Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Feudal Fern

Feudal Fern:

Mobilizing Migrants in Pierson, Florida

The small farming town of Pierson, Florida ceremonially casts itself as the “Fern Capital of the World.” Fern is locally grown and commercialized widely, often used as a decorative item on floral arrangements. Pierson’s seemingly innocuous distinction as a leading fern producer is belied by the bleak working conditions of the mostly migrant work force that toils tirelessly in its fern farms. On a recent visit to Pierson, SDS members and a group of interested students stood by one such farm as SDS-veteran Beto explained this reality. Migrant farm workers, mostly from México and Central America, work for cheap wages, stooped for long hours carefully selecting the plant, often paid by the piece. Exposure to pesticides is common while protection for the farm workers is as virtually non-existent as the presence of labor regulators in Pierson. With seldom bathroom breaks, women working in the fields report a high incidence of urinary tract infections, while expectant mothers sometimes toil under such conditions late into their pregnancies.

Considering that Pierson is a majority-minority community, comprised mainly of its Latino workforce, the stakes of politically mobilizing the local migrant population are higher than ever. Last year’s midterm election witnessed the first Latino to run for city office in Pierson history. Tony Ramos, the son of Mexican migrant farm workers, ran an unprecedented campaign for a city seat, galvanizing a significant voter turnout but falling a handful of votes shy of a historic victory. Now more than ever, Ramos sees a need for building on that momentum and views favorably local efforts at Latino political mobilization. Speaking to student volunteers there to coordinate a citizenship drive among local migrant residents, Ramos said that oftentimes all these citizen-eligible migrants need is some guidance and encouragement to sift through the naturalization process and the immigration bureaucracy. “It is important to have [Latinos’] voices heard”, Ramos stated. After all, these are Pierson lifelong residents with U.S.-born and raised children. As Ramos soberly stated: “we are a force and we are not going away.”

Meanwhile, local residents interested in learning about the citizenship acquisition process began to arrive. As he received bilingual pamphlets and other informational material regarding naturalization requirements and procedures, one man commented: “it’s urgent for us to do this because one day policymakers may decide to throw us all out,” alluding to the growing anti-immigrant political climate spreading through Florida and other localities throughout the U.S. Echoing earlier comments, another women underscored the importance of having Latinos exercise their political rights as a collectivist motivation for her attempt to seek U.S. citizenship. Another woman reported having two citizen-eligible persons in her immediate family. She recounted an earlier failed attempt at naturalization by one of her relatives, who was denied citizenship with the following words from the immigration officer: “I decide whether you become a citizen or not.” Feeling dejected, that person is hesitant to make a renewed attempt at naturalization. Despite experiences of bureaucratic inconsistency and institutional discrimination, there was an overall sense of optimism among the group. When asked whether becoming naturalized U.S. citizens meant having “divided loyalties” between their home and host nations as the critics of dual nationality have argued, one man tellingly remarked: “rather than detaching from one country, we are becoming attached to both.” By democratically participating in the political life of both their country of residence and of origin, these migrants are, in practice, exemplar transnational citizens.

- Compañero Adrian Felix

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