November 05, 2007

NYSUT Executive Vice President Alan Lubin blogs from U.S.-Mexico border

Source: Office of the Executive Vice President
Caption: NYSUT Executive Vice President Alan Lubin (pictured at left) was part of a recent Border Witness delegation to the U.S.-Mexico border with the state Labor-Religion Coalition. He shares his experiences and thoughts about the delegation in this blog.

Tuesday, Oct. 30, 5:41 a.m.

As I prepare to go to the Juarez-El Paso border area, I am thinking about a recent visit to the Katrina-ravaged sections of New Orleans. The view of block after block of destroyed homes, stores and schools, unrepaired by our government, gave me a perspective on my next trip that will take away some of the surprises and shocks that I expect to encounter in the border towns.

Reading about Katrina does not prepare you for the devastation and lack of governmental concern in New Orleans. I expect the same or worse in Mexico.

Wednesday, Oct. 31, 6:00 p.m.

I arrived in El Paso yesterday evening. The amazing thing about this trip is you have to not consider it a trip to Mexico but rather a trip to a border - not the country of Mexico or even America.

When you ask people what a border is, you almost get a negative response. It's to keep people out, to separate or protect but it's never a positive thing. Borders are really designed to impede and not include when they should really be almost a blending of cultures.

Today we are in El Paso, Texas. El Paso is right in the middle of the 2,000-mile border between the two countries, right at the 1,000-mile mark. We're learning that the issue here is how to keep people out.

A lot of right-wingers like to identify people as illegal aliens, or in better terms, undocumented foreigners. The only law these people break when they cross the border this way is they are crossing at an area that is not an official checkpoint.

Today we were at a part of the border that did not have a fence and we stepped over the "border." It was interesting to think that when we stepped back into the U.S. we were committing the same crime these Mexicans do, yet we look at them as criminals ... We don't do this in Canada because we're not as afraid. Their skin is not as dark.

It makes me think of America's reaction to the Berlin Wall. The Russians in charge of East Berlin wanted the separation. In this situation America wants to separate more so than Mexico - and now we are starting to construct a 2,000-mile wall ourselves.

A Tale of Two Cities

Today we spoke to different workers and we spent a great deal of time at three different parts of the border. At one point we climbed high above the city and looking down we could not tell where one city ended and the other began. But it becomes quite obvious who are the haves and the have-nots. If you happen to be born on this side of the fence you can get a good job, own a home and your kids can go to school. If you happen to be born on the other side, you have nothing.

Most people coming here illegally are coming for a chance for economic security for their families. 99 percent are coming because they cannot feed their family, because they cannot house their family.

In El Paso everybody lives in a home. In Juarez, many people live in houses constructed of wooden pallets, cardboard and, for those in better shape, cinder blocks. Where we have a federal minimum wage of $7.15 hour, the minimum wage in Juarez is $5 a day.

Back at the third border crossing we visited, which was in a park, there was no fence. There were, however, plenty of cameras watching everybody. It reminded me of East Berlin when I visited Alexander Plaza. There were no benches or trees but there were cameras to make sure people didn't congregate.

At the park today there was one tree - no benches - but there were three cameras to make sure we did not step over the border.

If you visit Berlin today and go into Alexander Plaza there are restaurants, businesses and hundreds of people congregating and shopping.

For me, one question remains: When will we be able to visit the park I saw today and see the same thing -- Americans and Mexicans shopping, talking and eating together?

Wednesday, Oct. 31

NAFTA's broken promises

When NAFTA became law, hundreds of large corporations decided to stop paying $5 to $20 an hour when they could pay less than $5 per day for the same work. Later this week we are going on a shopping tour to buy lunch with one day's pay in Juarez.

We like to think that the cost of living is going to be a lot less than in America, but that's not the reality when you go shopping. If we assume an American worker at a low-paying job such as McDonalds or Wal-Mart can earn $50 for a day's work, in Juarez that same person, a Mexican, would earn $5 a day. In America, a half gallon of milk would come to about a half hour's pay. That same container in Juarez would cost about 10 cents less but equal a half day's pay.

