When I tell people that I work on immigration reform, they usually laugh or say, “way to pick an easy topic.” Everyday it feels like there is more fear, more hate. Raids are picking up in Nevada, California, and New York. A number of senators who supported comprehensive reform only a few months ago have jumped on the bandwagon with their enforcement-only colleagues. Even a recent C-SPAN radio caller’s biggest concern about the children’s healthcare plan was: “Those illegal aliens better not have access to S-CHIP money.” It saddens and exhausts me. I ask myself, “Why do I keep working for a cause that is so controversial, and often so negative?”
I recently had a very clear reminder of why I do. Four farm workers–Eduviges Gonzales, Silvia Huerta, Bautista Zamora, and Estela Ferrer–came to lobby Congress for a path to citizenship for their undocumented coworkers. Three are U.S. citizens and one is a legal permanent resident. They were part of an effort organized by numerous farm worker groups, including the United Farm Workers – the union founded by César Chávez.
Each of them spoke about shortages of workers creating big problems in the fruit and vegetable fields around the country. Then, they began to share their personal stories. Eduviges proudly held up her hand to show off a large callous on her palm below her middle finger and began her testimony:
This is proof of my hard work and dedication to this country. I have worked harvesting mushrooms in Salinas, California for 19 years. I am so proud of my work because I know that every mushroom I pick goes to the mouth of someone who needs to be nourished. I feel this very strongly in my heart.
At that point, tears began to roll down her cheeks, but her voice stayed remarkably strong. She went on:
I am here today because of our children. They see ICE detaining people on the evening news. My son asks me, “Why are they taking that person away? Did they pick bad lettuce or bad strawberries?” His fear weighs on my heart and I don’t know what to tell him.
The congressional staffer was clearly moved. I explained that the bill we were supporting – AgJOBS – would put qualified farm workers on a path to permanent residency. It’s just one piece of an incredibly complex issue facing this country. But for farm workers who have been slaving in our fields for years, it would be a tremendous step toward personal and economic security.
As we were going to dinner, Silvia asked me if I would be going back to live in California with my family. I told her that I lived in Washington, D.C., because I was working for comprehensive immigration reform, and it’s important to have strong advocates here in the capital. “Oh, yes!” she responded, “in that case, we need you to stay right here. We need all the help we can get!”
Her words have been sinking in. Suddenly, my work in this long-term struggle for immigration reform seems like the obvious choice.
Patty Kupfer is the Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform campaign coordinator at Sojourners.