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AFL-CIO Now

AFL-CIO: We Stand in Solidarity with Migrant Workers

Photo courtesy of Favianna Rodriguez.

The first edition of “We Stand in Solidarity with Migrant Workers” appeared on the AFL-CIO Now blog in 2010.  

Dec. 18 is International Day of Solidarity with Migrants and marks the date the United Nations adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

To commemorate this day, we have compiled personal stories of the immigrant experience at the AFL-CIO. As you’ll see, our colleagues’ collective experiences are a tapestry of the immigrant experience. Our co-workers have come to the United States from around the world for a variety of reasons—to escape war and repression, to work, to feed their families back home, to study and to marry.

ANA AVENDAÑO, President’s Office

I was born in Chile, the eldest of four daughters. When I was 11 years old, in 1973, my parents came home from work one day and told us we were leaving for Canada in a few days. Chile was very politically and economically unstable at that time. There were constant protests on the streets, sometimes very violent ones. We couldn’t go to school on most days, and because of a nationwide truckers’ strike, the grocery stores and markets were empty. Everything was sold on the black market. What I remember most vividly from my childhood is standing in line for hours with my sisters and my grandmother just to get a quart of oil and a chicken, then going home, changing clothes (so we wouldn’t be recognized as violating the “one-per-family” limit), and doing it all over again.

That was a scary time for us. My parents were very politically active and my grandfather had been a member of one of President Allende’s cabinets. The day that my parents announced that we were leaving, my mother told us that she was certain that there would be a coup soon because a patient of hers—the wife of a striking truck driver—had offered to pay her in U.S. dollars. We left shortly after that, and the coup took place a month later. Canada took us in as political refugees and we lived in Montreal for a few years, along with several other displaced Chilean families. We moved to California in the early 1980s; I moved for college, and my parents for their jobs.

I went back to Chile for the first time in 1988, at the time of the first plebiscite that would eventually put an end to Pinochet’s 16-year reign of terror. There will always be a part of me that feels that Chile is home, just like a part of me will always feel that Montreal is home, and now Washington, D.C. That’s part of the immigrant experience—there is no static concept of belonging.

JENNIFER ANGARITA, Organizing Department

Jennifer Angarita came to the United States from Colombia when she was 13 months old. Like many immigrants, her parents came in search of economic opportunity and political stability—after escaping a tumultuous civil war in Colombia. They settled in Texas, where Jennifer lived the majority of her life and attended public school K–12. For years, her parents worked several low-wage jobs trying to provide for her and her brother—but always emphasized the importance of education as a tool for liberation.

In May 2010, she graduated from Yale University, becoming the first in her family to attend college and to hold a college degree. Her brother, a U.S. citizen, is now a freshman at Columbia University.

Growing up in an immigrant neighborhood in Texas, Jennifer became exposed early on to the harsh realities of many immigrants in the United States today. Because of an overly bureaucratic and inefficient immigration system, it has taken more than a decade for her family members to regularize their status. Her story is a reminder of the broken system of immigration that plagues the lives of hundreds of thousands of working families here today. As a first-generation immigrant, Jennifer is passionate about the intersection of immigrant and workers’ rights and believes any approach to immigration reform must respect the humanity and dignity of all immigrants.

GLENDA AVILA, Facilities Management

Glenda, born in Honduras, is a proud U.S. citizen. She came to the United States as a teenager—like nearly all immigrants, in search of a better life. Her family had to pay a coyote $6,000, an astronomical amount for a family of little means. The trip from Honduras was long. She spent 12 days in the trailer of a 10-wheeler, along with 50 other people, and then walked through the desert at night, for days. She found a good union job when she arrived in Washington, D.C., and has been a union member for more than a decade. She fell in love, married and regularized her status. She became a U.S. citizen because she wanted to vote. She is very proud that her first vote was for President Obama.

Glenda loves her life in the United States. “Here, hard work lets you make a better life for your children,” she said. In Honduras, she saw her family work long, hard hours, but there was no future there. “I am very happy and thankful to be here in the United States and working here at the AFL-CIO. I am always asking God to send showers of blessings to this building,” she said. We are very lucky to have her.

MAUREEN COLLINS, Media Outreach

Maureen came to the United States in 1987 after the brutal murder of her younger brother in her home city of Kingston, Jamaica. Distraught by the loss of her brother, Maureen left Jamaica for the United States. For six years she worked as a caregiver for the elderly in Potomac, Md. This was a significant lifestyle change for her; in Jamaica, she was in the upper middle class and employed people to take care of her kids and home. In the United States, she became a live-in caregiver herself. In 1996 she became a naturalized U.S. citizen, and has worked at the AFL-CIO for 11 years.

