Living without fear

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High school summers for Manuel Ramirez resembled those of many teenagers — he worked with his dad. But what sets Ramirez and his father apart is that, as undocumented day laborers, they were often sent packing without a fair wage when the job was done.

“It was typical,” recalls Ramirez, an international relations and global studies sophomore. “While we worked, the people who hired us called us racist things like wetback or dirty Mexican. And when it came time to pay, they pretended like they didn’t have the money.”

For Ramirez and millions of other immigrants, the exploitative treatment endured by undocumented workers is closely tied to the current push for immigration reform. One out of two construction workers in Texas is undocumented, and problems like wage theft are rampant.

Issues like poor working conditions are often swept aside as the national conversation on immigration reform is dominated by talk of hard-line enforcement. In recent weeks, two marches organized by immigrant rights activists sought to highlight the need for truly comprehensive immigration reform. By putting wage theft and human rights center stage, these Texas activists provide local voices to a national debate.

Ramirez now volunteers with the Workers Defense Project, an Austin-area organization composed of low-income workers fighting for legal rights and job safety. On Feb. 27th, WDP honored undocumented and other vulnerable construction workers who died on the job. The Day of the Fallen had special meaning for Ramirez because of his childhood, and because many undocumented workers refuse to report abuse, assault, wage theft or deadly working conditions for fear they will be reported to immigration authorities. That’s why Ramirez believes Texas is uniquely positioned to incorporate worker protections into the agenda of immigration reform.

“Immigration affects families, students, and people’s homes. What happens to the kids whose parents die on the job? Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S., things are being built everywhere by undocumented workers. We need to care about what happens to their families,” said Ramirez.

He points out that three workers died building a luxury high rise in West Campus a few summers ago and their families struggled to receive compensation. Last summer, another worker fell off a West Campus construction site after his employers failed to provide him with a proper safety harness. For Ramirez, being undocumented should never be a reason for a worker’s death, and Texans cannot turn a blind eye to the people who are crucial parts of local communities.

Esther Reyes is on the front lines of another obscured problem: the human rights violations that accompany strict enforcement of immigration laws. As the director of the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition (AIRC), headquartered at UT’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, she says that a pathway to citizenship represents only one part of the bigger political picture. Strict immigration policies often mean bloody encounters at the border or the systematic criminalization of immigrant families. For example, from 2008-2011, over 2,600 Travis County residents were deported under a criminal migrant program — but more than 80 percent were non-criminals, according the Austin Chronicle. Many were arrested for minor infractions such as traffic violations.

Despite longstanding ties to the community, hundreds of undocumented immigrants are thrown into Austin jails every year. Criminal migrant programs rarely make the news and are not on Congress’ comprehensive immigration reform agenda, Reyes said, but they are responsible for terrorizing immigrant communities and destroying trust between law enforcement and vulnerable migrants.

AIRC is part of a statewide coalition with other activist groups called the Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance. Members of RITA joined business leaders, community members, and government officials on Feb. 22nd to push for accountability in enforcement. RITA emphasizes that humane reform means an end to the militarization of the border and to criminal migrant programs.

As the state with the longest border with Mexico, Reyes said, “Texas is sending a unified voice for humane immigration reform to D.C. Our priorities include keeping families together, respecting human rights and civil liberties, and promoting community security by holding government officials accountable.”

During the Texas Legislature session two years ago, Reyes, Ramirez and their activist groups worked to defeat over 80 bills that would harm the immigrant community. This year, they marched to the Capitol and told stories of children taken from their parents or workers who died because of irresponsible employers, and the pressure is even higher.

Ramirez knows the eyes of Texas and D.C. politicians are on Austin: “The way immigrants are treated is not just an immigration issue. It’s about not risking your life to put food on the table for your kids. [Comprehensive immigration reform] would allow people to contribute to pay taxes, contribute to the economy and not live in fear of deportation or violence.”

Athar is an anthropology senior from Houston.