Immigration Week 2014 kicked off on Apr. 14 with a host of speakers, sponsored panels and student discussions of issues related to immigration. On Monday, national coordinator of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) Pablo Alvarado came to campus to speak in the Reid Ballroom. His speech centered on the future of immigration reform in the context of the current climate in the United States.
“I have dedicated my life to organizing day laborers and immigrant workers, so I have learned a lot throughout those years,” Alvarado said of his 24 years of activism. “I came here to share those stories in this moment when our country is deciding whether to include or exclude the 11 million undocumented immigrants that are living, loving, raising families, working, toiling in the fields and restaurants and who are – in one way or another – being denied equality.”
Alvarado is an immigrant worker from El Salvador who traveled to the United States to work in order to support a family back home. His activist life started when he decided to volunteer as program coordinator for the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA). He worked there from 1991-95, developing literacy programs for immigrants like him.
“Members of society sometimes view day laborers as a nuisance or a problem,” he said. “But when workers organize and come together, they become an asset to the community.”
Alvarado created NDLON in 2002 in collaboration with around 36 community-based day laborer organizations. NDLON works with local governments to help establish worker centers that provide a safe place for jobseekers. In these centers, laborers learn how to deal with exploitation, improve their skills and gain access to essential services, and thus can informally unionize.
Currently, there are over 70 NDLON centers across the country. Alvarado believes that immigration reform is unlikely to start in Washington, D.C., but that it can occur every day and on a local level. Specifically, he mentioned Whitman’s policy to accept and provide financial aid to undocumented students.
“People believe that immigration reform or justice and equality for immigrants can only take place in Washington, D.C., but to me, it’s the other way around,” he said. “In my view, when [Whitman admits] undocumented students then you have immigration reform right here on campus. So it’s fantastic that rather than rejecting, Whitman College is embracing immigrants. It is precisely what the entire country needs to be doing right now.”
He also believes that the idea of immigration can get neglected within the larger political conversation, and that people forget that those who are affected by the legislation are people as well. Lobbyists paid to advocate for immigration reform in Washington, D.C., for example, often talk about labor shortages and fruit rotting in the trees or on the vines. Alvarado believes it is far more powerful to include stories of the hands that pick that fruit and how long and hard they work to bring that fruit to a population that will not accept them.
“Any fight for justice has to make that suffering visible so people can see it and address it. And the only way to make that happen is when people speak for themselves,” Alvarado said. “Our country is very used to enjoying the fruit of people’s labor without recognizing their humanity. The only way you can turn that around is if you have undocumented people talking about their experiences.”
Within his speech, Alvarado shared a specific story of day laborers that he has worked with, in hopes of personalizing the way that the predominantly white, middle-class Whitman student population interacts with the idea of immigration. He added that there are many things that students can do to help with immigration reform movements.
On the Whitman campus, the Whitman Teaches the Movement program, which sends Whitman students to local high schools to teach lessons on civil rights history, recently added lessons that focused on Cesar Chavez and laborer rights.
“Students are so essential in helping people fight back for more rights," Alvarado said. "If you look at history, students have always played that role. When Cesar Chavez was organizing the fields, it was a bunch of students that came from all over.”
In NDLON centers, students teach English as a second language, share new skills with laborers, and even teach them how to Skype with their loved ones in Mexico and Central or South America, helping them save money on phone bills. They teach younger laborers how to open a Facebook account and set up an email address. He described situations in which many of students have come in as volunteers and have flourished as organizers.