It's unbelievable to think that in Juarez it takes three working adults in a house just to provide the food necessary to feed the children. At this point, it becomes crystal clear that NAFTA did not live up to its promise.

When NAFTA was enacted, El Paso lost more jobs than any other city in America. Tens of thousands of women lost their jobs and almost none of them were offered re-training.

There was a time when almost all of the blue jeans made in American were made in El Paso. None are made there now.

I learned today that in Juarez there are more jobs than there are people, but at less than $5 day it's worth risking your life to cross the border and find work in the U.S.

Thursday, Nov. 1, 9:45 a.m.

Last night the group that includes Brian, Maureen, myself, Florence McCue from Yonkers and two students from the Oakwood Friends School in Poughkeepsie spent quite a while debriefing the day's events and discussing the reasons for the economic gap that spans the border across the muddy Rio Grande River.

We were interrupted several times by trick-or-treaters as we reviewed the family crisis facing those who risk their lives to illegally cross over. Mothers leave infants behind and disappear into the river - more than 400 perish annually. These people are looking for work since NAFTA not only cost jobs here, it decimated the agricultural industries in central Mexico as well.

While our government pays subsidies to farmers, our major agricultural giants went south and bought up the small, family-owned farms in Mexico. American corn is now cheaper than corn grown on Mexican farms due to their inability to compete with us. This drove the farmers north to the border towns where we will visit today and talk with people now earning about $5 a day working for an American farm. These jobs will fade when the American companies see that even cheaper labor is available in China and Haiti.

Do our conglomerates care about the jobs taken first from American soil and soon from Mexican soil? I think not. How can we change this? Like everything else we do at NYSUT -- education!

We have to get people to understand the evil of what some will do to personally achieve the "American dream," even if it pushes others further down into the abyss of poverty.

We have to legislate fairer tax codes, demand that products to be sold in the USA be made by workers -- wherever they are in the world -- who are paid a decent wage and who are shown the respect we demand in the workplace.

And we must show Americans that we are willing to pay a few cents more for products appropriately made by workers who earned a living wage and benefits.

Thursday. Nov. 1, 8:00 pm

This morning we began with a trip to the International Bridge between El Paso and Juarez. Because of the several-hour wait to return to the States if you travel by car, we parked on the Texas side of the bridge and walked over. We then took a 35-minute public bus ride into the city of Anapra.

This bus ride was like no other. We went on dirt roads that were barely roads. We passed hundreds of street poles that had a pink rectangle with a black cross painted on it. This signified the death of more than 400 women in the last several years - the disappearance and murders of more than 400 women.

Most of these women went to work at 4 or 5 in the morning. Many of their decaying bodies have been found in the desert. There have been no suspects and no arrests, leading people to believe that these murders were either sanctioned or ignored by the Mexican government.

A sliver of hope in a ghost town

When we arrived in Anapra we had a pleasant and moving visit with Cristina Estrada, a woman who runs the Children's Library Project.

Cristina was a factory worker who burned her hands on solder and could no longer work. Since 1999 she has been running a program helping students in her back yard similar to the homework helper programs we see across our state.

She works with all students: students with special needs, very poor students and women battling cancer. Her program has grown from six students to 255 students starting in pre-kindergarten.

Cristina proudly told us she now has six of her students in the University of Juarez. Nine high school students are working with her. She also runs dance and soccer programs, all with the hope of keeping people involved in education and away from drugs.

There are no government funds for her program. She exists strictly on contributions. Even in public schools in Mexico you need uniforms, backpacks and your own supplies. Her program does supply some of that so students can stay in public schools.

In this small town there are only dirt roads -- no sidewalks, no streets. Many homes were built with wooden pallets that are replaced by cinder blocks one at a time as the residents can find them.

