Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Lowest Rung on the Immigrant Ladder: Sheepherders in the West

Probably the worst conditions of immigrants in the U.S. are South Americans brought in legally as H-2A temporary workers to herd sheep in the West -- known as "borrequeros". Even undocumented field hands in the Central Valley of California have better pay, living and work conditions and treatment from employers. And that's not very good! Those recruited for herdding -- roughly 1,500 -- suffer isolation as well as poor working conditions and long hours. Basques use to be recruited for this lonely work, but as prosperity blessed the Basque country ranchers turn to Chile and Peru. The pay is generally better -- for what that is worth -- then back home. But the work conditions are unconscionable. The shepherd tends the flocks -- in the hundreds and thousands -- alone and for 24/7. They live is small huts called "campitos" with no running water, toilets, electrify and minimal heat. The winters are arctic and the summers stifling. Food easily freezes or spoils. The program that allows ranchers to recruit the borregueros is not efficiently run nor carefully supervised. The workers are not included in federal protections as regard to hours and wages. Their visas do not allow them to change jobs or employers. They are virtually held in bondage. Advocacy groups in the Western states are trying to improve the working conditions of borrequeros through state legislation. Ranchers, arguing that the the sheep-raising industry has declined drastically in the last few decades, see any improvements as a death knell. (See New York Times article.)

The New York Times has editorially charged the Immigration and Customs Enforcement of Hoimeland Security with "bad" enforcement of the country's immigration laws. They should have used stronger terms like "jug headed", "wasteful", "inhuman", "cruel" or even "masochistic". Aside from the foolishness -- even corruption -- of the "enforcement first" strategy, it's not working. The desperate still come. But The Times, musing on recent reports, argues that the policy is bankrupt. The Pew Hispanic Center (see posting for Feb. 18) reported that federal jails are filling up with Latinos, most of whom are not charged with crimes or are so charged as pretext to moving them quickly out of the country. Even enforcement is not honest, since the The Times notes the reports that ICE supervisors -- seemingly under pressure from the White House -- had a "quota system" for rounding up the undocumented. The money being was suppose to be used to apprehend "alien fugitives"or criminal aliens. Being this country without proper documentation is still not a crime.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on Wednesday of the case of an East Moline, IL, man charged with identity theft. He's an undocumented Mexican steel-worker who used the Social Security number of a real person to get work. He was charged with identity theft which can lead to a two-year prison term. ICE uses the threat of the charge to get undocumented workers rounded up in factory raids to submit quietly to deportation. The East Moline worker had lost in lower courts and it now appealing to the Supreme Court. He is basically challenging ICE's application of the law -- not enacted specifically for immigration cases -- and claiming he did not know the number belong to a real person. Previously he had used a totally fictitious number. (See Washington Post article.)

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