March 26, 2007

City Talks Immigration

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“I think immigration issues are extremely important at this time, and I think the plight of farm workers specifically is something that is ignored,” said Seth Lyons ’09, a student in History 431: Farm Workers.

Lyons’ sentiment is one shared by many in Ithaca and is evident in the City of Ithaca Statement on Immigration Enforcement that was initially proposed in February, then recently withdrawn by the City of Ithaca Common Council.

The resolution states that the City of Ithaca is against measures taken by the U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement agency in “allegedly enforcing immigration laws against non-citizens in the state of New York” and that “the Ithaca Police Department is requested to refrain from participating in the enforcement of immigration laws except when specifically requested by federal officials in relation to particularized suspicion of criminal activity other than the mere presence of an individual in the City of Ithaca.”

The resolution would allow Ithaca law enforcement to defer from participating in “the overbearing, frightening and cruel activities” used to enforce U.S. immigration laws. It also calls on state legislators “to explore means and methods by which the State may assist non-citizens within New York deal with the effects of increased enforcement of immigration laws.”

Ithaca is home to a number of undocumented immigrants who work in local businesses and is surrounded by several counties with farms that employ undocumented migrant workers. This is especially relevant to the University, which boasts a number of resources and activist groups that deal with issues relating to migrant farm workers who could potentially be affected by this resolution.

According to Mary Jo Dudley, director of the Cornell Migrant Program, although “farm workers are in areas surrounding Ithaca and come into Ithaca for shopping and other things, their interaction with the community is limited.” On a state level, Dudley said, there exists “a great deal of tension within the farm workers community, there is a climate of fear, so that restricts how immigrant farm workers feel they can move and interact within the broader community.”

The Cornell Migrant Program is a University-wide program designed to address farm worker needs through education, research and extension. In addition to offering different services to the workers, research projects include surveying the number of farm workers and their immigration concerns. The program also offers summer internships for students.

According to Dudley, even though only four percent of undocumented workers are farm workers on a national level, about 70 percent of farm workers in New York State are undocumented.

“The resolution is an illustration of the broad interest of immigrants, farm workers and others,” she said.

The Cornell Migrant Program now resides in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, but before its move three years ago, it resided in Human Ecology, under Senior Extension Associate Herb Engman, who is now a service learning coordinator for the farm workers course. The course was created to explore farm worker issues on a broad scale, as well as immigration issues, Engman said.

Through lectures, field trips and a service learning project, students learn about the issues facing farm workers, such as the absence of collective bargaining privileges and unemployment benefits. According to Prof. Raymond Craib, history, faculty coordinator of the farm workers course, the course seeks “to break down the invisible barriers between the campus and the surrounding areas” and addresses farm worker and immigration issues “in dealing with how you learn from doing … It’s a lot about practice and combining service work and community activism with intellectual work.”

Besides programs, courses and activist groups on Cornell’s campus, there are a number of organizations in Ithaca that deal with immigrant rights, such as the Immigrant Rights Coalition, which primarily consists of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, the Latino Civic Association and the Catholic Charities. The IRC was created after the “No Human is Illegal” rally on May 1, according to Pete Meyers, director of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center.

The IRC seeks to “provide for the basic needs, protection, support, education and empowerment of local immigrants affected by pending national legislation, as well as to educate and involve our community in this movement. We advocate for the protection of the basic human rights that the rest of us have the privilege of taking for granted,” according to a statement by Cecilia Montaner-Vargas, director of Catholic Charities, and Julie Ann Newman, Tompkins Community Action, in a guest column in the Ithaca Journal.

The City of Ithaca Statement on Immigration Enforcement, which was recently withdrawn due to unclear language, is expected to be back on the agenda in April. Until then, immigration remains a heated topic.

“I think that people have this anti-foreign sentiment where they don’t really look at what farm workers do and what immigrants do and in reality we want them, and let them work in this country so that we can have lower food prices, we basically take advantage of them,” Lyons concluded.