When neighbors need help

Nelda Holder’s story on child labor [“Two Boys, Two Worlds,” Sept. 22] told a moving and disturbing story about two young boys whose lives are desperate enough to leave them open to being exploited in a variety of ways by unethical people. Over the last three years, I have volunteered as an outreach worker with Vecinos Farmworker Health Program, and I have witnessed multiple examples of the same situation: Children—some as young as 6—working in the fields 10 or more hours per day picking tomatoes, or working in laundry services, cleaning businesses and landscaping. They, too, are the child laborers, hidden in the shadows, forced to work to feed themselves and their siblings.

Vecinos reports child labor to the appropriate authorities whenever it is encountered, and this has led to a much-reduced incidence in our service area. However, it does still occur and often goes unchecked. When our program’s actions result in the loss of these child laborers’ jobs, we then turn to churches and community civic organizations to help provide food, clothing, medical care and living necessities for the families. As communities, we do not have to stand by and watch the horrifying practice of child labor continue.

Knowing firsthand the stories of immigrants in our community, I also know that many in the general public are resentful of “the illegals” being here. The target of that resentment is most often Mexican immigrants, although there are undocumented immigrants from other countries as well. Fear, anger and resentment of Mexican immigrants are most often grounded in xenophobia, ethnocentrism and racism. If people better understood the factors leading to the rise in immigration from Mexico, they might be more sympathetic and recognize our collective culpability in allowing free-trade policies (NAFTA and CAFTA) to pass without trying to understand what far-reaching effects those policies might have.

Yes, our immigration system is broken. Our free-trade policies allow the people of poor nations to be exploited and harmed. Individuals and corporations within our nation encourage and profit from the exploitation and abuse of undocumented immigrants. It is certainly not as simple as: “Those illegals should be deported.”

Broader changes in policy will not happen overnight. Until those improvements can be achieved, however, we have neighbors here in WNC whose situations are critical and whose needs for help and advocacy are immediate. Undocumented immigrants are without a voice. However we, the citizens, do have a voice, and until it is all straightened out on a national level, our response must be one of genuine understanding and compassion. If you or I were to walk for a time in the shoes of an undocumented immigrant in this country, we would hope for nothing less for ourselves.

— Timothy Rall

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