April 24, 2006

Immigrants Work Unseen in Ithaca

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Estimates suggest that there are at least 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States to date. A portion of these immigrants reside in Tompkins County and many of them work in restaurants in Ithaca or as dairy workers in the surrounding area. They come from a variety of nations, including many from Asian and Latin American countries.

“A lot of Cornell students don’t realize that there are a lot of immigrants and undocumented workers in Ithaca,” said Arum Lee ’06, who works at the Immigrant Rights Center. “They keep quiet, and that is sort of the problem; they are an unseen, unheard voice.”

These immigrants are now getting more attention due to the House bill proposal to make entering the country illegally a felony and similar debate in the Senate over immigration policy reform.

The proposed reforms have the potential to impact local farms and businesses, as well as public service workers whose jobs are deemed illegal by the House bill.

Leonardo Vargas-Méndez, public service center director who works with the Latino Civic Association of Tompkins County, said that if the current bill passes, “it will criminalize every single human service worker who provides services to illegal immigrants.”

Lee, who works with both documented and undocumented immigrant workers, talked about the risk that the bill poses to herself and her coworkers.

“I could potentially go to jail, but that would not make me stop, because I think that this bill is completely wrong,” she said. “There is no way that I would not help someone in need who I don’t feel has done anything wrong.”

Vargas-Méndez, who also works with the Immigrants Rights Center, believes that the current bill is not an appropriate way to deal with increased immigration, and that immigrants are in need of more services in this area. He said that many immigrants need language training, health care and legal services.

He pointed out that there are increasing numbers of children from immigrant families attending local schools who need special attention beyond English language skills.

“We strongly believe that bicultural programs and bilingual programs should be available in our school system as Spanish speaking students and other language students are increasingly coming into the schools,” he said.

A recent study conducted by Prof. Max J. Pfeffer, development sociology and Pilar A. Parra, research associate in nutritional sciences, found that 40 percent of immigrant workers in New York needed assistance to go to a clinic and that fewer than 50 percent of immigrant farm workers could understand English.

“Cornell is a leader in conducting research that helps address the needs of farm workers and other immigrant communities,” said Mary Jo Dudley, director of the Cornell Migrants Program.

She mentioned several programs that focus on raising awareness and providing services for farm workers in upstate New York, such as Friends of Farm workers, Fingerlakes Migrant Health Network and the Cornell Migrant Program, which has summer internships for students to work with farm workers as well as conduct research in the area.

Aside from criminalizing all those who offer aid to undocumented workers, the bill has important implications for the economy.

Dudley estimates that there are between 40,000 and 60,000 farm workers in New York, a majority of which are undocumented.

“It’s a concern what will happen with the immigration reform, if it indeed resulted in deportation of the farm workers who are here, it would have a devastating impact on agriculture in the state,” she said.

Ivy Space, who helps her husband run a dairy farm in Groton, explained that it is very difficult to find agricultural workers in Tompkins County. She said that most Tompkins County residents don’t want to perform the type of work that the dairy industry requires and as a result the industry is very dependent on immigrant workers.

At least in Tompkins County, “they’re taking jobs that Americans don’t want,” she said.

Agricultural workers would not be the only ones affected, workers in restaurants and childcare are also at risk, she added.

“If Homeland Security was to suddenly go out and start hunting them down, you’re talking about hundreds of workers in Ithaca gone,” Lee said.

Another controversial aspect of the bill is the provision for a guest worker program.

Prof. Lance A. Compa, collective bargaining, law and history called the House Bill “a terribly repressive piece of legislation.”

“Guest worker programs are inherently exploitative and create a second class of workers,” Compa said. “I think that to the extent workers are needed in agriculture they should be invited, and invited to stay if they choose. I think they should have a path to either permanent residency or citizenship.”

Vargas-Mendéz agreed saying, “I have seen several cases here in town where the husband or the wife is sent away with their kids, and those are not the kind of programs that help. I believe that if an immigrant comes, does hard work, respects the law, pays taxes, and is [an] active and productive member of our community [he or she] should have a path to citizenship.”

There is no consensus as to what should be done about U.S. immigration policy, but Compa pointed out, “We can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube now and deport 12 million people. I don’t want to live in a country where the government packs up 12 million people and ships them out.”

Vargas-Mendéz noted that no bill would be able to solve every issue associated with immigration, saying, “Without being involved substantially in solving issues [of] poverty, inequality and injustice in most of the world we will continue to have a population coming to this region looking for better opportunities to make a decent living.”

Archived article by Mariel Bronen
Sun Staff Writer