Class to dispel myths about immigrants


American Ethnic Studies and Leadership Studies will be teaming up for a new intersession course beginning in summer 2012. The course will involve cultural awareness and service learning projects involving Latino migrant workers in the American southwest.

The idea for this course began with Jonathan Berhow, academic counselor for the Academic Assistance Center. Berhow said he had wanted to start a course like this for some time to raise awareness and dispel myths about migrant workers from Mexico and other countries who come to the United States for work. Migrant workers take many risks in coming to the U.S. for work, including deportation, prison or even death.

“If your family lives here, what’s a month in prison?” Berhow said. “If you’re willing to risk your life crossing the desert, surely a couple of months in prison isn’t a deterrent.”

Berhow and four students traveled to Tuscon, Ariz. and San Diego over Thanksgiving break to visit several organizations involved in helping migrant workers. One of the organizations, No More Deaths, is a nonprofit organization that helps migrant workers in part by taking food and water out into the desert to save them.

Berhow said hundreds of migrant workers die each year because the fences surrounding populated areas force them to cross the Sonoran Desert, where they die of thirst in the summer or freeze to death in the winter.

They also visited a court in San Diego and watched about 70 arrested migrant workers be tried for entering the country illegally. Some were sent to prison.

Watching the proceedings had an impact on several of the students. Ivone Damian, senior in elementary education English as a secondary language, said she began to shake uncontrollably from the emotion.

“I didn’t want to cry, but I couldn’t hold it back,” Damian said. “These people are not criminals.”

Falguni Vankar, freshman in computer engineering, said one of the men who pleaded with the judge for leniency had crossed the border illegally to visit his child who was having a birthday. The judge gave him 108 days in jail and the man asked for less time so he could go see his family afterwards. Vankar said he didn’t seem to understand they would be deporting him back to Mexico after he served his time.

“It was just something I never thought of,” Vankar said. “I’ve always lived with my family, so I never thought about how it would feel.”

Damian related to the prisoners on a more personal level. Her father was a day laborer in California when she was very young, and although she did not remember his days of landscaping and picking strawberries, seeing the workers firsthand was emotional.

“It gave me an appreciation of what my father did and how it impacted me as a person,” Damian said. “I think sometimes we don’t appreciate the work these people do for the U.S.”

The article “‘We’re all parasites.’ This is Operation Streamline” by Max Blumenthal details the court proceedings that Berhow and the students witnessed. Operation Streamline was introduced in 2005 to deter undocumented immigrants from entering the country by keeping records of their entries, but the program has failed to achieve this and instead funnels millions in taxpayers’ money into private prisons and the court systems. According to the article, the number of public defenders has nearly doubled in Tuscon since its inception.

Vankar said it appeared the prisoners did not understand what was going on, but said “yes” to the crimes because they were told to, a sentiment shared by Blumenthal’s article.

Berhow said many people feel anger or disgust with illegal immigrants because they focus on the “illegal” part and ignore everything else.

“People in need hear someone is getting something for free, especially someone who is ‘not one of us,’ and it drives them crazy,” Berhow said.

Berhow said migrant workers benefit the U.S. economy more than they impact it negatively. He cited the article “Five Myths About Immigration: Common Misconceptions Underlying U.S. Border-Engorcement Policy” by Douglas S. Massey, Ph.D, which states that 66 percent of Mexican immigrants pay into Social Security here in the U.S. and 62 percent pay income taxes, but only five percent use food stamps, welfare, or unemployment compensation. Berhow said immigrants also pay sales tax on anything they purchase and do other things to benefit the economy.

Damian said she understood the United States’ desire to help other nations, as she, herself, has helped communities in Haiti and El Salvador, but often the media portrays the worst-case scenarios in these countries. Damian said her boyfriend is from Africa and while there are people suffering there, Africans are more resourceful than people give them credit for.

“I think it’s interesting how the U.S. wants to go to other countries to help the people and villages when they could be doing that right here,” Damian said.

For more information on the planned intersession course, please contact Jonathan Berhow at [email protected]