It is one of the poorest communities I have ever seen, yet people fight to keep their children in school.

Cristina works with these children although she has only a grade school education herself. She's extremely bright, a bundle of energy.

We asked her about the immigration issue. She does not believe in the "American dream." She believes that Mexicans should stay in Mexico and fight for equality, education, health care and, most of all, respect. That's something we hear in several of our school districts across the state.

After several hours of visiting with Cristina, we got back on the bus and went into Juarez for lunch and the obligatory shopping in the marketplace. This is an area where Florence really shined.

Ana Martinez and Kathleen O'Connor-Bater, both members of UUP at Old Westbury, are fluent in Spanish and have been a tremendous asset to this delegation. After lunch and shopping we hiked back over the bridge and through customs with a bit of a wait but no incidents.

From farm owner to farm worker

This afternoon we visited the farm workers center, a place where farm workers can relax, sleep, shower and then go outside at midnight to stand outside hoping to get work for the next day. They go outside in the streets at midnight trying to get on a bus that farm owners send to pick up day workers for the next day.

The workers who are chosen sleep on the bus, then work from about four in the morning until two in the afternoon. Their working conditions are horrible - inhumane at best.

Right now they are picking chilis. One worker showed us his pay sheet for the day. He picked 73 baskets of chili peppers. He worked 7 hours today and was credited by his employer for 5 hours. He can't complain or go elsewhere because he would be blacklisted if he did.

Most of these farm workers are here legally and they do try to go home. Tomorrow is Day of the Dead, a major holiday in Mexico, where citizens mock death by celebrating at the cemeteries. It's a major family holiday. After celebrating, the workers will return to the center again where they stay for days on end.

Most of these farmers were small owners in Mexico. As a result of NAFTA, they had to sell their small farms and travel north. The work they do is extremely brutal in the hot sun. However, if they try to take a break their families could starve.

Friday, Nov. 2, 2:16 p.m.

Seeing people living and working in these conditions reinforces the need to educate consumers to the fact that they must be willing to pay a little bit more and avoid the big corporations that are destroying societies in different countries as well as the United States.

We have to talk to our elected officials and continue to educate them about the horrors of NAFTA and what it has done to these border towns.

And as Americans, we have to step up to the plate and force our government to react appropriately to many of these horror stories which are caused by our international policies.

On our next trip to the border we will be going to a Catholic mass. The mass will take place right on the border so people from both countries can attend in memory of the folks who have lost their lives trying to cross into America.

We'll also be visiting a migrant and refugee home to see the plight of those working people who are in America and homeless but are employed on a regular basis.

Friday Nov. 2, 6:14 pm

This morning we had another session where we tried to figure out why things happen the way they do. The general consensus is that if the U.S. government wanted to seal the border they should have sealed it. Instead, we build fences around cities such as El Paso to prevent people from sneaking in and leave the deserts pretty much open. When people cross in the deserts they die - many, many die.

Some try to cross on train tracks or travel north on tops of trains. Many fall under the trains and perish. Many others end up working with human smugglers called coyotes. Coyotes charge between $2,000 and $5,000. The less reliable smugglers simply abandon people on the edge of the desert rather than bring them through to safety.

The concept of raising $3,000 in Mexico to pay for a coyote is almost impossible. Often, individual members of a family sneak across first and bring money back to bring other members of their family. That kind of money could never be raised in Mexico except by those who used to own land and sell it to acquire the cash.

People are stuffed into trucks... run out of water in the desert (they're advised to carry four gallons of water per person, about 32 pounds)... suffer poisoning by snakes.

And after all the work we do to keep them out, if they do get through there are plenty of jobs in America for them. There is something wrong with our system.

Border patrol officers will tell you that 95 percent of the people they catch and send back are hardworking honest Mexicans trying to provide a better life, or some cases, any life for their families.

