Conocimiento 2011 – Knocking Down Myths on Immigration

Guestblogged by Mewa Singh

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This past week members of the College Sikhs Collaborative and the Jakara Movement – created the first Alternative Spring Break – explored the issue of immigration by visiting so-called ground zero – the Mexi/Cali border. While the surge of the Tea Party movement has helped bring nativist sentiments to the fore, the Sikh-American response on the issue has been largely muted. In 2006, we saw huge protests calling for a more open immigration policy, led largely by our Chicano/a and Latino/a brothers and sisters. As is too often the case, Sikhs, who are also directly affected by issues of immigration – both documented and undocumented – remain passive bystanders to the national debate. [For those that do not know about the increasing number of Punjabi undocumented workers – including over 1600 that were caught and detained in 2010 alone, see the LA Times article ] Even worse, is some Sikhs even support candidates that have borderline racist views on such issues. While groups such as Sikh Coalition and SALDEF have tacitly supported the cause of immigration cause, it is a shame that we have not been more vocal. Without standing with others (especially on those cases where we have a self-interest!), why should anyone stand with us on the issues we care about?

Day 1 – Orientation Our trip began with an orientation with our partner organization – Border Angels.

From their website they describe their activities:

Founded by Enrique Morones in 1986, Border Angels is a non-profit organization supporting humanity. The organization consists of extraordinary volunteers who want to stop unnecessary deaths of individuals traveling through the Imperial Valley desert areas and the mountain areas surrounding San Diego County, as well as the areas located around the United States and Mexican border. The high percentage of unnecessary deaths have been results of extreme heat and cold weather conditions, in addition some have sadly been the results of racial-discrimination crimes. Steps Needed To Be Taken Spring and Summer Months: With horrifically hot temperature conditions, hundreds of rescue stations are located along the ten state US Mexico border region. Temperatures reaching as high as 127 degrees, water is critical for survival. Volunteers maintain stations throughout the spring and summer months. Fall and Winter Months: Critical life-saving stations are established throughout the San Diego Mountain areas. Winter clothing, food and water are placed in winter storage bins to help decrease negative health results from being exposed to the incredibly freezing temperature changes that exists in the San Diego County mountain areas during the Fall and Winter. Awareness and Support Educating citizens and government dignitaries on the status of weather related deaths and racial-discrimination crime deaths is crucial in gaining support in the volunteer, donation and jurisdiction areas. Border Angels are proud supporters of Equal Rights.

On the first evening, we designed crosses for the ‘unmarked’ grave that we were to visit the next day in Holtville, CA. We received basic information, met some key people in the organization, and went over the agenda for the following few days. Joined by groups from De La Salle High School (Concord, CA), students from UC Berkeley, and students from the University of Oregon, we were eager to set out on our trip the next day. Below you can see some of the crosses that were constructed, each written with the following words: “No Olvidados” – “Not Forgotten” Photobucket

Day 2 Beginning early in the morning, we set out from San Diego towards the Imperial Valley. Off the highway, Border

Angels’ founder and inspirational head, Enrique Morones, showed us areas in the canyons that migrants often traverse – miles along rocky and desert terrain all for a better life. He gave us personal anecdotes of the people he has helped, met, and learned from along the way. We left humanitarian items, including water, along the path for any wayfarer. In the tradition of Bhai Ghanaiya, none should be thirsty. Unfortunately, we also saw the work of so-called ‘Minute Men’ come and slice water bottles and destroy aid left by good samaritans.

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We then left to Holtville, CA a small city to the east of El Centro. In Holtville we visited a cemetery. While in the front of the cemetery, one would find the tombstones, grass, and flowers expected. In the back of the cemetery is what is called the ‘potter’s field.’ There hundreds of people, most often unidentified, are give their final burial place. The city sends the bodies there. It is the largest unmarked mass burial site in the United States. Over 700 people have been buried there since 2010 alone. Most are only marked by a brick that reads ‘John/Jane Doe’. As described earlier, in the years ahead, many of our own Sikh brothers and sisters may wind up there. Miles away from home, falling along the way with no word ever being sent to their loved ones back home. As Jaswant Singh Khalra reminded us, uncertainty is the worst hell. Border Angels helps place crosses on these spots, so that while we may not know the names of the men and women, collectively they have not been forgotten.

