When Salma Anguiano '22 was 13, her father - an undocumented Mexican immigrant - was involved in a catastrophic farm accident that left him paralyzed. It also ignited a passion in his daughter to fight for immigrant workers' rights.
"After the accident happened, the worker's comp organization and insurance company were very hesitant to cover any medical expenses or take on his case, because they said they needed to check on his Social Security and all this other stuff," Anguiano said.
Anguiano took it on herself to research whether her father was, in fact, entitled to workers' compensation. She discovered that Oregon is one of 13 states that requires employers to cover seasonal agricultural workers to the same extent as all other workers.
"I shared the information with the social worker, and that allowed us to proceed with the insurance case. If I hadn't taken that initiative, we would have had no choice," she said. "Going through this experience has shown me how inequitable the system is. Something had to be done about it."
What she decided to do was rewrite the laws.
Now a first-year student at Whitman College, Anguiano teamed up this year with Ameliz Price-Dominguez '22 to draft a proposal for new federal legislation prohibiting discriminatory practices and ensuring the rights of all U.S. laborers to workers' compensation, regardless of citizenship status.
The duo sent their proposal to Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden as part of the national Letters to an Elected Official Competition, presented by Project Pericles. In late March, Price-Dominguez and Anguiana tied for first place in the contest.
Whitman's Student Engagement Center (SEC) joined the Project Pericles network just two years ago, and this was the first year Whitman has participated in the annual competition. Project Pericles is a higher education consortium that promotes civil engagement and social responsibility. Tying for top honors was an amazing accomplishment for the first-year, first-generation/working-class students. According to Jan Liss, executive director of Project Pericles, students who compete for the first time - especially first-year students - rarely do this well.
"This is truly unbelievable coming from a first-time school, and for two first-year students," Liss said, noting that the overall quality of the letters submitted this year was very high.
Anguiano learned about the Project Pericles contest from the SEC. She asked Price-Dominguez, a first-year student from Phoenix, Arizona, and active advocate for civil rights, for help with the project. Both are active members of the Associated Students of Whitman College (ASWC) Diversity and Inclusion Committee, as well as Borders as Method, Womxn of Color Voices and First Generation/Working Class.
"Our purpose was to make people aware this issue exists," Price-Dominguez said. "Undocumented people are treated as cheap labor. Most immigrants have no access to health care. Employers know there are no repercussions, so there's no incentive to create a safer working space."
Unlike Oregon, 16 states do not require employers to provide any workers' compensation insurance for migrant or seasonal farmworkers.
For placing in the top 5 of the contest, Price-Dominguez and Anguiano attended Project Pericles's Debating for Democracy Conference March 28-29, 2019, at the Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School in New York City. Also representing Whitman at the conference were Mayrangela Cervantes '20 and Lizbeth Llanes Macias '21, and SEC Director Noah Leavitt.
The conference gave nearly 100 students from the 31 colleges in the Project Pericles network an opportunity to meet policymakers, activists, journalists and other media agents and community leaders.
"My goal for the future is to be a lawyer for the ACLU, and the president of ACLU was there. I was blown away by the experience," Price-Dominguez said.
For the final round of the competition, the students defended their proposals in a legislative hearing format in front of policy leaders, including former Under Secretary of Education in the Obama administration Martha Kanter.
The Whitman students share their first-place win with a team from Pitzer College in Claremont, California. This was first time in the 15 years of the competition that the judges split the top prize. The students took home $2,000 to use toward implementing their policy proposal over the next year.
"When we found out we won, we just started crying. As students of color, it was very meaningful to have our work be appreciated and to be given the opportunity to create real change," Anguiano said.
The pair plans to use the funds for travel expenses to Salem, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., where they hope to put the advocacy training they received at the Debating for Democracy conference to use and present their proposed legislation in person.
"Face-to-face meeting is more valuable when you have such a powerful story that is so personal," Anguiano said.
Locally, the students plan to partner with immigrant rights groups and present informational sessions on workers' rights for the Hispanic community.
"We need everyone's participation and attention to raise awareness about this issue. People must understand how valuable this new legislation would be on a human level," Price-Dominguez said.
"My dad was lucky," Anguiano said. "Other people get deported or flat-out denied. I wish more people would recognize that this is happening."