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Social justice for Latino immigrants is social justice for everyone

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by Theresa Delgadillo, Assistant Professor, Ohio State University

In the area of Latino/a Studies, which I teach, it is well known that immigration policy affects all Latino/as. This is true not because all Latino/as are immigrants – indeed, both Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens in the 19 th and 20 th centuries by annexation of their homelands – but for two other reasons: most Latino/as and their families have some experience with immigration, whether it’s through their own families, communities or businesses; and through the past decade, Latino/as have experienced increased policing of immigration in their neighborhoods. [i]

The recent passage of SB1050 in Arizona authorizes the spread of this policing, and with such low thresholds for identifying possible violators of immigration law as to sanction outright racial profiling. The Arizona measure affects, however, not only Latino/as but all Americans, for who in the U.S. wants to let stand a law that requires the police to question and possibly detain individuals on the basis of their appearance, skin color, accent? Social justice for Latino/as, social justice for immigrants and democracy for all have become inseparable.

Yet another way in which everyone in the U.S. has a stake in social justice for immigrant laborers is on the question of health and safety in food production. We do not yet know the origins of this April’s outbreak of E Coli among OSU and Michigan students, but we do know that there have been numerous incidents involving tainted meat or food in the national food chain in recent decades, a situation that many attribute to the industrialization of food production under which the workers of Mississippi Chicken labor.

The plight of low-paid workers hired to harvest chickens seems far away, but as another documentary, Food Inc., demonstrates, we are all connected to the well being and livelihoods of those workers in more ways than we care to imagine. Aired again in conjunction with Earth Day events, Food Inc. raises important questions about the impact of industrial food production and processing on the environment; the standard of living of farmer and workers; and the health of the consumer.

In the film, chickens are crowded into hen houses that block out all light, bred to grow more rapidly than they would naturally and then collected in cages in the middle of the night for transport to processing plant, while the migrant workers who work all night to rapidly harvest the chickens are housed in crowded and isolated tin trailers and then periodically rounded up and deported. The film’s focus is not on immigration policy, yet, to its credit, it suggests that immigration policy is intimately tied not only to the chain of food production in the country but to the very way of life we, as a nation, lead.

A film like Mississippi Chicken will confirm the perception of many in the U.S. that immigrants perform jobs that no one else will, jobs that “we” don’t want to do. The flip side of this coin is that immigrants take jobs away from Americans. In both perspectives, however, there is a “we” that doesn’t include “them.” And this, it seems to me, is a fundamental problem: rather than recognizing a shared condition at fundamental levels – as members of a democratic polity, consumers and producers of food products, or working people who are all affected by recent economic downturns – “we” insist on our singularity, and thereby weaken our own access to both health and social justice. More importantly for me, we negate the humanity of others, which can never be the pillar of a free society.

Social justice for immigrant laborers is not just a Latino/a issue, but one that affects us all. Yet, the lack of informed or critical knowledge regarding immigration and immigrant labor severely and negatively impacts public perspectives, policy and behaviors by inhibiting the public’s ability to assess these issues with information from multiple disciplines.

Those of us in higher education need to incorporate these topics into our courses and curriculums, providing both knowledge and avenues for discussion in every discipline. The conditions of immigration and immigrant labor are issues not only for the social sciences – political science, economics and sociology, but also for agriculture, science, business, law, engineering, arts and humanities. Quite a few resources are publically available to scholars and teachers interested in exploring research or curriculums on these topics. If my own experience is any indication, students want to understand contemporary issues, particularly if these will affect their futures.


[i] Marcelo M.Suárez-Orozco and Mariela M. Páez, “Introduction,” in Latinos Remaking America, ed. Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco and Mariela M. Páez. Berkeley/Cambridge: University of California Press, David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. 16.

Jacquelin Hagan and Nestor Rodriguez, “Resurrecting Exclusion: The Effects of 1996 U.S. Immigration Reform on Communities and Families in Texas, El Salvador, and Mexico.” In Latinos Remaking America, 190 -207. 192.

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Theresa Delgadillo is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Ethnic and American Studies at Ohio State University. Her research and teaching has been focused on three areas: religion and spirituality, African Diaspora and Latinidad, Latino/as in the midwest. More information available at: http://people.cohums.ohio-state.edu/delgadillo3/