is to close the country’s borders for almost all immigrants under the umbrella of border security. It has been their rallying cry since Sept. 11, and fuels the rhetoric in Congress that has all but killed any reform to include a path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants. Since Sept. 11, The Pew Research Center for The People and The Press continues to find at least two-thirds of Americans fearful of another attack. And it isn’t just a buzzword for conservatives.
Two of Oregon’s five representatives in Congress voted for H.R. 4437. Congressmen Peter DeFazio and Greg Walden justified their votes as a way to enhance border security and jobs. If the immigration marches across the country have changed anything, they have at least opened up dialogue to discuss how pervasive the bill would be if signed into law. H.R. 4437 and the Senate versions would do more than enhance security—it would establish a fortress state, complete with electronic, biometric, physical and human shields along the border and at ports.
Border security is the buzzword for many national and local candidates. With the 2006 Oregon gubernatorial race underway, candidates are finding immigration an easy topic for energizing their campaigns. Ron Saxton, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, has increased his popularity by issuing statements in radio ads and on his “Vote Saxton” website that blame illegal immigrants for costing taxpayers millions. Such rhetoric feeds the anti-immigration movement, but does little to clarify the reality of immigration in the state.
Saxton has used the $140 million hole in the Oregon’s Department of Human Services 2005-2007 budget (adjusted from an earlier figure of $172 million) to accuse the state of mismanagement and providing services to illegal immigrants. He is supported by groups like Oregonians for Immigration Reform which blasts any public assistance program for immigrants.
Most immigrants do not qualify for many public benefits and of those who do, many have no idea of how to access such services. In a Pacific Northwest survey released in February, 77 percent of the immigrants interviewed were uninsured and had no viable means of health coverage. It is a stark difference from the 17 percent of U.S.-born Oregonians in that same category. Federal law prohibits illegal immigrants and many others with permanent resident status from accessing any Medicaid and Medicare services. The report, conducted by the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations, found most immigrants were shut out of any follow-up care and heavily discriminated against, even in emergency situations.
It is no wonder that most immigrants use 55 percent less health care services than the U.S.-born residents, according to a 2005 survey in the American Journal of Public Health. Former Governor John Kitzhaber commissioned a Racial and Ethnic Health Task Force in 2000 in “recognition that persistent and significant health problems weaken Oregon’s racial and ethnic communities much more than these same problems affect the population as a whole.”
Evelyne Ello-Hart of the African Women’s Coalition revealed her own tragic experience of health care problems at the Bridgetown Voices forum last December in Portland City Hall. Through her tears, she described her mother’s sickness and death because most health services needed are out of reach for immigrants with little understanding of the system. “My mom died because there was no knowledge of medicine,” Ello-Hart told the audience. The little money the family could have used toward her mother’s medicine was used on her funeral. Ello-Hart’s tragedy serves as a crucial reminder of the disparity of health services for immigrants and the lack within the medical community to provide more cultural training for its workers. The Governor’s Task Force cited numerous instances where such problems needed to be addressed and fixed.
Playing the Numbers
Numbers are driving the immigration debate in Congress, across the nation and in Oregon. It has become a numbers’ issue to separate the individuals from the masses characterized by many in Congress and across the country as overwhelming U.S. security and economy. It is a number’s issue for votes. And it is a number’s issue for community resources.
Almost one third of the immigrant population in the Portland-metro area arrived since 1990. Between 1995 and 2000, Portland’s immigrant population grew over 30 percent. Such rapid growth has placed Portland in the forefront of the immigration debate. It is considered one of the new gateway destinations for immigrants all over the world. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service), placed Portland as one of its seven pilot cities to study immigration for the Office of Citizenship under the 2002 Homeland Security Act.
As numbers go, a majority of immigrants in Oregon are from Mexico, yet they represent only one facet of the state’s foreign-born population. According to a 2003 report by the Urban Institute, a rare look into Portland’s immigrant population, Portland has a diverse foreign-born population. The study revealed only 29 percent of the foreign-born population is actually from Mexico, the other two largest groups come from Vietnam and Canada. Other Latin American countries make up six percent of the population. Immigrants from Asia count for 26 percent, Europeans 15 percent and Africa a little over two percent.
