Sunday, May 20, 2007

fisher island busser fired for demonstrating with union

Fantasy Island is anything but for its workers

ive as the Vanderbilts did, only better.'' That's the motto of Fisher Island, the reality-free zone off the coast of Miami Beach whose marketing describes it as a ``residential community of unrivaled luxury and splendor.''

Fisher Island floats in a world of its own. Rich, inaccessible and exclusive, it has just become the perfect fantasy island of opportunity for union organizers.

SEIU, the union that helped secure healthcare and higher wages for University of Miami janitors last year, has taken up the cause of the workers who keep Fisher Island splendorous.

A week ago, the union helped organize a protest near the ferry terminal off the MacArthur Causeway. And Friday, SEIU filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of a worker who says he was fired for his union support.


The worker, Jose Rojas had been a busser at the Café Porto Cervo since 2000, he told me Friday. He made $6 an hour plus tips, and though he could pay the $63 bi-weekly insurance, many of his colleagues could not afford to include their children on the plan.

So he took part in the protest outside the terminal May 4.

''I knew it was going to be a problem,'' he said. ''But I thought if I had the chance to get better benefits, I had the right to try.'' When he got to work later that afternoon, a supervisor began to make disparaging remarks, he says.

''He told me I looked like a delinquent and that 'unions are for blacks,''' Rojas said. ``I told him, you can disagree with unions, but there's no need to say that.''

Wednesday, Rojas says he was fired for ''disrespecting'' his superior.

Café management declined comment Friday. Café Porto Cervo, like most of Fisher Island, is off limits to the uninitiated. The Fisher Island website says the café was ''inspired by a superb restaurant in Costa Smeralda, Sardinia.'' A friend tried to make reservations for us Friday night, only to be told it was for members only.

Friday afternoon, I drove to the terminal, hoping to get onto the island to interview Fisher Island Club general manager John Iannotti. I waited in my car while a ferry docked and workers graciously sprayed the disembarking Mercedes and BMWs with water. My car could have benefited from a similar baptism. Alas, I was turned around before I could board the ferry, told that Iannotti was too busy to see me.

His secretary forwarded a statement: ``Even though a charge has been filed, we feel it has no merit and we will vigorously defend it. No further comment.''


Fisher Island, with its cartoonish wealth, may seem too easy a target. But it's a powerful metaphor for a society where the rich grow more comfortable, the poor sink further and the elected do nothing. For proof, see the property tax hysteria, where legislators sought to appease voters by hiking the sales tax -- the one tax that disproportionally affects the poor.

SEIU has made unprecedented gains across the south by emphasizing the ballooning disparity between rich and poor. Union organizers have succeeded not by duping ''unsophisticated'' workers, but because those workers know they are being duped by a system that promises opportunity and delivers only deeper inequality.

''This is the richest country in the world,'' said Rabbi Rebecca Lillian at a gathering Friday. ``Why do we even have a category called the working poor?''

Unions may not be the solution everyone wants. But its leaders are addressing issues that few others have the courage to touch.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

free haleh esfandiari

from laila lalami's excellent blog:
As you may have heard, Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has been detained in Iran. She had traveled to the country of her birth to visit her 93-year-old mother. She was on her way to Tehran's international airport on December 30, when masked gunmen stopped her taxi and stole her belongings, including her Iranian and U.S. passports. She was then effectively under house arrest for four months, and then on May 8 she was taken to the notorious Evin Prison, where political prisoners are held and sometimes tortured. There have been no news of her since she was taken there. Please sign the petition for her release. More info about her here.
juan cole weighs on this important issue too.

UN official urges US to protect migrant rights

thanks to jeanette smith of miami quakers for keeping me and others up to date on immigration issues.

U.N. official urges U.S. to protect migrant rights

The Associated Press
Friday, May 18, 2007

WASHINGTON: A United Nations human rights expert urged the United States on Friday to enforce polices to protect the rights of migrants, as he wrapped up a nearly three-week U.S. tour focusing on the plight of migrants.

Jorge Bustamante, the U.N. Human Rights Council's independent expert on migrant rights, expressed concern that the United States has no central system for families to get information about loved ones arrested by immigration officials.

Bustamante, who is from Mexico, also said he was disappointed that U.S. officials canceled his planned visits to two detention centers. Although he visited another detention center, he said the cancellations were an obstacle to getting his job done.

"I didn't have any explanation," he told reporters of the cancelations.

Bustamante is expected to formally present his findings to the U.N. rights council in June.

