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Amy NanneyAmy Nanney

Life in the Shadows: Willamette student examines undocumented Latino workers

To most of us they're invisible--the migrant farm workers who harvest our berries, pick our apples, cut our Christmas trees; the brown-skinned busboy who makes dirty dishes disappear; the dark-eyed girl who freshens the linens at our get-away bed and breakfast. They're undocumented workers--so-called "illegals"--from Mexico, Central and South America who come here to find work to feed and support their families with jobs that often pay less than minimum wage. For Amy Nanney, an honors graduate of Rogers High School in Puyallup, Wash., who recently completed an intimate narrative study of six undocumented workers, these "illegals" have become a source of inspiration.

Nanney, a senior majoring in Spanish and Latin American studies at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., recently presented the findings of her narrative study to an enthusiastic group of about 100 guests at the University's Hallie Ford Museum of Art. The project, entitled "La Vida en Sombras (Life in Shadows): Chronicling the Lives and Struggles of Undocumented Mexican Immigrants," was supported by a $2,500 Carson Undergraduate Research Grant Scholarship. The narrative study, excerpts of which are reprinted here, paints a vivid and often grim picture of life in the United States for undocumented workers.

Rogelio, 27, sometimes feels lost, caught between two worlds. On one hand, he's from Mexico, the people he works with speak Spanish and he lives in an apartment complex inhabited mostly by Mexican immigrants. Yet, in the eight years he's lived in Oregon, he's developed a personal attachment to the United States. He speaks English reasonably well, watches American television, and enjoys American food. But when he walks out on the street, he knows he doesn't fully belong.

Nanny first became interested in the lives of undocumented workers in high school when she taught English to a migrant Latino family in Puyallup, Wash. "I realized many of the problems this family faced were due to their immigration status," she recalls. "One of the daughters, who was 13, was getting straight A's in her math classes in school. But because she was undocumented, I knew she wouldn't have the opportunity to go to college."

Last year, a five-month work-study trip to Ecuador helped Nanney become fluent in Spanish and intensified her interest in the issue of undocumented workers. When she returned to the University, she began volunteering at CAUSA, a statewide immigrants rights coalition. "I was interested undocumented workers, but, like many Americans, I didn't really understand the issues," she says.

One of the biggest misconceptions about undocumented workers, she says, is that they take jobs away from American workers and use up vital services. In fact, a number of studies by the U.S. Department of Labor show that migrant workers take difficult, low-paying jobs such as farm work that few Americans want. In many cases, these jobs don't even pay minimum wage. The money these workers earn is taxed, but, because they don't have valid papers, they are often unable to use government services. In fact, undocumented workers in the U.S. pay more than twice in taxes what they consume in services. Even Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, has noted that undocumented workers in the United States "contribute more than their fair share."

The work Juan can get isn't great. Without legal documentation, he can't apply for really good jobs, only ones where he works a lot and gets paid a little. Still, any job is better than no job. He doesn't speak English and hates it when people look at him like a sad dog or ignore him. What really irks him is how he pays taxes, but the government tells him he cannot receive any of the benefits.
Another misconception about undocumented migrant workers is that they'd rather live in the United States than their native countries. Even Nanney says she struggled with this. "At first I thought, of course they want to live here," she recalls. "When I realized most of them come just to work, I felt insulted and wondered what's wrong with our country that they wouldn't want to live here. Then I realized that when I went to Ecuador, I didn't want to live there. These people come here because they want to feed their families."

After more than 10 years in the United States, Rosa speaks only a little English. Despite her many years here, she still wants to return to Mexico. She knows there are many more opportunities here than in Mexico, but it doesn't feel like home. Here her culture is rejected and her place in the community is constantly questioned. She doesn't feel part of American society.

Americans also have difficulty with the fact that many migrants don't adopt the language and culture of the U.S. "Many of these people think they're only going to be here temporarily," Nanney explains. "Why would you adapt to our culture if you don't plan to stay? Of course, the longer they stay, the more they change, especially the children."

Nanney found that discrimination is something most of the undocumented workers regularly experience. However, because they have no legal status, they usually don't complain to authorities.

Gloria leaves while it's still dark and she arrives in the field when there is just enough light to see the red barriers she needs to harvest. Soon enough, the intense summer heat will leave her feeling weak and dehydrated. For now, the cold is welcome. [She says] the supervisor treats them like animals, not like people. She can't comprehend this. They are working his fields, for his profit, but he can't treat them with respect. When the heat becomes unbearable and Gloria's fingertips are scratched from thorns and stained red with juice, they stop for the day. For seven or eight hours of work, she has earned $12.

Nanney says working with CAUSA and doing the narrative study taught her that there's no simple solution to the problems undocumented workers face. While workers are only paid a few cents a pound to harvest produce, for instance, farmers are struggling to make a living and consumers want to pay the lowest price. "I want to be able to say this is what should happen and this is why it should be this way," she says. "But it isn't that simple. There isn't one concrete solution."

Despite no single solution, Nanney says her work with undocumented workers has changed her in positive ways. This holiday season, she shopped for gifts at places like 10,0000 Villages where items are priced fairly to ensure workers receive reasonable compensation for their craft. She buys fewer things she doesn't need and tries to buy things that have been handmade. "You can't be part of the solution unless you're willing to change your lifestyle too," she says.

Perhaps the biggest change for Nanney is that her life has a clear direction. Some of the interviews she conducted will be used in a CAUSA film promoting worker amnesty. After graduation, Nanney plans to use her bilingual skills to help the Latino community. "I realize how much I love these people and how much I want to work with them," she says. "I also I know that I can't just work for people, I have to work with them. Change will only happen when we work together."

For more information about CAUSA, call (503) 363-1895 or log onto www.open.org/~mano/eng_causa.html