We employ 12,000 border guards to keep them out. If these are good people, and we make it so difficult for them to come here. Wouldn't we be better off spending our money at airports and other places where terrorists will really come through?

There is almost no inspection of materials brought in ships and trains. Yet, there is such a heavy concentration on keeping out poor people who are trying to feed their starving families. Starving in many cases as a result of our treaty agreements (NAFTA).

Misguided policy

Several years ago, our House of Representatives actually passed a bill that said if you aided an undocumented immigrant you would be committing a felony. Remember, as I said earlier, the crime that they commit is entering without inspection -- crossing a border at a place other than a border checkpoint.

This bill failed in the Senate. But the fact that it passed in our House is mind boggling.

Our legislators should have to spend a few hours on the border as part of their training. They should speak with the people who cross over trying to find jobs before condemning them to prison as felons.

Not really all that different

While our delegation is from all walks of life, people with all kinds of vocations and avocations, people active in their churches and people active in their unions, as we speak with each other we see how small our world is. We all share the same social values and much the same history.

Lois and I both share memories from Canarsie in Brooklyn and Long Island restaurants. We are able to talk about all parts of New York state, and while we're here, members of our delegation grab a few minutes a day to call home and deal with local issues.

Dan and Wayne are trying to figure out how to deal with a major fire in Sullivan County where a duck farm was destroyed. Several hundred migrant workers were put out of work by that fire, some of them probably from this area in Mexico. The two men are in touch with their church to arrange food and shelter for these workers.

Remarkable sessions take place throughout the day. When looking at the homes in Anapra, Phyllis said, "No matter how tough it is for me and my family, at home we are wealthy compared to these people and we should be thankful for what we have."

Dia de Los Muertos mass

This afternoon we attended an annual mass held on the border between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. Paper flowers in festive colors were hanging on the fence. Just below them were crosses bearing the names of the people who died trying to cross the border.

Once again it brought to mind a stark similarity to the old wall in Berlin, where monuments to those who failed to cross were placed against the western wall. Only here there are monuments on both sides.

Today we again spoke with Cristina Estrada. We met her three children and her husband, only today, there was a 10-foot fence between us. Cristina and her family could not cross the border to be with us. Some of the other members of the delegation told her about this blog. Squinting to look at the NYSUT Web site on my BlackBerry, she was thrilled. She started crying and saying "God bless you." She was just so touched that we were getting her message out.

We also met a Catholic priest, Father Bill. He was deported for helping Mexicans obtain their property.

Several members of our delegation have provided immeasurable assistance throughout our journey. Wayne and Dan have been taking some great shots which we hope to include in this blog before we finish.

With Kathleen serving as a translator, we were able to speak with three high school students through the fence. None of them have ever been in America. And none of them understand why we would build a fence to keep them out.

During the two-hour mass, under the heat of the sun (not a hot day in El Paso, only 90 degrees), there was no shade except that provided by some of the cars and by some of the citizens of El Paso who invited us to stand under their umbrellas. Brian O'Shaughnessy and Maureen Casey made sure that everyone had ample water. Throughout many of our excursions into the desert they brought water and sustenance. Due to the length of the mass, we were unable to gather for lunch until 4:00 p.m., but everyone thought the time was very well spent.

The local media was extremely excited that we were here today. There were many press interviews for our delegation and respect for our willingness to travel all the way from New York. The backs of our shirts today were probably more popular than we were. They read: "NYS Labor-Religion Coalition Border Witness Delegation." Several reporters were anxious to film the statement on the back of our shirts.

There were bishops on both sides of the fence today and some of their prayers remind me of those that I see during Passover holidays and hear occasionally when I speak with more religious people than I.

One said:

"I ask God to forgive our country for not welcoming the immigrants.

"I ask God to forgive our elected officials for their lack of compassion in immigration laws ... for the laws that cause the separation of families ... and for their misguided plans to construct a 700-mile wall between our two countries."

