Migrants just want ‘to live together with love’
By Joyce Duriga
Catholic News Service
In his legendary 1906 book “The Jungle,” Upton Sinclair chronicled the dangerous and harsh working conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking plants.
He told of how immigrant workers coming to this country seeking a new life and prosperity worked long hours in harsh and often deadly conditions for little pay and endured abuse, corruption and discrimination.
Shadows of that world exist in areas of America today as immigrant workers staff farms, dairies and meat-processing plants doing backbreaking labor for low wages while enduring violence, intimidation and fear of deportation.
Auxiliary Bishop John R. Manz of Chicago visited some of these workers in Alabama Oct. 21-24 on a trip sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church in collaboration with the Birmingham Diocese. It was Bishop Manz’s 10th such visit.
During this trip, Scalabrini Sister Myrna Tordillo, the secretariat’s assistant director for pastoral care of migrants, refugees and travelers, and Sister Karen Bernhardt, a Sister of the Humility of Mary, from the Catholic Migrant Farmworker Network joined Bishop Manz in visiting workers at tomato farms and chicken processing plants in rural Alabama.
Many of these workers stay in one area for several years instead of moving to follow the harvest seasons because they have jobs in processing plants. Those who have been in the area for a while usually live in trailers or modest homes. In some cases, there are also extended family members in the home. The children attend local schools, while the parents work. Many are undocumented.
There also are “bachelor hovels”–– groupings of rundown trailers where single men live.
In Steele, located in the eastern part of Alabama, tomato farmworkers are young and old, male and female. They pick tomatoes seven days a week during the peak of the season. This work is mostly done by people because machines are only used to pick tomatoes that will be processed.
Workers make $2 a box and a young worker can average about 200 boxes a day, clearing about $2,000 a week. But the work only lasts a few months. The workers are on the job from 8 a.m. until sunset sorting tomatoes by size and color once they are picked.
In some cases, farmers spray the fields with pesticides while the workers are in them, which can cause illness and even long-term health damage for the workers.
In 2011, the state of Alabama passed a strict anti-illegal immigration law that caused many undocumented immigrants to flee the state. This hurt farms and other businesses dependent upon migrant workers because the owners reported that Americans wouldn’t work these jobs, with their harsh conditions, for low pay.
That year, many tomatoes and crops died in the fields. The immigrants are starting to return but not quite at the numbers that they once were.
A federal court later issued a ruling that gutted the law, and earlier this year the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the state’s appeal of that decision. In October, the state agreed not to try to restore key provisions of the law.
Bishop Manz spends much of these visits listening to the stories of the workers. He makes the pastoral trips as a member of the U.S. bishops’ Subcommittee on Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees and Travelers.
Often the workers experience tragedy and hardship just getting to the U.S., only to find their struggles have just begun.
Some workers who have found their way to Alabama have fled dangerous conditions in their home countries; this is especially the case among the growing number of Guatemalans living and working in Alabama. Continuous violence and strife in that country leads many to flee.
A group from the San Sebastian region of Guatemala lives in Boaz, where many of the men work in nearby chicken processing plants in eight-hour shifts doing often dangerous work for $7 or $8 an hour.
On Oct. 23, Bishop Manz celebrated Mass in an old gas station converted into worship space that is home to a community of about 80 people with fervor for the faith. When they entered the makeshift church, many of them genuflected toward the altar before progressing further into the space.
Spanish isn’t the first language for this group. They speak a Mayan dialect. Because of this, they tend to stay even further under the radar and that makes them harder to reach, even for the church, said Bishop Manz.
“Let’s say the bishop does all he can to get somebody to work with the Spanish-speaking people. Then he finds out these people don’t even speak Spanish. Who do we get for them?” Bishop Manz said in an interview with the Catholic New World, newspaper of the Chicago Archdiocese. Two staffers from the paper accompanied him on the trip.
Right now there isn’t a priest in the nearby parish who can minister to these Guatemalans. They used to have one who would come to the chapel once a month to offer Mass, but he was transferred. The Diocese of Birmingham is working on replacing that priest.
Sebastian Francisco is a member of this Guatemalan community and has lived in nearby Albertville with his family for four years. He works at the Tyson chicken plant cutting the wings on the chickens from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. five days a week.
He has been in the U.S. for 26 years and has worked in other parts of the country, including Illinois and Tennessee. Unlike some of his friends, Francisco is documented. His father sent him to the U.S. when he was just a teenager because there was a war in Guatemala and his father was receiving threats.
He said he is happy his father sent him to this country because he is free here, but he would like to see his people gain more acceptance especially from the Catholic community.
“We just want to live together with love in this country,” he said through an interpreter.