PITTSFORD — Paul Finkelman repeated the statement often repeated during any discussion on immigration in America: "We are a nation of immigrants."
And that statement is true of every person in the United States unless one is Native American, the human-rights attorney told the 200 people gathered for his presentation on immigrant rights Oct. 6 at John Fisher College.
He also asked audience members to think about the history of U.S. immigration in a different way. The history of American heritage, Finkelman explained, is one based on the stories of "losers" — at farming, at political power and economic strength. Those losses, however, often were due to circumstances beyond their control, he noted.
The flip side, Finkelman continued, is that these "losers" took big risks — often on long ocean journeys in storage on leaky boats — to reach the American dream of creating a successful future for their families.
"In fact, we are not losers in a sense … but we’re a people who faced circumstances where migration made the most sense," he said. "Those who were not willing to take a risk in the end suffered greatly."
He gave the example of his own aunt who returned to Poland in 1945 with more than 20 visas from Canada for her relatives and begged them to return with her. Because they were unwilling to take the risks, he said, sadly only two of the relatives survived the Nazi death camps.
"So when we look at the problem of the people who come to the United States today, rather than seeing them as different than we are … we should actually be looking at them and seeing that they are exactly like us or like our ancestors," Finkelman said.
The Greater Rochester Coalition for Immigration Justice sponsored the talks led by Finkelman, a professor of law and public policy and a senior fellow at the Government Law Center at Albany Law School. Finkelman also spoke at Monroe Community College.
Jim Wood, an associate professor at St. John Fisher, said this issue is an important and overlooked piece of our economy.
"Farmworkers are the civil rights movement of our era," he said. "We need to fight all the battles that need to be fought."
Finkelman is familiar with the Rochester area as he grew up in Watertown and his parents retired here for "the warmer weather," he joked. He also explained his personal connection to the debate, as both of his own grandfathers first arrived in the country illegally — one walked over the Canadian border as a tourist and met up with family in New York City, and the other lied about his age so he could get a job.
"I’m the face of illegal aliens," he said.
And just as undocumented immigrants continue to take risks to cross the border to make a living, the persecution of immigrants has persisted throughout American history due to the color of their skin, the accents they speak with or their native languages, Finkelman added.
"But one thing we know is that the American economy has been built on immigrant labor, whether that was building the subway system in New York with Italian immigrants or whether it’s mining coal with Welsh and Italian and Slovenian immigrants in Pennsylvania," he said. "Always the complaint then is that (these) people are taking jobs from real Americans."
And that discrimination continues with teachers not being promoted in Arizona if they speak with a heavy accent, he added, and Alabama passing "draconian laws" regarding immigrants even though immigrants comprise only 4 percent of the state population.
"What is it in our society that on one hand we have politicians saying they’re in favor of families, being pro-family, but on the other hand round up people and separate families of undocumented workers from their American children," he said. "There’s something very wrong with a society that persecutes people with the least amount of resources to work with and working as hard as these people are."
Gary Orbaker, who owns a fruit farm in Williamson, said migrant workers are essential to agriculture. He attended Finkelman’s talk as part of his support for the AgJOBS Act (Agriculture Job Opportunities, Benefit and Securities Act). The federal bill would create an "earned adjustment" program, which would allow undocumented farmworkers and temporary guest workers to obtain temporary immigration status based on past work experience, with the possibility of becoming permanent residents through continued agricultural work, according to www.fwjustice.org/files/AgJOBSPolicyBrief5-09-FINAL.pdf. It also would revise the current H-2A temporary worker visa, which has many restrictions and involves a lot of paperwork, noted Orbaker.
"A guest worker (program) is the true answer so people can go back and forth," which H-2A does not allow, he added.
Under AgJOBS, if a neighboring farm needed extra help or if he needed extra workers during harvest season, the farms could employ each other’s workers, Orbaker noted.
"They have to be able to move freely," he said of migrant workers.