In the last week of September, Enrique Morones, founder and Director of Border Angels, came to Ithaca, NY and spoke at the First Unitarian Church of Ithaca. Border Angels is an organization that advocates for the rights of migrants and runs innovative programs, like water drops in the US-Mexico border area, to help prevent unnecessary deaths in border crossings.
We had a chance to sit down with Enrique and discuss the role of universities in advocacy, and some of the overlap with challenges faced by the Cornell Farmworker Program.
Christian Elliott: What is the relationship between advocacy organizations like Border Angels and academic institutions?
Enrique Morones: We work with students to produce research on what is myth and reality with migrants. For example, undocumented migrants paid 27 billion USD in taxes last year and are much more likely not to be criminals. Those things are very important thing for people to know; one of the most difficult and challenging things is to get that message to the correct audience.
When I’m talking to Tucker Carlson Or Laura Ingraham on Fox News, for the majority of the audience, I’m the devil and I’m not going to sway them at all. But the people who haven’t made up their minds hear the facts and think, “I didn’t know that”. That there isn’t a line that migrants can into, that 11,000 people have died in border crossing attempts since 1994 and that there already is a wall on the US-Mexico border. So the research is invaluable. It is very important, and you have to have the source.
CE: What’s the balance in advocacy work with regards to empirical evidence and human stories?
EM: You have to know your audience. It’s very important. There are certain audiences; all they are going to care about is the academic aspects of issue, otherwise the faith-based aspects, etc.
I try to mix in a little bit of the story telling. But If the audience if Fox news, there’s certain things I’m not going to say, because it will just shut them out even more. I’ll still give the same message, but just deliver it in a different way.
CE: Could you talk a little bit about the parallels between the work of Border Angels and the Cornell Farmworker program?
EM: It is an honor to be back at Cornell and to work with Mary Jo Dudley again. She does tremendous work as you know. When I started my work back in 1986, it was also with farmworkers. In my case, I went to the canyons of North County, San Diego where there were migrant farmworkers living outdoors. Because it was a very wealthy area, there was no housing for them there. That is how Border Angels got started; to offer care to people who had suffered and sacrificed. We continue to serve that community.
California is the 5th most powerful economy in the world and is the country’s largest agricultural producer and exporter. About 85% of the workers in California’s agricultural sector are undocumented. New York, like California, is a border state and has a significant migrant farmworker population. They don’t think of the border patrol and ICE in New York, but its 100 miles from a foreign border. When we go to the farms upstate, I appreciate even more the work that Mary Jo and the students are doing to advocate for farmworkers rights.
CE: Some of Mary Jo Dudley’s work has highlighted a strong awareness among farm owners that migrant labor status has a big impact on the economic viability of agriculture in New York State, and that most new Yorkers believe that migrant workers have a positive impact on the state. Do you see a similar awareness in California?
Unfortunately no. In California, often times you see the exploitation of the farmworkers. You see the lack of adequate payment and conditions, even with something as simple as being able to use the restroom or having water to drink. There were seven or eight deaths last year where people died when they were working because they couldn’t get something to drink. That’s outrageous. And even though we have great advocates, United Farmworkers etc., not enough has been done. They’re not treating them with dignity and respect. You see sexual abuse, terrible working conditions; you see the lack of housing. That’s got to change, through stricter penalties on people that abuse, having more just laws, more unionized farmworkers, and having society at large realize the importance of the farmworkers. So the public will say, “hey wait a minute, I’m not going to buy that food product if they don’t have better conditions for their workers”.
CE: Do you think there’s more to be done in terms of raising awareness and uniting coalitions for states that have significant migrant farmworker populations?
EM: I think we should do more of that coalition building and team building to find out best practices. When you find out about the successes practices of programs at Cornell or the challenges in other areas, we can learn from that; it helps avoid re-inventing the wheel.