What do we want to Grow? What are we Growing?
At YWCA Madison, we embrace Growth as one of our core guiding values. This means that we know that learning and unlearning is a forever-journey that requires us to practice awareness, courage, compassion, and creativity. It means that we must nurture practices and feedback systems that promote clear-seeing so that we can know the truth of our current condition and best discern what we want to build on, what we want to leave behind us, and what new ways of being we can engage that have yet to be co-created.
In a society constructed by white supremacist and patriarchal ideologies, we must acknowledge the existing narratives that tell each one of us who we are, who we are supposed to be, and who matters. These narratives would have us seeing and believing only within their limited scope. To move beyond these narrow narratives, we must learn to see one another and listen to one another in a way that allows us to become available to each other for support and care.
In order to see and hear each other in this way, we must embrace the discomfort of not knowing, and the guarantee that we will make mistakes along the way. When we accept the ongoing nature of the growth journey, every aspect of new evolution–including difficulty and the complexity of suffering–becomes an opportunity for transformation.
Where we put our energy and attention determines what will grow. We get to decide what is most important–what to center and intentionally cultivate. We also must pay attention to what is currently growing, and decide if it is what we want–if it serves our highest potential.
As one way of pursuing clear-seeing, in what follows, we will explore another aspect of our COVID-19 existence and the paradigm of plunder currently shaping us and restricting our possibility for growth and transformation.
Endless Extraction: How immigrant workers are made invisible and expendable while being essential
If there was ever any doubt that we have built a society in which power and economics have been placed at the center of our social order, then the experience of this pandemic (and the conflicts that have arisen out of it) have put that doubt to rest. The public conversation in many other nations experiencing COVID-19 impacts has largely revolved around public health, safety, and the suffering resulting from the virus. In the United States, the conversation has had a different focus. From nearly the beginning of coronavirus impact, the public discourse has frequently been about the “cure not being worse than the disease,” in effect, weighing human suffering against the market and other economic impacts, and choosing to prioritize profit.
The same principle of putting the economy before human life has continued to manifest as we have seen protests against, and disregard for stay-at-home orders sweep across the nation. These demonstrations have been largely made up of white people.
This system of valuing profitability and exploitation of labor has deep roots in the United States. The practice of profiteering from the oppression of humans and the endless extraction of labor formed the foundation of our economic order. From the system of chattel slavery of people abducted from Africa, to the exploitation of Chinese laborers and other migrants of Asian descent beginning in the 1830s, to the more current order in which people from primarily Mexico, Central, and South America labor in frequently exploitative and sometimes brutal conditions–extraction has been an essential component of our social structure. In our current reality, this truth is the most stark when it comes to our societal unwillingness to see immigrants without legal status as part of the community to be cared for, while simultaneously being fully willing to benefit from their labor and essential contributions.
The COVID-19 public health crisis is creating many challenges for immigrant workers and their families. An estimated six million immigrants are in essential jobs at the frontline of the response to this pandemic. They work in industries such as health care, grocery and pharmacy retail, manufacturing, cleaning and janitorial services, and agriculture. An additional six million foreign-born workers are employed in industries that have been hard-hit by business closures. These include food service, travel and hospitality, personal services and private household work, and building services.
In many of these contexts, people performing essential duties such as farmwork, food packing (and other packing and manufacturing jobs), and domestic care are putting their own lives at significantly higher risk so that others can eat, be cared for, and stay at home. People in these industries are much less likely to be able to work at a safe distance from one another, have access to necessary sanitation measures (such as handwashing stations on the job), or be provided with appropriate personal protective equipment.
This disproportionate risk is exacerbated by the fact that if immigrant workers get sick, they are much less likely to have protective benefits such as sick pay, and are much less likely to have health insurance. Fear of high medical costs and general anxiety about accessing services in a xenophobic culture make it so immigrant workers are less likely to access healthcare supports, increasing the impact on the virus for them and others around them.
In March, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act–a $2 trillion stimulus bill to provide economic relief and health care options amidst the growing COVID-19 pandemic. However, the bill falls short of meeting the most basic health care and economic needs of millions of Americans, including immigrant workers and families who are on the frontlines of caring for our communities during this pandemic.
Families with mixed immigration status also don’t qualify for stimulus checks. There are approximately 16.7 million people in the U.S. who have at least one person in their household without status, and an estimated 5.1 million children–more than 80% percent of whom are U.S. citizens—live in a household with at least one undocumented parent. This exclusion from COVID-19 relief is happening despite the fact that immigrants without documents collectively contribute an estimated $11.74 billion in state and local taxes each year. We are willing to exploit immigrant labor, and then discard, detain, or deport people once we have used them up.
Another way that federal policy is shaping impacts for immigrants is related to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Since the Trump administration announced in September 2017 that it was ending DACA, several lawsuits were filed against the administration for terminating it unlawfully. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the cases in November 2019. In April 2020, the Court agreed to consider a new filing that argues the Trump administration’s decision to terminate the DACA program should be blocked in light of the pandemic. As was said in the letter to the court: “Health care providers on the front lines of our nation’s fight against COVID-19 rely significantly upon DACA recipients to perform essential work…termination of DACA during this national emergency would be catastrophic.” The Supreme Court is expected to decide on the lawfulness of DACA no later than June 2020.
