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I was an illegal alien

By Stan Cox
The Prairie Writers Circle

(Thursday, Nov. 21, 2002 -- Cropchoice guest commentary) -- Connie Morris, newly elected to the Kansas State Board of Education, wants to see the children of undocumented immigrants expelled from public schools. The Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that to do so would be illegal, so look out, America: She plans to take her message to Washington.

Here's part of that message: "School-aged children on the streets not attending school would be a clear indication that could lead back to the illegal immigrant parents, which would more easily lead to their deportation, or worse" -- which Morris sees not as bad, but good.

Leading Kansas educators regard Connie Morris as more embarrassment than serious menace. But it's hard to ignore the support she received: 79 percent of the vote in her district, which covers the western 40 percent of the state's land mass. Her only opponent was a write-in candidate -- the board's incumbent chairperson -- whom she had already beaten, 60 to 40 percent, in the Republican primary.

Seeing Morris win, I was at first shocked at the cold-heartedness of my fellow Kansans. Then I thought about how easy it is to ignore the rights and needs of those about whom one knows nothing. And I certainly wasn't able to back up my own outrage with any deep knowledge of what it's like to be an "illegal alien."

That's despite the fact that I was one.

From August of 1999 until May of 2000, I lived in India without a valid visa. I worked illegally, for cash under the table. Through a friend who had "connections" willing to accept a few rupees on the side, I obtained a flimsy piece of paper stating that my application for a new visa was "under consideration."

I was an illegal alien, but I never for a moment experienced the fear or desperation of my counterparts in this country. I was protected by an accident of birth. I was an American.

In March 2000, on a street corner in Hyderabad, India, my daughter and I joined a throng of neighbors cheering President Clinton as he whizzed past in his armored Suburban. In those days, at the apex of the dot-com boom that employed so many Indians, everyone seemed to love Americans -- even undocumented ones like me. I could rest easy knowing I would return to Kansas on my own schedule, not in handcuffs.

For most foreign workers, the road to Kansas is a rough one, right from the start. The Institute for Policy Studies reports that in the first seven years after passage of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, poverty in Mexico grew to include more than half the population, and average manufacturing wages dropped almost 10 percent.

Long-standing land reform and farm subsidy laws have been repealed under NAFTA. Buried under cheap corn from the Midwestern United States, countless Mexican farmers have lost their farms and farm workers their jobs.

Families in need of jobs have migrated, first to NAFTA's heavily polluted manufacturing zone on the south side of the border, and then to places like western Kansas. There, in huge meatpacking plants, they enter a new and different nightmare.

Corporate mergers and technology have taken the cold, filthy, dangerous slaughterhouses of Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel "The Jungle" and turned them into the cold, efficient, somewhat less filthy, and even more dangerous factories of Eric Schlosser's 2001 bestseller "Fast Food Nation."

The Immigration and Naturalization Service's guess is that perhaps 25 percent of Mexicans who enter the United States lack valid visas. Only desperation would lead any person, with or without documents, to work in those chambers featuring deadly knives, feces and blood, with carcasses hurtling past.

Every year, about one out of four meat plant workers has an injury requiring medical attention, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Repetitive-motion pain is almost universal.

The big meatpackers want big profits, and Americans want cheap beef, and we all want someone else to bear the burden.

Someday, we'll replace the meat factory system with a more humane way of producing and processing food. In the meantime, the people whose lives are being sapped by the meat industry should have the same access to public services that the rest of us do.

I lived illegally in India to be near my children after a divorce. And every day across this country, undocumented immigrants keep their own families together and their children in school.

They do it by defying the numbing work, the long hours, the homesickness -- and the politics of people like Connie Morris.

Stan Cox is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle and senior research scientist at the Land Institute, a Natural Systems Agriculture Research organization in Salina, Kan. He holds a doctorate in plant breeding from Iowa State University.