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From the cemetery, we drove to Jacuma, CA, a village along the Mexi-Cali border. Along the way, we made a quick stop at the Gurdwara at El Centro, a historical Gurdwara documenting early settlement of the Sikhs in California from the early part of the 20th century. It was the second Gurdwara founded in the United States, after the first in Stockton, CA. The PBS-aired documentary, Roots in the Sand, explored the early Punjabi-Mexican community of the Imperial Valley. David Dhillon, a descendant of this pioneering Sikh community, was a former mayor of El Centro.

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Our day ended along the border wall. We attempted to speak with Border Patrol officers, but they seemed less than keen on having a discussion with us.

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Day 3 Again, our day began early in the morning. This time we visited the local Home Depot. There, we met Alfredo and a number of day laborers. We made sandwiches and lunches. With a generous smile and shake of hands, they expressed their gratitude and thanks. We heard their voices and heard their stories. No political slant, no political rant, just the amazing stories of people that are willing to risk life and limb for a better life for their families. Myths were dispelled and barriers broken down. Here are some of the most common:

Immigrants dont want to learn English

  • The development of English proficiency among non-English speaking immigrants today mirrors that of Nineteenth and early Twentieth century immigration, when masses of Italian, German, and Eastern European immigrants came to America. While first generation, non-English speaking immigrants predictably have lower rates of English proficiency than native speakers, 91% of second generation immigrants are fluent or near fluent English speakers. By the third generation, 97% speak English fluently or near fluently. (Source: Shirin Hakimzadeh and DVera Cohn, English Usage Among Hispanics in the United States, Pew Hispanic Forum, Dec. 6, 2007.

Immigrants Dont Pay Taxes

  • Undocumented immigrants pay taxes. Between one half and three quarters of undocumented immigrants pay state and federal taxes. They also contribute to Medicare and provide as much as 7 billion dollars a year to the Social Security Fund. Further still, undocumented workers pay sales taxes where applicable and property taxesdirectly if they own and indirectly if they rent. (Source: Immigration Policy Center, Undocumented Immigrants as Taxpayers, (November 2007)

Immigrants Increase the Crime rate

  • Recent research has shown that immigrant communities do not increase the crime rate and that immigrants commit fewer crimes than native born Americans. While the undocumented immigrant population doubled from 1994 to 2005, violent crime dropped by 34% and property crimes decreased by 32%. Furthermore, Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson has found that first generation immigrants are 45% less likely to commit violent crimes than Americanized, third generation immigrants. (Source: Immigration Policy Center, mmigrants and Crime: Are They Connected, December, 2007)

Immigrants Take Jobs Away from Americans

  • A recent study produced by the Pew Hispanic Center reveals that Rapid increases in the foreign-born population at the state level are not associated with negative effects on the employment of native-born workers. In fact, given that the number of native born low wage earners is falling nationally, immigrants are playing an important role in offsetting that decline. The Urban Institute reports that between 2000 and 2005 the total number of low wage workers declined by approximately 1.8 million while the number of unskilled immigrant workers increased by 620,000, thus offsetting the total decline by about a third. (Source: The Urban Institute, Trends in the Low-Wage Immigrant Labor Force, 2000-2005, March, 2007,

These myths and others can be dispelled at the Border Angels website, here. After 3 days of having our eyes opened to the importance of immigration reform and the plight of undocumented workers, the Jakara Movement and College Sikhs again are planning to open a Border Angels chapter at UCLA and other interested campuses, implement an Adopt-A-Home Depot program to aid day laborers, collect medical materials, and begin translating forms like ‘Know your Rights’ cards into Punjabi and other helpful information for distribution through the Gurdwaras. For first-hand accounts from case studies of Punjabi undocumented workers in Germany, read this dissertation from 2010. If you have been moved by this report, desire to travel with us next time we visit for an alternative winter break, are generour to donate to the Border Angels, or want to get involved – contact us through the Jakara Movement web page and we will put you in contact with our fledgling project coordinators. I strongly request members of our community to become involved in these issues of social, political, and health justice.


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13 Responses to “Conocimiento 2011 – Knocking Down Myths on Immigration”

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  2. h s says:

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