Typical of a Catholic mass, at one point everybody stopped to wish each other peace -- or paz. What was different in this mass was you were not able to shake hands with people one foot away from you because of that ever present 10-foot fence. Fingers stretched through both sides of the fence, pressing flesh together in unity and in appreciation to supporting a peaceful resolution of the issue commonly called, "the wall."

Saturday, Nov. 3. 12:15 a.m.

The mass ended later than we thought due to the confusion with daylight savings time. (US moved it back to Nov. 4 and Juarez did not so we got to mill around for an extra hour on the American side of the wall while awaiting the arrival of the Mexican dignitaries.)

Due to the delay, we missed one session with immigration attorneys but did attend the session at Annunciation House, a stopover on the Mexican migration's "underground railroad".

This home is a safe haven for immigrants who are undocumented. It houses families, single men, single women and married couples. The stay is from two days to several months, but there is no hard and fast rule. We visited and ate with them and then helped clean up.

One person told us that the people here were good people crossing illegally to feed their families. Most want to earn money and return home. The border police will tell you the exact same thing. These people are not dangerous. Their impromptu spokesperson asked us to look closely at candidates in United States elections to find which would be fairest to immigrants. He was quite brave to speak up and I reassured him on behalf of our group that we were supportive of fairer treatment for them.

Before dinner, all held hands and someone offered a prayer. The first to volunteer was a young child, perhaps 10 years old. He asked God for three things: safety for those crossing over tonight, safety for the people present and of course a blessing for the food.

Not bad for a youngster. Actually quite astute. We learned that even within the U.S. it was necessary to hire a human smuggler to go further North. There are checkpoints on all roads leading out of El Paso. The house is staffed by six volunteers who live in the Annunciation house.

This place becomes more necessary when you learn that the Salvation Army accepts no one without papers. Other shelters do the same.

Today was a moving experience for our team. The mass and the visit tonight really shook us up. There were wet eyes around the table as we saw the poverty and the determination surrounding us. It was an honor to meet many of the residents of Annunciation House and the volunteers who run it. While most dropped out of school to work in the war against starvation, many were clearly very bright and all were appreciative.

After dinner, I spent time with one young man on a long division question. Neither one of us spoke the same language. Yet we did communicate. I taught him how to deal with division and he taught me how to count in Spanish (well, he tried to).

Tomorrow we return to Mexico one last time and will attempt to purchase a meal for four for 50 pesos. This seems to be an easy way to force a diet to work. If you have no money you can't indulge. What we have to remember is that when a family in Juarez has no money they just don't eat. There is no pantry or freezer filled with food.

Sunday, Nov. 4, 10:45 a.m.

Saturday morning we again discussed the economics of what happened to people all across Mexico.

Because the U.S., through NAFTA, forced Mexico to stop farm subsidies and did not stop U.S. farm subsidies, many Mexican farmers were pretty much put out of business. Many people ended up selling their land - on which they grew livestock and vegetables to feed their families - to come north to find work.

So there is an internal migration as well and like those who end up migrating into the U.S., mostly illegal.

Stretching a day's pay

One of our projects Saturday morning was for teams of three to four to take 50 pesos - a day's work in the maquiladoras - and shop for lunch. We didn't have to worry about condiments like cooking oil, or plates or dishes.

We got firsthand experience in what it's like to shop on an average worker's pay. My team bought day-old vegetables that were packed like soup greens: one potato, a quarter of a cabbage, etc. We also bought chorizo sausage and a couple of plantains. That was it. That's all we could afford.

We put aside a couple of pesos to tip the person who packed the bags - even the poorest people open their wallets to somebody more in need than they are. The packers receive no wages and rely solely on tips.

Entering the supermarket, we passed an ice cream stand. A cone cost 16 pesos, about $1.60. Of course, we couldn't take anything out of our 50 pesos to splurge on ice cream.

Some of the people who live in Juarez travel by bus. That's four pesos each way, which would also come out of the shopping money.

