Making the Road by Walking
Community to Community celebrates 15 years
What: 15 Years with C2C
When: 5 pm Fri., Oct. 4
Where: Boundary Bay Brewery
Wednesday, October 2, 2019
“I am a worker of the land,” Rosalinda Guillén declared. “It is my culture, it is my tradition, it is my focus for my people and my focus for this country.”
Fiery yet reflective, with outsized courage, this social justice champion was recently named an Environmental Hero by the public policy group RE Sources for her lifetime achievements. The organization she helped found, Community to Community Development, is celebrating 15 years.
Her mission, and that of her organization and its diverse board of directors, has only intensified in response to new federal directives on immigration and migrant farm labor through agencies like the Dept. of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Where those agencies are building walls, Rosalinda and her team are creating pathways to a different vision for the future.
Community to Community is a grassroots organization committed to creating alliances that strengthen local and global movements toward social, economic and environmental justice. C2C accomplishes this, Guillén explains, using strategies that empower under-represented people to have an equal voice in decision making, to create cross-cultural awareness and restore knowledge of traditional food, land and cultural practices. The organization focuses on local communities and self-reliance in food production.
“Our mission really hasn’t changed since we began 15 years ago. Community to Community is a women-led grassroots organization. We work with men, but they do what we say,” she laughed.
Guillén was born in Texas. She was the oldest of eight Mexican-American children, and spent her early years in Mexico before arriving in Skagit County with her family as a young woman.
“My family were landowners and farmworkers before Texas was part of the Americas, and my father worked these lands from the south to the northwest corners,” she said.
“We grew up as farmworkers in Skagit,” she recalled. “I have had many professional jobs and jobs as a community organizer, I’ve learned a lot from many people, but deep down I am a farmworker. Period.
“I am a farmworker. My father was a farmworker, my family are farmworkers. And our organization is dedicated to creating a better and richer life for farmworkers. It’s a good life, and farmers and farmworkers need to fight harder for their lives.
“Fight for it!
“Family farmers and farmworkers need to stand together, side-by-side,” she believes, “to protect the land, the water, and a way of life that creates better food for everybody.”
Inspired by Latino labor and civil rights leaders like César Chavez, Guillén led the first-ever farmworkers’ collective bargaining agreement in the state of Washington, and serves as the national vice President of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) union.
“Farmworkers have been fighting for environmental justice since Day One,” she refected. “The first contract that was signed for United Farm Workers (UFW) was begun by farmworkers being poisoned by the pesticide DDT. The union has always been at the forefront of those issues—the water, the air, the soil is essential for us. In my opinion, all farmworker leaders are environmental heroes.
“Because we’re brown, because we’re poor, because we’re looked at as entry-level workers, nobody listens,” she said. “Our role as community organizers is to get people to listen.”
C2C’s effort has taken on two challenges in recent months, and while each represents immense work they dovetail with one another. One front was to help write and pass the Keep Washington Working Act. The other is to create oversight and protections in the federal H-2A program for seasonal agricultural workers.
Signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee last May, the Keep Washington Working Act (Senate Bill 5497) is designed to enhance and protect the privacy and civil rights of Washington residents. The new law prohibits local law enforcement from routinely questioning individuals about immigration status, notifying ICE that a noncitizen is in custody, and detaining someone for civil immigration enforcement. Its central purpose is to assure Washington’s law enforcement agencies remain focused on their essential work of keeping Washington residents healthy and safe.
“When local police are viewed as an extension of the immigration system, noncitizens are less likely to report crime or appear as witnesses, making us all less safe,” Jennyfer Mesa testified in support of SB 5497 on behalf of Latinos en Spokane. That puts those communities at risk of crime.
“Communities across the state will benefit from this important legislation, which affirms the inherent worth of all immigrants, of our labor and culture, and recognizes the right to an identity that is seen and valued—not feared and ostracized,” noted Paúl Quiñonez Figueroa of the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network, a partner organization with C2C.
“We were really involved in the writing of Keep Washington Working Act,” Guillén says of her organization. “We initiated that bill in 2017 when we introduced the Keep Bellingham Working effort. We basically said we want a statewide effort, because if we do state and then local, we will achieve greater coverage for our goals.”
That insight was prescient and ironic, as the City of Bellingham stalled in its full adoption of those protections. In September of this year, and after much delay in the shadow of the passage of SB 5497, COB finally authorized an immigration advisory group to help enforce the new law at the local level.
Building on state legislation, Bellingham City Council member Hannah Stone proposed a framework for durable city policy related to the rights and civil liberties of all residents regardless of status or identity including immigration status, national origin or ethnic origin. A private practice attorney specializing in immigration law, Stone chairs the council’s Justice Committee.
Council approved the workgroup during their recent session.
“I believe the policy would serve multiple purposes,” Stone said. “One is building trust with the community and showing in good faith that this is important to the city, and these voices are something that we value.” But also, in tandem with state legislation, “showing a commitment to address interactions between, specifically, law enforcement and immigration.”
Guillén is critical of the city’s sluggish efforts to date, and the city’s reluctance to declare itself a sanctuary city—a municipality that declares limits to cooperation with the national government’s effort to enforce civil immigration law. Bellingham has parsed this definition, declaring itself a sanctuary city in policy but not in name.
City officials, including Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville, insist that the city has put in place all of the protections of a sanctuary city, and the policies are key.
It’s a claim Guillén finds unsatisfying.
“I would agree with that characterization if the features of a sanctuary city actually existed,” she maintains. “The only thing that currently exists is rhetoric and a worthless ordinance that does nothing.
