The Rights Stuff Forum: Backlash

Backlash and Immigration

Ernesto Bustos, Community Organizer, Centro Campesino

For the past six years Ernesto Bustos has worked as a community organizer for Centro Campesino, an organization that provides services and advocates on behalf of migrant workers and Hispanic/Latino immigrants in southern Minnesota. Its territory includes a range of cities from Northfield down to Albert Lea, east to Winona, and west as far as Worthington.

Comments from Ernesto Bustos

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Question: What has your community experienced in terms of backlash?

Ernesto Bustos: In terms of the environment for immigrants in the region, I would say that it hasn't changed. From time to time we do see greater activity coming from the anti-immigrant groups, and now we have the Nazi groups in the area. So it can seem like there is more, but really it just moves around — kind of like a virus, or the flu. They all seem to have the perspective that immigrants are not good, they're bad for the economy, bad for the community, they create all this trouble. And the result of that is harassment toward that specific community.

So the harassment is no worse than it was five or six years ago — it just moves around?

Yes. And in some cities it is more intense than in others.

What does your organization do to combat it?

Most of our work is community organizing. We do educational workshops for both the English speaking community and the Spanish speaking community. We also do direct organizing — people send letters, they make phone calls, they do postcards — and we also have meetings with our local state and federal representatives. At the same time, we do a lot of what I call "casework." When someone comes through our door or telephones us with a current situation — it can range from something very minor to a very large problem having to do with employment, discrimination or sexual harassment — we try to do an assessment of those situations. We look at them individually, of course, and then explain to the person that what is happening to them is nothing new, and unfortunately they are not the only person to whom it has happened. We try to put it in a way that they see this bigger picture.

Are you saying that things aren't getting worse with respect to community attitudes toward immigrants, but that they also aren't getting better?

It depends on the town. For example, Owatonna has become kind of a neutral place. That doesn't mean that everyone there is comfortable with the situation. But then you look at towns like Albert Lea and Austin, where the situation is completely different — it's hostile, in a way.

What form does that hostility take?

It varies. We've heard of cases where people are just walking in the park with their kids, and they hear racist words coming from drivers and people going by. We've also heard of very direct harassment from the police department. When I say the police department, I do not mean the entire police force, but if only one person or two is doing it, they are seen as direct representatives of that institution.

How has the economic downturn affected people in your community?

It has affected us all, directly and indirectly. The downturn in the economy began at the very high end. Our people don't do executive work — we are not dealing with insurance or investments or things like that — so fewer of our community members were affected at the beginning. But as things trickle down, as companies have fewer contracts and there is less demand, then it comes all the way to the bottom of the labor force, where many of our community members are employed.

There has been a lot of news coverage about violence in Mexico. Has concern about the situation in Mexico affected how people view Latinos in Minnesota?

This is part of the problem. There is a lot of talk on the news about violence, drugs, and guns, and people who receive that information take it as fact. But in reality, that's not the case. There is a lot more that needs to be explored, that needs to be presented to the public, for them to actually get a good sense of how the drugs get there. How is it that the guns get there? Probably 80 to 90 percent of the guns and high caliber armaments that are in Mexico come from the United States, because here it is very easy to purchase them. So the traffic actually goes from here to there, and then it spills back over here. Those are the things that people don't get.

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