During his 18-day visit, he toured the U.S. border with Mexico and watched U.S. immigration officials at work. He met with migrants and rights groups in several states and with U.S. officials from the Department of Homeland Security, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency and the State Department.

The visit, he said, showed migrants' worries about arbitrary detention, bad conditions at detention facilities and racial discrimination.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

illegal immigrant about senate deal: "i think i'll stay illegal"

from the miami herald:

Illegal immigrants question Senate deal

David Guerra wants to be legal, but he says the path to citizenship offered by the Senate on Thursday would be too risky and too expensive, and could end up driving him deeper into the shadows.

Guerra's wife and children in El Salvador depend on the $300 he sends home each month from his job as a day laborer. Key provisions of the legislation would require him to return home to apply for residency, pay a $5,000 fine and spend thousands more in application fees.

That would be disastrous for his family, he said, and, worse, he's not sure he can trust U.S. immigration authorities who have been rounding up and deporting his fellow immigrants for months.

"If I go home, who is going to guarantee that I'll be let back in?" said the 44-year-old who lays bricks, clears weeds and does landscaping.

Across the nation, illegal immigrants, many of whom toil in dirty, low-paying jobs, sharply criticized the Senate's immigration overhaul package as overly burdensome and impractical.

"Where would I find $5,000? In two years, I don't get $5,000," said Daniel Carrillo Maldonado, an illegal immigrant who was looking for construction work outside a Home Depot in Phoenix.

The agreement between the Senate and White House would allow illegal immigrants to obtain a special visa. After paying fees and the fine, they could get on a path to permanent residency that could take eight to 13 years. Heads of household would have to return to their home countries first.

Some illegal immigrants said returning home presented another major hurdle: Applying for residency at U.S. embassies in their home countries.

Amy Ndour, a 23-year-old illegal immigrant from Senegal who lives in New York, said she would be willing to pay the $5,000 fine, but not return home because her family there depends on what she earns as a hair braider.

"I'm helping myself" here, she said. "I'm helping people there too."

Karina Corona, 32, an illegal immigrant from San Diego, works seven days a week at two jobs - one at a delicatessen and another as a seamstress. She said $5,000 is a small price to pay.

"Compared with the better jobs you can get, it's nothing. It's well worth it," she said.

Carlos Velazquez, a 40-year-old illegal immigrant in Los Angeles, said he applied twice for visas in Honduras, and both times had to pay several bribes to local embassy staff.

"Only with money will the monkey dance," said Velazquez, using an idiomatic expression to refer to bribes.

The Senate agreement includes a so-called "point system," which for the first time would prioritize immigrants' education and skill level over family connections in deciding how to award green cards that allow permanent residency.

Family connections alone would no longer be enough to qualify for a green card - except for spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens. And new limits would apply to U.S. citizens seeking to bring foreign-born parents into the country.

Many illegal immigrants said they had little incentive to apply for residency because the process was long and did not offer much hope of bringing their families.

"If I'll never be able to bring my family, why should I apply?" said Jose Monson, a 33-year-old illegal immigrant from Guatemala who has lived in Los Angeles for four years. "I prefer to just stay here illegally."

"If I get deported and need to cross the border again, that's not a problem," he said.

Several unions, which have many immigrants in their ranks, took issue with the creation of a new temporary guest worker program.

New workers would have to return home after two-year stints, with little opportunity to gain permanent legal status or ever become U.S. citizens. They could renew their guest worker visas twice, but would be required to leave for a year between each stint.

"Temporary workers depress wages and create a second-class work force that is disconnected from the U.S. mainstream and not equal," said Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union.

Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Labor Organizing Network, said the guest worker component would likely exacerbate rhetoric between anti-illegal immigration groups and immigration groups. Groups such as the Minutemen regularly stage protests in front of day labor centers.

"You will still have the anti-immigrant organizations blaming immigrants for depressed wages," Alvarado said.

Still, the agreement gave some hope.

In Houston, Marco Antonio Rodiguez, said he would be happy with a permit that would allow him to work legally and return to Mexico twice a year to see his wife and three children.

"Immigration reform would benefit us so much, both ourselves and families," said Rodriguez, a 48-year-old illegal immigrant who does odd jobs. "We want the law to be approved. I'm praying to God that it passes."

Pascual Bravo, an illegal immigrant who works at a construction company in Middletown, N.Y., was also eager to achieve legal status.

Bravo, 49, last crossed the border in Arizona eight years ago, paying a smuggler $1,800. "I miss my country," he said.