Exploitation at the federal level can be seen again in the hypocrisy that, on one hand, President Trump announced on Twitter that he would suspend immigration to the U.S., while on the other hand, the State Department has loosened the restrictions for processing H-2 applications in order to address labor shortages in the agricultural industry. H-2A visas are seasonal permits that tether laborers to their employers, must be renewed every year, and offer no path to residency or citizenship. We are willing to let people migrate here, if it means that food will be harvested for our consumption, but we’re not willing to let people stay or establish a supported and free life here. We are willing to capitalize on the labor and resources provided by immigrants, but we’re not willing to welcome immigrant communities of color with equitable retribution for their contribution to the ongoing unfolding of our history as a nation, as we have with mostly white immigration in the past.
People have the Right to Migrate
The history of humanity is the history of migration. Migration has (and will continue to) shape culture around the world. In the case of the United States, migration is one of the central components of our story. This story has often been inhumane and brutal. It has also shaped who we are. Due to genocide and continued erasure and oppression, Native Americans make up less than 2% of our population. When we remove the minimum estimation of African Americans that are descendants of people who were enslaved–they did not migrate here; they were abducted and brought here–this means that around 87% of people living in the U.S. are here as a result of migration.
Migration often arises out of a desire to pursue a better, or different life. Out of an aspiration to seek new opportunities, to connect with new people, or to reconnect with loved ones. This is a human right. This right is likely one that you have experienced. Think for a moment: Have you ever moved to a new place? Have any of your family? Did any of your recent ancestors? What were the motivations and reasoning for making the choice to make this move? What were you/they moving towards? What were you/they moving away from?
Migration can also sometimes arise out of necessity. Many of the people that have migrated to the U.S. would have unquestionably preferred to be able to stay in their home countries but did not have a real choice to be able to do so. The specific reasons people are trying to escape are various. It could be a need to escape violence: violence from war, governmental tyranny, gang violence, or domestic violence. It could be a need to escape abject poverty that makes it impossible to be able to imagine a future for their children. In the case of Central and South America, the United States is significantly responsible for the presence of many of these conditions. Whatever the reason, the choice to flee is a painful one. People do not leave their homes to travel thousands of miles over dangerous terrain to a country whose government is actively hostile to their arrival unless they have very good reasons to do so.
Migration supports growth. In fact, looking at it from the lens of the economy, numerous studies have shown that immigration has an overall positive effect on the American workforce and wages for workers.
Migration is beautiful. It shapes culture and innovation. Migration is a human right. Any imagined future should hold these truths as elemental, and form public policy accordingly.
A Moment of Profound Opportunity
As Arundhati Roy has said “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks, and dead ideas, our dead rivers, and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
The fact of the matter is that our current reality, which has been constructed by patriarchal and white supremacist ideologies, doesn’t work. In this setup, we are not able to meet even the most basic needs of the people within our society. The excessive exploitation and endless extraction required to continue the current system has reached its limit.
One of the lessons that we can take from this experience with COVID-19 is to notice the reification that we had engaged in the “old normal”– to notice that the things that we had previously thought of as solid or immovable, actually aren’t. We collectively changed almost everything about our world basically overnight in ways that would have seemed unimaginable four months ago. Our concepts of what work looks like, how we communicate with one another, what is possible in the realm of education, how we hold events, how we contribute to pollution, and what is needed for a healthy economy have all been turned on their heads.
All of the norms and components that we have treated as immutable have been exposed as what they truly are–constructions of our own making. (Importantly, in the context of what we have been exploring here, national borders are also a construction of our own making). This means that we can construct a new reality. A reality that is more just. More humane. A reality that honors the sacred nature of our co-existence. We get to decide who gets to be seen and what gets to be valued.
In order to grow into new possibilities, we need to ask ourselves:
Who do I see as being within my personal circle of concern and care? Who am I most likely to see? Who am I most likely to listen to?
Who am I most likely to dehumanize? To invisiblize?
What is this experience of COVID-19 revealing to me about our society? Moving forward:
What do we want to build on? What do we want to conserve about this experience?
What do we want to leave behind us? What isn’t working?
What new ways of being can we co-imagine and co-create?
How might we start to build structures that are based on the things that we value?
In the spirit of growth through coalition, as an organization, we also stand with movements that we see working to respond to our entrenched extractive realities, as well as imagine and build a better future such as:
The Latino Consortium for Action (LCA), Voces de la Frontera, Freedom Inc., Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, United We Dream’s Coronavirus Resource Hub for the Immigrant Community, National Immigration Law Center, The National Domestic Workers Alliance, One Fair Wage, the ACLU’s and National African American Reparations Commission’s movement for Reparations, Mayor Michael Tubb’s Universal Basic Income Program for Stockton, CA residents with low incomes, The Leap (a community of people who believe we must act on this crisis to build a better world), First Nations Development Institute, and Define American.
Another way that you can take action to support a more just world today is to demand that Congress give COVID-19 Relief to everyone living in the U.S.–Immigrants Included.
You can also send a message to your members of Congress urging them to support H.R. 40, a bill that would set up a commission to examine the institution of slavery and its impact and make recommendations for reparations to Congress. Thank you for growing with us. We wish you collective safety during this time.