Can you imagine a mother taking her child shopping on a 100-degree day and not being able to spend $1.60 on an ice cream cone? That becomes a once-or-twice-a-year treat. That's life south of the border

Later, we went to Tabor House where Betty, a nun, and Peter, a priest, live. There we combined the food the different groups had purchased and Maureen and West Cosgrove, our guide, prepared lunch.

This activity was the best way they could have shown us the difference in the U.S. economy and the economy of Juarez.

A worker's story

After lunch we met with a worker from a maquiladora. Surprisingly, he told us conditions in the maquilas are better than we thought. They're clean, and some are air-conditioned. This was a surprise to us.

However, the machines are outdated with no safety equipment. There are no ear plugs. Workers in U.S. plants would have them. There are no ventilators or masks to keep chemicals out of their lungs and, of course, there's no real concern when somebody gets hurt.

There are many accidents due to the pace they are required to work and the old equipment.

Workers in maquilas have been shown films of similar maquilas in china and are often told by supervisors, if they don't produce well, the plant will move to china where workers will put in 12-hour shifts for the equivalent of $2 a day.

Not only are they kept in poverty, but their jobs are threatened fairly regularly.

In answer to one question, the worker told us that people do talk of escaping this life and going to America to earn money. But everyone also talks about bringing the money home to be back with their family.

He has illegally crossed the border and did find work in the U.S., but when he returned home he decided to stay there because he couldn't live without his family. He also said he advised his colleagues not to go because Mexicans are very poorly treated by both the government and many citizens when they cross the border.

Unchecked crime

Another problem we learned exists in the city of Anapra, Juarez and probably everywhere else is rampant crime. Similar to most cities in the U.S., these northern Mexico cities are plagued by street gangs. The difference in the U.S. is the government is trying to minimize crime. In northern Mexico, the people feel that the government is ignoring it.

In the last 12 years, more than 600 women have been murdered. Sometimes, their bodies are brutally mutilated. The body parts are sometimes found years later in the desert or on the edges of town.

With women going to work in two shifts in maquilas, and coming home sometimes at midnight or 1 a.m., people are quite scared on a daily basis.

The solution is clear, the U.S. has to insist that American companies not exploit workers even if they work in foreign lands. While the Mexican government is absolutely as guilty as the U.S. government, we cannot ignore our responsibility to human beings just because they live on the other side of the fence.

Last night we went to a street festival honoring the Day of the Dead, a holiday where Mexicans mock death and celebrate family members who have passed.

Great food ... good music .... more gift shops. It was a nice way to end a very serious visit to view a very serious problem.

Monday, Nov. 5, 3:51 p.m.

I'm back home and the first question that comes to mind: Where do we go from here?

The group that went with this delegation has now become part of a team of several hundred New Yorkers who have already made this or similar trips to view the border problems.

We all have a clear understanding of our obligation to return home and continue discussing these issues. We have to share our experiences - something I hope this blog has accomplished - with other citizens as well as our legislators.

In Washington, we have to try to promote legislation that can help rectify the problems caused on the border, in the United States, and even in Mexico, by NAFTA and the current trade agreements under discussion.

We can all help in different ways.

1. Contact your Congressional representative. For more information about NAFTA and its impact on border towns, the state Labor-Religion Coalition suggests visiting

2. You can contribute to humanitarian groups working in and around the border. Some groups to consider:

  • The Children's Library Project is a tutoring and study program run by Cristina Estrada.

  • West Cosgrove runs immersion tours to the border through his organization, Casa Puente.

  • Annunciation House provides safe shelter to immigrants and their family members.

To make a tax-deductible contribution to any of these organizations, send a check to the Labor-Religion Coalition, c/o Brian O'Shaughnessy, 800 Troy-Schenectady Road, Latham, N.Y. 12211. Include the selected group on the memo line. The coalition will forward the full amount of your contribution to the programs.


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