Oregon’s Changing Landscape
While Oregon hosts a large number of immigrants and refugees, it hasn’t necessarily been receptive of foreign-born residents throughout its history. In the Oregon State Archives, an 1870 communication from the Labor Exchange in Portland to Oregon Governor LaFayette Grover, detailed the need for agricultural immigrants. The committee described which European immigrants it wanted, ideas for convincing immigrants to come to Oregon and then actually placed a dollar value on them. According to their calculations a male immigrant would be worth $1,500, half for a female. They continued their justification by averaging both sexes at a value of $1,125 each, then tacked on $150 in money and personal property that each immigrant was assumed to bring into the country.
It would seem unconscionable today to place a price on an immigrant, but in some ways that is what the current immigration debate is really about. Anti-immigration proponents say they are costing the state millions, while others contend that immigrants contribute well more than they take.
Portland Mayor Tom Potter recognized immigrants at the first Bridgetown Voices forum “contribute more than they receive.” With one in eight residents foreign-born, Portland has emerged as a dynamic and multi-cultural city. City Commissioner Eric Sten echoed the mayor’s position, telling the audience that the city would whither if it couldn’t communicate with its new residents. Sten added, “Everyone is an immigrant here.”
The forum, organized by the Center for Intercultural Organizing, brought together leaders from Portland’s Hispanic, Asian, Slavic, African and Muslim communities to discuss immigration reform and inclusion into society. The group continues to meet every other Thursday to foster ties, increase awareness of immigrant contributions and advocate for the rights of immigrants and refugees.
Oregon’s International Economy
What is rarely included in the immigration debate is not only foreign-born people entering the U.S., but the international investment that follows. Portland’s diverse population is a calling card for business, investment and tourism to the state. According to the Oregon Labor Market Information System, globalization and the mobility of jobs to and from the state have many benefits.
Oregon’s top foreign investors contributing jobs in Oregon include Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and France. Foreign trade statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau place Canada and Mexico as the top import and export nations with the U.S.
In 2005, Oregon’s exports grew slightly faster than the national average, due largely to its multi-cultural ties in the world. The U.S. Department of Commerce shows Oregon’s export growth exceeded nine percent for China, Costa Rica, Finland, Australia and Mexico between 2000 and 2005.
On an individual scale, immigrants provide needed skills and labor in agricultural and construction on the lower end and scientific, medical and investment on the higher end of the job market. The National Center for Farmworker Health estimates that migrant farm labor supports the $28 billion fruit and vegetable industry in the U.S.
Oregon is an average state in agricultural production, but ranks sixth for labor intensive crops. According to a study sponsored by the League of Women Voters, Oregon’s crops are the third most varied in the nation, behind California and Florida. Oregon is the only commercial producer of black raspberries, blackberries, hazelnuts, loganberries, and grape seed. The state is also a leading producer of peppermint, azaleas, onions, sweet cherries, vegetables and flower seeds. Oregon’s successful crops require intensive hand labor, especially in the Willamette Valley, Mid-Columbia and Southern Oregon regions.
Competing for market share means farmers must be creative, lower their risk by lowering their payroll commitments or go out of business. Russian strawberry farmers in the Willamette Valley lose much of their crop to a lack of farm workers to handpick the fruit. Unlike California strawberries, which are sturdy enough for machine harvest, Oregon’s juicy strawberries win for taste but lose financially because they require a labor intense harvest. As a result, many strawberry farmers have given up or switched to less intensive labor crops. There are many farmers who could not compete with the global market if their payroll reflected mandated minimum wage and the working conditions required by the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI). While Oregon has one of the highest minimum wage rates in the country, many immigrants do not see the benefits of such legislative victories, especially if they are illegal immigrants.
The Lines are Drawn
The first union formed explicitly to protect immigrant agricultural workers in Oregon from such practices is PCUN, Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste). PCUN began in 1985 in Woodburn with 80 members and now includes more than 5,000 registered members. PCUN won its first bargaining agreement with Nature’s Fountain Farm in 1998. In 2002, PCUN suspended its 10-year boycott with NORPAC Foods, but is still in negotiations.
Earlier this year, PCUN was the recipient of protests from the anti-immigration group, Oregonians for Immigration Reform (OIR), when they hosted the Mexican Consulate in Woodburn to issue 250 matricula identification cards to Mexican residents in the area. They were joined by many union, cultural organizations, teachers, churches and legal representatives to counter the OIR’s protest.
OIR was established to counter pro-immigrant organizations and laws in Oregon. Although their website gives only a McMinnville post office box for a mailing address with no contact names or members, the organization is adamant about stopping immigration into the country. OIR provides half-dozen pages on its purpose, but provides links to other anti-immigration organizations to justify its stance. It is interesting that it denounces illegal immigration as a mechanism for creating a labor surplus that rewards anti-union employers, yet continuously battles against PCUN which is striving to unionize the agricultural industry.