KATRINA DIZON, General Counsel (2012 story)

Katrina was 3 years old when she and her family migrated to the United States from the Philippines in 1986. Like most immigrants, her family chose to leave a country plagued by economic instability, government corruption and poverty in search of the American dream. Unfortunately, the road to that dream was filled with several challenges.

After coming on a tourist visa, she and her family became undocumented immigrants for several years before finally gaining legal permanent residency. “I remember that my mom had a difficult work environment but didn’t have the luxury of leaving her employer. My family couldn’t even leave the country to visit our family back home.”

This past August, Katrina became a U.S. citizen and voted for her first time. “I have always felt like somewhat of an outsider in the U.S. But when I got sworn in, when I cast my very first ballot, all I could think about was my parents’ sacrifice and what all immigrants sacrifice every day to just be given a chance in this country.”

Katrina currently works in the general counsel’s office of the AFL-CIO and also serves as DC Chapter president and National Executive Board member of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), where she continues to be a voice for immigrant workers and a staunch advocate of comprehensive immigration reform.

ELIANNE FARHAT, Minnesota AFL-CIO (2012 story)

Elianne was the first in her father’s family to be born in the United States and the family’s first American citizen. Her father emigrated to the United States from Lebanon in the early 1980s—leaving behind family, friends and a homeland ravaged by war for the American promise of peace and prosperity. He wasted no time taking full advantage of all the United States had to offer a young man by enrolling in college and dating the woman who would one day be Elianne’s mom. But, as the war escalated and the Lebanese economy crumbled, his parents’ ability to support him abruptly ended and a fierce urgency to move them to safety set in. And so, with a mix of fear, hope and love, they began the almost 20-year process of first Elianne’s father, then her grandparents and finally her uncles, aunts and cousins coming to America.

Coming to America, particularly in the post-9/11 climate, has not been without its challenges for Arab-American families and communities like Elianne’s. However, even with challenges like longtime neighbors shouting, “Go home!” to employment discrimination to unfair profiling, the American promise of opportunity that brought Elianne’s father to this country has shone brightly through the toughest times. Elianne’s father never finished college but with strong public institutions and living wage jobs to support his family, and by never missing an opportunity to flex the infamous entrepreneurial Lebanese spirit, he has continued to further open the door to the American promise of hope, peace and prosperity for his four children and extended family. His unwavering belief in the promise of America drives Elianne to make sure we live up to that great promise for everyone —whether they are new to this country or have been here for generations.

WALTER FERRAYRA, Information Technology

Walter arrived in the United States at the end of a yearlong holiday he took in his 20s, traveling up the two American continents by land. Born in Argentina, his grandparents had immigrated there from the western African country of Cape Verde in search of work. When he finally arrived in the United States, he had nearly run out of money from his trip.

His plan was to take English classes and work just long enough to be able to pay for a flight home. After enlisting in English classes, he decided to get a student visa, and soon received a green card through the lottery system. He went on to get married and have two children. Nine years ago, Walter became a naturalized citizen. He is a senior technical support specialist at the AFL-CIO, where he has worked for nearly seven years.

NORMA ITZ, President’s Office

Norma settled in the United States for love. In 1977 Norma visited New York on a vacation from her native Peru. There, she met a young Dutch man named John. They fell in love. Norma went back to Peru and John visited her there often. About a year later, they married and Norma arrived in the United States as a young bride. She has been working with President Trumka for more than a decade, and she makes the best alfajores in all of Washington, D.C.

FRANK KOUAME, Solidarity Center

“In 1979, when I was 3 years old, my family moved to England from Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa. We moved with my father, who was sent to England to fill a diplomatic post in London. Throughout my childhood, we followed my father’s job to various European countries, including Switzerland, Germany and France. In 2002, I came to the United States to enroll in Virginia Tech’s MBA program, and I chose the United States because I wanted to experience something new. I chose labor because the job somewhat matched my skills and interests and because, coming from France, I already had a favorable view of unions. My parents often travel back to Cote d’Ivoire to visit family and friends, but I do not. It is difficult for my family to get together because we are scattered all over the world.”

THEA LEE, President’s Office

My father was born in a small town in southern China, in Guangzhou province. He came to the United States with his father when he was 7—leaving behind his mother and three sisters, whom he didn’t see again for more than 30 years. He was brought up by his grandparents in Boston’s Chinatown, while his father remarried and moved to Washington, D.C. His grandfather owned a grocery store in Chinatown. His grandmother seldom left the house, as her feet were bound, and it was painful for her to walk. My father went to Boston Latin and then the University of Michigan. He became an architect, a professor of urban studies at MIT, and the director of Capital Planning and Operations for the state of Massachusetts. He met my mother, the daughter of Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants, in New York City, and they eloped to Rome, where he had a Fulbright scholarship to study architecture.

