News & Politics

Freedom From Fear: Immigration Activists Honored at Netroots Nation Conference

The first annual Freedom From Fear Awards honored undocumented DREAM activists and others who work on behalf of immigrants.

On an otherwise uneventful Sunday at a small country church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, lay minister Mark Massey was greeted with an unusual sight.

Two unfamiliar Indian faces peered inside the church’s Pentecostal service apprehensively. Quietly, but resolutely, they made their way to the back of the church, settled in, and stayed until the end of the service. Massey approached the timid duo.

“How can I help you?” he asked.

The pair, heavy lidded and uneasy, didn’t trust Massey’s forthcoming demeanor. Sensing they were ill at ease, Massey urged them to attend one of his group’s Sunday dinners.

At dinner, their story began to unfold. The two men, skilled workers from India, were brought to the US to work at a factory across the street from the church called the Pickle Steel Company. One of them mentioned that he had a college degree in electrical engineering, to which Massey replied “To bring you here from India, you must be making good money.”

“Two dollars an hour,” the man responded.

At the time, Massey didn’t press the issue. He was convinced he had misunderstood them; the pair’s English was so poor that entire conversations were often lost in translation.

Reflecting on their exchange, Massey began to question his initial interpretation of their conversation. Perhaps the pair had spoken correctly. Still, he couldn’t believe they could be underpaid so dramatically and overtly below minimum wage. Concerned, he commissioned a man in Tulsa who was from the same state in India, and spoke the same language. The real story then emerged.

Their employer was John Nash Pickle, the owner of the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Pickle Steel Company. In October 2001, Pickle traveled to India, and brought 52 skilled workers with him back to Oklahoma to open his factory. The workers were hired under the false promise that they would be given medical insurance and eventually the resources to obtain green cards and bring their families to the United States.  But they were not greeted with health insurance or generous wages. Pickle’s wife met them at the factory, took their passports, and refused to return them.

Denied food, and packed into rooms like sardines, many workers began to realize that conditions at the Pickle factory were not what they were promised. Many of them had taken out loans to pursue this supposed “incredible” American opportunity.

Pickle himself had traveled to India to select his workers before bringing them to the States. He had seen crushing poverty firsthand: starvation, unbearable factory conditions and children bathing in putrid cesspools. He believed he was doing the Indians a favor. “You should be happy to have this food, because in India you were dying of hunger,” Pickle said. Those who spoke out were quickly deported to India. 

That Sunday night, deeply affected by their dinner conversation, Mark Massey offered his house to the two men and their fellow workers. Shortly after, fearing deportation, the men took him up on his offer. Massey drove his 8-passenger van to the factory to load up the workers and helped five of them escape.

Massey recalls: “One guy said to me: ‘I’m Hindu, will you still help me?’ I told him that’s what Christianity is about, helping each other.”

The next day, Massey showed up at the Pickle factory, where he implored John Pickle to give the workers back their passports. Pickle refused, so Massey sought legal help. During the time it took to get to court, Massey moved the 52 workers into his house, and transferred his family to a small rental property. Eventually, over 200 Indian workers testified in court. The judge found Pickle guilty of a long list of violations, including labor law violations, fraud and violation of minimum wage laws.

Massey, despite success in the courtroom, won’t be passing over his responsibilities anytime soon. “I’ve become a part of these people’s family…When I first started to help people, I never envisioned it going as far as it would. But you learn their culture, and you gain a love for them. I wish I was able to do more.”

Mark Massey never sought recognition or publicity for his actions. But on June 18, 2011, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, he received acknowledgement nonetheless, as one of 15 individuals awarded the first annual Freedom From Fear Award for “extraordinary acts of courage on behalf of immigrants and refugees.”

Founded by Geri Mannion and Taryn Higashi, the award was produced by Public Interest Projects, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that gathers and strengthens the collaboration of philanthropists, nonprofit groups, public interest organizations, and donors, who share “a vision of a society that ensures justice, dignity and opportunity for all people.”

A selection committee of community leaders and activists sifted through 380 nominations, eventually selecting 15 individuals who have dedicated remarkable amounts of time and energy toward fighting for equal rights and demanding changes in immigration policies. Each winner additionally received a $5,000 cash prize.

A central tenet of the awards is that they were created for the “unsung heroes” of the struggle. Not the politicians in the public eye, or the advocates oft-cited in the media, but “ordinary people” -- students, immigrants, ministers, policemen and others, who “never expected to be thanked.”