OIR charges that immigrants should stay in their country and do as America’s “forefathers did in 1776 by throwing off the yoke of the oppressors.” Thomas Jefferson and all the others who established the United States were immigrants or the second-generation immigrants who migrated to this country to free themselves of such oppression. Another component of the OIR’s is that the U.S. should refuse any well-educated immigrant unless all educational institutions, government and business were unable to provide such people. Many U.S. businesses simply outsource to other countries for such talent. So, OIR’s draconian measures would do nothing to bring jobs back to the U.S.
OIR confronted immigrants March 4, in Woodburn when the Mexican consulate established a one-day processing center to issue matricula ID cards. OIR contended that the cards were given to illegal immigrants for instant legal status. Yet the cards are viewed much more positively by state agencies. Oregon State Treasurer Randall Edwards lists the ID card on the state’s bond market website to educate holders of its uses with various state and commercial applications. It serves as identification for immigrants to obtain an Oregon driver’s license. But that may end, if the OIR gets its wish. The organization intends to push for a ballot measure this year that would stop the state from issuing a driver’s license to any immigrant who is not a U.S. citizen. Currently, Oregon does not discriminate on citizenship to issue a driver’s license.
Immigrants versus Immigrants
Many “Letters to the Editor” in local newspapers feature immigrants who voice their opposition at any amnesty program for those without legal residency. Most genuinely feel they participated in a legal process and don’t see the need to offer any hope for those going outside of the law. But, much has changed in immigration law. If an immigrant successfully makes it through the system today, there is at least a 10-year waiting list for those without certain fast track status. It has become increasingly difficult to even get an appointment with the agency handling immigration in the U.S.
In 2003, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), was revamped under the auspices of Homeland Security Act. One of its changes was to end all direct telephone service to the department. Anyone who wanted to make an appointment was required to go through the USCIS’s new InfoPass system through the internet.
A federal employee stands at the entrance to Portland’s USCIS branch to ask everyone who enters to verify their InfoPass appointment. Without it, no one can proceed into the USCIS. This, of course, does not preclude a long wait. The federal agency still maintains that aspect of the process. When an immigrant’s name is finally called, they are informed that they have 15 minutes to conduct their business. Most find it difficult to communicate and understand all the requirements. It’s daunting enough for a U.S.-born person. Any mistake on a form can hinder or even stop the process altogether. A 19-year Russian immigrant was almost turned away from the process for mistakenly listing his familiar name on one form, while listing his formal name on another. It was only after an advocate’s intervention that he was allowed to proceed.
The Portland law firm Black Helterline warned clients that the telephone change alone would create difficulties for anyone trying to resolve specific cases. The firm also warned that anti-terrorism measures were slowing VISA issuance. Most U.S. universities and colleges have felt the backlash of the difficulty obtaining VISAs for foreign students. Subsequently, many of those students are traveling to Australia and other countries for their education.
Oregon ranks 11th for Refugees in the U.S.
Despite the contention raised over immigration, Oregon ranks 11th in the nation for refugees and asylees. Refugees are immigrants who must migrate due to persecution, while asylees are refugees already in this country who seek protection to stay in the U.S. for fear of persecution and even death if sent back to their homeland.
One Portland refugee agency, Sponsors Organized to Assist Refugees (SOAR), has been handling the majority of refugees into the state for more than 25 years. Even SOAR’s board of directors looks like a list from the United Nations. They resettle more than 1,700 refugees each year. But those numbers reflect a fraction of the applicants seeking to enter the U.S. Although President Bush authorized 70,000 refugee slots each year, only 28,000 were processed in 2003. Almost half of those refugees were from European countries.
As one of the new gateway cities, Portland faces a challenge that is pitted between immigrants and those who adhere to isolationist ideals. David Leslie, CEO of Oregon’s Ecumenical Ministries, affirmed the goals of those fighting for immigrant rights to the participants of the March 4 rally “that immigration is an issue for all people and all religions. We reflect on the inhumanity of this movement and pledge to work with each other to serve each other, so we can get the best of humanity.”
It is a pledge many immigrant supporters will continue to uphold. Jorge Antonio Torres, representative for the day laborers organization, VOZ, said “We are here to construct a community, not destroy it.”
For more information:
The Urban Institute: www.urban.org
Center for Intercultural Organizing: www.interculturalorganizing.org
Sponsors Organized to Assist Refugees: www.emoregon.org/SOAR.htm