My great-great-grandfather came to the United States to work on the railroad in the 1800s, and his family went back and forth between China and the United States for the next couple of generations. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, most Chinese women couldn’t come here legally at that time, so the men went home to marry and start families. That is why my father was born in China—even though he was legally a U.S. citizen, as his grandfather was born in the United States or at least we legally established this in a New York court.

IANTHE METZGER, Media Outreach Fellow (2012 story)

My father was born in Sierra Leone, Africa, and my mother in Trinidad and Tobago. In the late 1980s, they both moved to the United States to further their studies and met at Howard Dental School. During their time in America, they gave birth to three daughters before moving back to Trinidad to open a dental practice and work for the government in health clinics around the island. Intelligent and hardworking, my parents always emphasized that education gave you options, and taught us the value of having American citizenship, as the immigration process is extremely broken.

I returned to the United States as a freshman at Georgetown University in 2008, and became involved in worker justice through the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and Working Poor at Georgetown University and a campaign with UNITEHERE! to organize the dining hall workers at my school. Through these programs, I worked closely with the low-wage immigrant worker community, and learned more about how they are consistently taken advantage of in the workplace and not protected by labor laws. I started the Media Outreach Fellowship at the AFL-CIO in June 2012, because I am passionate about advocating on behalf of workers and telling the stories of those involved in the labor movement.

NEHA MISRA, Solidarity Center

Neha was born in Miami to immigrant parents from India. She remembers her father telling the story about how he arrived in the United States for a medical residency on July 4, 1964, always symbolic to him as his Independence Day. His three kids were always a little skeptical about the historical date of his arrival, but when he died two years ago, they found his original passport, which sure enough had July 4 stamped in it by U.S. Immigration. Her parents raised their three children to care about their community and the world. Neha has fond memories of watching with her father as Walter Cronkite reported the international news; her father would teach her lessons about politics, war, poverty and other major issues of the day. She knows that her love of food comes from her mother’s homemade Indian cooking, which was always used as a way to welcome family and friends into their home.

Like many immigrants, Neha’s parents saw education as the key to their children’s success. Her father would say he knew he would never leave his kids with a huge inheritance, but he would leave them with an education that would take care of them all of their lives. Her mother said she wanted to ensure her two daughters were just as well educated, confident and able to take care of themselves as her only son so they could always stand on their own. When Neha speaks to local taxi drivers of Indian descent in Hindi, they always tell her to thank her parents for instilling their culture in their daughter. All three of the Misra children were community activists, and Neha knows her work on migration issues as part of the global labor movement is a direct result of the influence and values of her immigrant parents.

GONZALO SALVADOR, Media Outreach (2012 story)

For many immigrants, the road ahead always leads to what they left behind. The irony in the lives of many people who have left their native countries revolves around an infinite loop, which consists in departing and returning, between memories and hope, and between the striking reality of necessity and the unreal complacency of wishful thinking. Any person who is resigned to leave their childhood memories behind, standing in a place hidden by walls, rivers and absurd ideologies, will immediately recognize this unique yet widespread feeling.

On this day, when we commemorate those of us who are constantly migrating, I will focus not on those memories that I left behind, but on what I have learned so far in this journey. Above all, after residing for most of my life in this country, I understand that the day when I return, if that ever happens, I will be a different person. My friends and family will be gone, and by then I’ll realize that the day when I left my birthplace, I renounced my identity, not to search for a better life, but to find myself. We constant travelers will always feel affinity with late singer Facundo Cabral’s song “No soy de aqui, ni soy de alla.” And how right he was! 

 HECTOR SANCHEZ, LCLAA

Hector Sanchez came to the United States from Celaya, Guanajuato Mexico in 1994 to attend college. He wanted to study political science, have the opportunity to learn English and get to know and better understand the United States. He came with only basic English skills and remembers being frustrated as he struggled to complete college-level courses in a foreign language. Still, he worked hard, graduated with honors, and went on to earn a master's degree and teach at a college level. “I think that the immigrant experience lights a sort of spark within you. You push yourself to work harder to succeed, to stretch yourself and to make a life for yourself in your new home, you give the best of you. Similarly, immigration provides a spark of inspiration to the United States as well. Here there are so many unique combinations of peoples, ideas and cultures coming together. I have no doubt that the country is really stronger and better because of it. It is sad to see how it has become acceptable to dehumanize immigrants lately.” Today, Hector is  executive director of the AFL-CIO constituency group LCLAA, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, where he works to advance the labor rights of Latino workers, some of whom are the most vulnerable workers in the nation.