“As much as we admire and really truly respect the work of the advocates in this area, we really wanted it to go to the people who are usually unrecognized,” said Mannion.

Multiple awards were given to undocumented young women and men fighting for immigration reform and lobbying for the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), a bipartisan legislative proposal that would grant undocumented youth US citizenship after serving in the U.S military or graduating from college.

One winner, Erika Andiola, a DREAM activist and former ASU student, lost her merit scholarship when the state of Arizona changed its eligibility laws for undocumented immigrants. Coming of age in Arizona in its torrent of fierce anti-immigration laws and rhetoric, Andiola acknowledges she had a tenuous and fearful relationship with the state for many years.  

“From the beginning, I knew my situation. I was aware of the fact that I wasn’t documented, but I wasn’t aware of the consequences of any of that.”

At age 11, fleeing an abusive father, Erika moved from Mexico to Arizona with her mother and four siblings. She excelled in school, and was awarded a generous merit scholarship to Arizona State University. However, in 2007 she lost her scholarship after laws were passed denying all undocumented students from receiving scholarships.

“One day they called me in and told me I wasn’t going to get any financial aid, and was going to have to pay out-of-state tuition. It was a shock to me knowing I wasn’t going to be able to go to school the next semester. I cried for days.”

Andiola quickly regained her composure and found a private scholarship that was willing to fund students who had lost their scholarships. She graduated in 2009 with a B.A in psychology. Along the way, she helped found a DREAM Act outreach organization at ASU, worked with the grassroots organization Promise Arizona to engage and register Latino voters, and publicly spoke to Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce, famous for his unrelenting position on anti-immigration legislation. She also became a leader of Arizona’s DREAM coalition, an impassioned immigrants right activist, and a staunch proponent of the DREAM act for undocumented immigrants.

Another constellation of students—Carlos Roa, Felipe Matos, Juan Rodriguez, and Gaby Pacheco—won the award for marching 1,500 miles from Miami, Florida to Washington D.C, to mobilize undocumented immigrants to “come out” with their status, and bring attention to the plight of undocumented youth.

Marchers and DREAMers were confronted with enormous psychological, political and physical pressure, as well as virulent anti-immigration rhetoric from protesters including members of the KKK. Changing the minds of even a few individuals, however, legitimized the group’s struggles along the way.

“One of our dreams was for the walk to serve as a catalyst to talk about immigrant issues. To change the minds of people who see us as illegal, as subhuman aliens. When people see us as real people, their mind frames start changing,” said Roa.

The award also recognized public officials and law enforcement officers who took action “far beyond the call of duty to protect the human and civil rights of immigrants and refugees,” like awardee Jack Harris, ex-Phoenix police chief.

Harris publicly spoke out against the passage of Arizona’s controversial “show me your papers” senate bill 1070. SB 1070, signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer in April 2010, makes the failure to carry immigration documents a crime, giving police the power to detain those they suspected of being undocumented.

This stringent law sparked widespread criticism and came under harsh scrutiny from citizens and politicians alike. Chief-of-police Jack Harris vocally opposed its passage.

“We have a very large Hispanic community in the Phoenix area, and bills like 1070 send the message that if you call the police, you will be arrested and deported. That’s simply wrong in my opinion,” said Harris.

But his criticism was not taken lightly. “I came under fire for that from a number of different folks in the state. There were threats that were made against me. A majority of them were anonymous. I’ve been in law enforcement my whole life, and I had no doubt that the position I was taking was the correct one,” Harris said.

In March 2011, he was removed from day-to-day operations of the police department. In April 2011, after 39 years on the force, he retired.

“The chief paid the price for standing up for the civil rights of everyone; he would not support a law that was flawed,” said Mayor Phil Gordon of Phoenix.

While the 15 winners varied in gender, race, age, nationality, and even status of U.S citizenship, they shared some traits: most notably, resilience and strength of character. Despite different narratives, they all believed in the conference’s trademark “freedom from fear.” This conviction manifested itself in a willingness to speak out in the face of intimidation: an understanding that liberating ourselves from fear is the first hurdle in unshackling ourselves, and others, from subjugation.

Award-winner Carlos Roa put it succinctly. “When you give yourself to others, not only will your community and society benefit, but you will benefit as well. Defend your community and family and stand up for your rights. Never be fearful.”

Erica Hellerstein is a contributor to AlterNet and a freelance writer.