“When you actually have a staff to deal with these issues there may be progress, but what has the City of Bellingham done? They passed an ordinance that, in our opinion, basically protects the police department from liability. That’s all it does. They protected themselves against us asking for more.
“We just came back from San Antonio, Texas,” Guillén said of her board members. “Texas in 2014 passed Senate Bill 4, a law prohibiting sanctuary status of any kind in the entire state. However, the City of San Antonio is funding an entire immigrant resource center in partnership with a coalition of about 60-some organizations and groups that are volunteering to provide a small medical clinic, food, clothing, travel vouchers and services for undocumented immigrants who are being released from detention or that otherwise need help,” she said.
“The City of San Antonio actually hired someone to run this center and, interestingly enough, the liaison is from Washington state. His parents live in Burlington. He is a young attorney doing all of this amazing work in San Antonio, a city operating in a state that does not permit sanctuary status of any kind.”
The state’s Keep Washington Working Act was passed to protect vulnerable families and communities, “yet we can’t get the City of Bellingham to do anything more than the absolute minimum. There are resolutions—these are beautiful words—but there is very little actually being done,” Guillén declared. “Whereas, in San Antonio, none of that rhetoric is seen anywhere, but all of these very meaningful things are being done.”
Whatcom County government recently created a public health access board to look at creating basic health services that are accessible to all people—including undocumented workers. Guillén praised the effort.
“This actually was very smart because this is part of what the Keep Washington Working Act is going to demand,” Guillén said. “The county has at least recognized that there is a need for people at risk to access medical services. And that is a step forward.
“Between that group and the city,” she observed, “there is a good alignment forming, if we can pull it together, of having a bigger umbrella to protect immigrant families. There’s hope.”
With heavy emphasis on an agricultural economy, Whatcom and Skagit counties—along with ag-intensive communities in the eastern part of the state, the other aspect of C2C’s recent work comes into focus—helping to build oversight and protections into the federal H-2A programs that permit farm owners to import a temporary labor force from outside the state.
In December, a U.S. District Court judge in Seattle approved a class-action lawsuit on behalf of some 600 Mexican workers who have alleged labor abuses at a Whatcom County blueberry farm. The lawsuit alleges the company violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which forbids forced labor, through threats and implied threats that the workers would be sent to Mexico if they complained or did not meet production standards.
The lawsuit’s other allegations include that Sarbanand Farms breached its contract with workers by providing low-quality food and violated Washington law by firing workers who staged a one-day strike. The lawsuit results from a tense blueberry harvest in August 2017. One worker, 28-year-old Honesto Ibarra, fell ill and died as a result of working conditions. Days later, some 60 workers went on strike. They lost their jobs.
A measure in the Washington state Legislature would establish greater oversight for the federal program that allows farms to recruit workers from other countries. The bill would create an office of compliance for the guest worker program and require employers to pay a fee for worker applications. The Employment Security Department supports the bill, saying the program has grown more than 1,000 percent over the past decade but has been unable to get more funding from the federal government. Guillén said H-2A workers also need protection from retaliation if they protest working conditions.
“The H-2A oversight is huge,” Guillén said. “It puts us at the table with the top players in the agricultural industry. It is the only bill of its kind in the country. We have a hope that if we can bring everybody together we can make sure that no more farmworkers die and we can lower the number of H-2A workers coming in.
“I’ve had conversations with various members of the farming industry at different levels—from the strike line to independent meetings with local farming leadership about their relationship with Homeland Security,” Guillén said. “To a certain extent I believe some of the local farmers have done more than the elected leadership. If Homeland Security starts trying to go into the fields and try to detain workers, the farmers are not going to put up with that.
“To me, that is what matters,” she said. “If Homeland Security is going to take actions that jeopardize the agricultural economy, the health of local agriculture, the farmers are not going to put up with that. I trust that, and for whatever reason they take that stance, it’s good enough for me. It is an aligned interest.
“The interest that we’re not aligned with,” she clarified, “is bringing in contracted H-2A workers from Mexico. We’re not going to put up with that quietly. Because that is real exploitation, the bringing in of a quasi-slave-labor force from somewhere else. That is not an aligned interest—that’s maximum exploitation and a race to the bottom in labor standards.
“You are leaving families without income, who cannot survive anymore. It is inhumane.
“An employer cannot put their workforce in that sort of jeopardy and then expect the community to deal with the aftereffects of their economic expectations for their personal business—that’s just wrong,” Guillén declared.
Reflecting on 15 years championing these and similar farm labor and community issues, Guillén observed, “In Community to Community, we try to be conscious of the shifting momentum in immigration and migrant labor issues. Nothing is static, you always have to be very much in touch with your community. You can’t do everything, but you also cannot do just one thing.
“We believe another world is possible,” she said, “and we are active with other popular people’s movements. We strive to reclaim our humanity by redefining power. We want local economies to be more healthy and self-reliant—strongly rooted in worker cooperatives, so there is a balance in how decisions are made.
“That’s a long-term change that we believe is the only way farmworkers can ever have an equitable voice in any economy where they are working,” she said. “The lens of capitalism sees farmworkers as a tool, something to be used to make more profit and discarded. That’s the way it has been, forever.”
“Our organization wants people to have a say in how a local economy is going to be healthy for everybody—including the land. ‘Everybody’ in our way of thinking always includes Mother Earth.
“Without food-producing land,” Guillén notes, “there are no farms, there are no farmers, and there are no farmworkers. There is no future.”
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