Story and Photographs by David Bacon
OAXACA, MEXICO — The Oaxacan Institute for Attention to Migrants, and its director Rufino Dominguez, called for a new era of respect for the rights of migrants, in commorating the International Day of the Migrant in the Palacio del Gobierno, Oaxaca’s state capitol building. Representing the newly-elected state government, Dominguez paid tribute to the contributions of the braceros, the first of Oaxaca’s migrant workers to travel to the United States. from 1942 to 1964, and to the women who cared for the families they left behind.
Around the balconies of the palacio’s courtyard hung photographs showing the lives of current migrants from Oaxaca, working as farm laborers in California. Migrant rights activists, artisans and public officials spoke about the important role migration continues to play in Oaxaca’s economic, social, political and family life. The state, in southern Mexico, is the source of one of the largest waves of migration from Mexico to the U.S.
Dominguez, the former coordinator of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, which organizes indigenous migrants in both Mexico and the U.S., was appointed director of the IOAM by Oaxaca’s new governor, Gabino Cue Monteagudo. Cue defeated the PRI, the party that governed Oaxaca for the previous 80 years. In an interview with David Bacon, Dominguez described the different road the new government is taking to ensure social justice for Oaxacan migrants today:
We can’t tell the U.S. government, or the governments of California and other states, to respect the rights of our people who are living there, if we ourselves are not respecting the rights of migrants here in Oaxaca. Many migrants passing through Oaxaca from Central America and other places suffer systematic violations of their human rights.
Have we just paid attention to migrants in the U.S. because they send dollars home? Sometimes the problems of migrants within Mexico are even greater than those we have in the U.S.
Oaxacans are also migrants within our own state, like those who work in the coconut palms on the coast. About 30,000 Oaxacans migrate for work without leaving the state, and we’ve never paid attention to them. Another 300,000 live in Mexico City and states in the north, like Sinaloa, Sonora and Baja California. The Institute hasn’t paid attention to them in the past either.
And we’ve never consulted the people who actually live in the U.S. about our activity there, or asked for their opinions. We want a different vision, a more level or equal relationship where we’re not dictating policies because we’re the government, but asking people for their input and opinions.
Our starting point is to understand the need for economic development, because the reason for migration is the lack of work and opportunity in people’s communities of origin. If we don’t attack the roots of migration, it will continue to grow. There’s a fear of investing in our own people, but there’s no other way. We have to have economic development, and respect for the human rights of migrants as they come and go.
We also have to tell people about the risks of migrating. In Durango and Tamaulipas they’ve found hidden graves of many migrants, and the surprising thing is that the big majority killed with such cruelty are Mexicans. It’s not just a risk to cross the border into the U.S. You’re risking your life migrating here in your own country.
People also need to understand that the economic crisis in the U.S. hasn’t gotten any better. When you get there, your chance of finding work is worse than ever, and there’s a lot of competition for jobs.
So we have to work on implementing the right to not migrate, while protecting the ability to migrate safely, making sure that people’s dignity and human rights are respected.
In March alone, four thousand migrants were sent back after trying to cross into the U.S. That tells us that there’s still a huge number of people trying to cross, and that the number isn’t getting any smaller. The economic pressure on people to migrate, and the violation of human rights on the border, are still part of our reality. Migrants are raped and beaten, and recruited into criminal gangs. Over 300 Oaxacans have disappeared, and we don’t know if they’re alive or dead. Their families haven’t heard from them. Our state is responsible for them, along with the Federal government.
Yet we don’t accept responsibility for the economic development that could change it. This silence is a disgrace, at the same time we’ve become so dependent on the remittances migrant send back to their families.
The labor of migrants in the U.S. has been used throughout history.
They tell us to come work, and then when there’s an economic crisis, we’re blamed for it. They accuse us of robbing other people’s jobs, and our rights are not respected. These new state laws in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Arizona and elsewhere are not just anti-immigrant but inhuman. Meanwhile, the current U.S. administration has hardened its policy of detaining and deporting immigrants unjustly, which accomplishes nothing. In IOAM we feel like we’re just shouting at the wall — they don’t hear us.
I don’t believe that a program of guest workers or braceros will resolve these problems of migration. First, it perpetuates a dependence on remittances. We also know from our experience with the bracero program in the 1950s and 60s that these programs don’t work.
We have many former braceros who are still fighting to get the 10% of their wages that was withheld during those years. Current H2A and H2B programs give people a work visa, but the rights of workers in these programs are not respected. Often they aren’t paid legal wages, they live in terrible conditions in substandard housing, and they have no right to organize or make demands on their employers.
With a green card, or residence visa, people migrating have some security. That doesn’t exist with a guest worker visa or crossing with a coyote. If people’s rights are violated, if they’re not paid adequately, if they can’t earn Social Security to allow them to eventually retire, then this system is worthless. It’s just producing throw-away workers, whose labor gets used but who have no benefits. So why are we talking about more programs that fail to respect human and labor rights, and which don’t guarantee housing, education and healthcare?
If we begin by talking about rights and decent wages and conditions, maybe we can see a way forward. But if it’s just “come sell your labor” with no respect for your rights, these programs are worthless.
The governments of both Mexico and the U.S. must prioritize human and labor rights.
We will work with everyone. We are a government of everyone. We say, we are all Oaxaca, with a government for all of us. So we have to implement this idea in practice.