LUIS SANTOYO, Media Outreach Fellow (2012 story)

Luis was born in Tijuana, Mexico, and was in some ways raised on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, between stays with relatives in suburban Southern California and life in a working-class neighborhood of northern Tijuana. After finishing high school south of the border and having been granted U.S. permanent residency, he enrolled in community college in “el otro lado” (the other side), where he quickly found healing from culture shock in the study of English and American literatures. He completed his bachelor’s degree studies at Yale University in 2010.

His earliest memories are of traveling on board a bouncy “calafia” (a kind of public bus in Tijuana) on his way home from grocery shopping with his family and of the smell of the freshly mowed lawn wafting from the front yard of his grandmother’s Santa Ana, Calif., home.

His personal story, which may also be told in Spanish, is one of countless examples of the myriad complexities and anti-dogmatic tendencies of life in the borderlands, especially the U.S.-México borderlands. 

ANNA STUART, Field Department

Anna Stuart grew up in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. She came to the United States in 1988 in search of a better life. Although her mother-in-law already lived in the United States and had petitioned to get her and her husband green cards, she was anxious to move to the United States quickly to give her 6-year-old son a better life with more opportunities than were available to him in the Philippines.

Anna then came to the United States on her own with a tourist visa. She soon found a job with the Sudanese embassy. Through that job she got an A-visa for diplomatic staff, which allowed her to work. That visa also allowed her to bring her husband and child to the United States to live with her, but it also tied her to the Sudanese embassy. If she left the job or was fired, she would lose all of their visas and have to return to the Philippines. Also, her husband’s visa didn’t allow him to work in the United States, which meant she was the sole provider for her family, which was especially difficult as the Sudanese embassy paid her only $500 per month, significantly below the minimum wage.

In 1990 Anna moved to the Singapore embassy, which paid her better. Still, she was worried about holding on to her job, since her visa still tied her to the embassy. “You can’t sue them. They have diplomatic protections. The bosses can really insult you, and they don’t have to pay you overtime. Still, you have to hold on to what you have when you’re in that position.”

After 12 years, her family’s green cards came through in 1998. She became the executive assistant for the AFL-CIO constituency group the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA). In 2005, her entire family became naturalized citizens. Her son went on to serve two tours of duty in the U.S. Army. He just returned home last month, and plans on going to college soon. Today, Anna works in the AFL-CIO Field Department.

JOHN SWEENEY, AFL-CIO President Emeritus

President Sweeney’s parents emigrated from County Leitrim, Ireland, to the United States in the late 1920s, though they didn’t meet until years later in New York City. They both came in search of opportunity and a better life. His mother worked as a domestic worker for a wealthy family who lived in a beautiful apartment across from Central Park on 5th Avenue. His father worked as a taxi cab driver in Chicago before moving to New York, getting a job as a bus driver and becoming an active member of the very young Transport Workers Union. They married in 1933 and President Sweeney was born just a year later.

“I remember my mother sometimes had to struggle to get the pay she was owed. She would arrive at the home of one of the families she worked for only to find they had moved—giving her no advance notice that she had effectively lost her job. My father, on the other hand, had his union. He would always say “God bless the union,” because it protected him and provided him with decent wages and paid time off. I always felt my mother deserved the same, but domestic workers can’t form unions because they're not covered under labor law. That didn’t seem fair to me.” President Sweeney is a strong supporter of the National Domestic Workers' Movement, a grassroots network of domestic workers who are organizing for better working conditions despite their exclusion from labor law. Domestic workers in New York won the passage of a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights two years ago, which protects domestic workers in President Sweeney’s mother’s state from some of the very abuses she suffered.

RICHARD TRUMKA, AFL-CIO President

President Trumka’s parents fled poverty and war from different corners of Europe—his mother from Italy, his father from Poland. They both came to the United States for the same reasons that immigrants have been coming here for centuries: in search of work and to make a better life. His grandparents and parents settled in Nemacolin, Pa. As he explains: “When I was a kid, there was an ugly name for every one of us in all 12 languages spoken in my hometown—wop and hunkie and polack and kike. We were the last hired and first fired, the people who did the hardest and most dangerous work, the people whose pay got shorted because we didn’t know the language and were afraid to complain. My immigrant roots imparted in me a strong sense of justice and the willingness to fight for equal treatment and justice for all.”

Photo in post courtesy of Favianna Rodriguez

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