he story of Father Wayne Dziekan and his transformation began eight years ago when Gladys Munoz, a feisty religion and Spanish teacher from St. Marys School in Lake Leelanau, talked to him about going to the Mexican border -- a mission trip -- with some senior students.
When I first phoned Father Wayne Dziekan to talk about his experience, his excitement was palpable. He went as a skeptic, but he came back changed yet still a skeptic. He went a second time and then a third.
And it was the third trip in which his view of the world and his life changed completely.
When Gladys had first proposed the idea, she explained to him that they would travel to Tucson, Arizona, and meet up with members of a nonprofit group called BorderLinks. The group seeks to give people a very personal experience with the migrant issue and those trying to cross the U.S. border illegally. You meet the migrants and those who try to help them. You also meet the people who employ them and those who are hired to capture them.
Participants quickly learn that the illegal alien problem is not a sound bite, but mind-bendingly complex and involving mostly decent people on both sides of the border.
Dziekan admits that the first year he went to Tuscon, Arizona, he carried some negative baggage with him.
I was prejudiced against many people -- Hispanics in particular. I had a certain mindset: we speak English here, they should too, he said. I grew up in Chicago hearing things, like You white people are this, you black people are that that kind of thing.
Dziekan came to priesthood a little later in life than most. He first worked as a florist in the Chicago area, and decided he wanted a more spiritual life. He decided to try a year in the seminary. He was quite positive he wouldnt like it and thought he might quit after a year. But he did like seminary school and thought hed try it for one more year, and on and on until he found himself an ordained priest.
When he met Gladys, he was new to St. Michaels Catholic Church in Suttons Bay and St. Gertrudes Catholic Church in Northport. He noted there were Hispanics in the area, and decided that he had to confront his prejudice sooner than later.
When he arrived in Nogales, he saw a massive, 12-foot wall constructed out of landing strips from the first Gulf War. Connecting the two sides was a multi-lane lane road similar to what youd see in Canada, but much more militarized, staffed by border guards carrying weapons.
In fact, all of the densely populated areas along the Mexican border are now bisected by a wall. The thinking, Dziekan explains, is to cut off the flow of people in the urban areas because people in their right mind wouldnt risk their life crossing the desert. Unfortunately, one of the effects it had was to increase the coyotes (smugglers) charge for crossing the border, which motivate organinized crime to get involved for the profits. As a result, the wall made the crossing far more dangerous.
Gladys Munoz, now the pastoral associate at St. Michaels, had just finished teaching a religion class and was hustling out of St. Michaels parish center to help a woman -- a legal migrant -- who had just moved up from Florida. SanJuana Robledo had run out of food and money and went to Munoz for help.
Munoz frantically called around and found a person to unlock the food pantry, which is run by a coalition of Leelanau County churches.
SanJuana, 46, was just beside herself, fretting in the oppressive heat of the day while her two-year-old granddaughter played on the steps. She said she was paying rent on an apartment here and one in Florida. She had found a job, but she wouldnt start working until Thursday.
I work so hard all of my life, she said, exhaling her fatigue. I paint houses, I take care of old people, Alzheimers patients, I worked five years for a daycare, I had my own licensed daycare.
Yet she had only gone to school for just one month, she said.
I have a seven-month-old (grandson) and hes really sick. I waited all day in the clinic. Right now I dont have diapers for the babies, and gas for the truck, and I feel so angry.
A woman from the pantry met SanJuana, while Gladys went back inside for a bag of soaps and shampoos to give her. All in a days work.
I drove with Gladys to a small apartment building, where we met a woman, 30, and heavily pregnant. Marie (not her real name) is trying to learn English. Everything in her apartment is tagged with little yellow stick-ems with the corresponding word -- refrigerator, couch, stove, table.
Marie has a wide smile. She introduces her friend from Mexico, a pretty girl just 17 with a new little baby girl. The teen is wearing an Old Navy shirt with a USA flag. During the course of the conversation Maries sister called. She just had a baby too. So many babies!
BABIES A BLESSING
Mexicans make great patients and responsible parents, said Jan McAllister, a certified midwife who contracts with the Migrant Clinic. Theyll come out of the field and take a shower before they come in. For an appointment, the kids are always cleaned up and dressed up in their best clothes. The mothers are almost always in a committed relationship.
And despite the larger number of children, the Mexicans do use birth control, she added.
They raise their babies in groups. Babies are always a blessing, always appreciated even if its going to be a strain, McAllister said. They take good care of themselves, and good care of their babies. Almost no one smokes, no alcohol, no drug use. They have some diabetes and that kind of thing.
Many of those on Medicaid are undocumented, however, and that can cause some confusion.
The hospital will get so confused. They have a Social Security and birth date one year, but then it changes the next time.
So this is what you learn quickly. The Mexicans life is like one continuous family reunion. They love family. They love babies. Over the years, Maries entire family has moved to Leelanau County. Thats a grandma and grandpa, eight children, 27 grandchildren, and two great grandchildren -- 39 people.
Just one son is still left in Mexico and his mother wants to go back to see him. Families want to be together, but realistically they cant go back and forth, so they all come and they mostly all stay.
A stricter U.S. immigration policy was put in place earlier than 9-11 with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act passed in 1996. The Act allowed the deportation of illegal immigrants without a hearing or judicial review and greatly expanded the definition of crimes to support immediate deportation.
Angela (not her real name), the 17-year-old, said she paid a coyote (smuggler) $2,200 to get her across the border in December. She crossed a river with 17 people, all ages, when she was four months pregnant. She and her husband didnt have the money to pay the coyote upfront, so now they make payments.
After we crossed, we were all wet. Someone took us to a hotel. Then we were put on buses and we came here, she explains with Munoz interpreting.
They must trust the coyote and the coyote must trust them, Munoz said.
Sometimes they become an indentured servant. Theres a big company in Georgia. They need laborers, so the foreman hires a coyote who goes to the border. The foreman has already paid the coyote to get the people, and now the people have to pay the foreman too. If the foreman is good, they can pay and thats it. If hes not, they pay forever and ever.
I go to another migrant camp, and there are more babies and toddlers.
I later find that Michigan is an attractive place for migrants because Medicaid pays all the bills for a pregnancy, unlike Florida where its much harder to get coverage.
With Medicaid footing the bill for all these pregnancies, how much exactly undocumented workers cost us? They dont receive food stamps or welfare, but they do receive care at the migrant school, migrant clinics, the county health department, subsidized food at daycares, and they receive Medicaid.
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act of 1996 made even legal immigrants who were not citizens ineligible for federal public assistance programs such as food stamps and Supplemental Social Security. As a result, applications for citizenship skyrocketed in 1997.
Dziekan counters that undocumented workers pay taxes that they never get back. For example, undocumented workers pay Social Security and Medicare taxes and will never receive the benefits because their Social Security numbers are fake.
The estimated 7,000,000 illegal migrants in the United States pay as much as $7 billion into the Social Security system each year and $1.5 billion in Medicare, according to an April 5, 2005 New York Times article. Illegal immigration is the fastest way to shore up the long-term finances of Social Security, said Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, co-director of immigration studies at New York University in the article.
How cheap is cheap labor?
Contrary to the perception that Mexicans work for wages that Americans wouldnt consider, many migrants here actually earn quite a good hourly wage at least on the farms, from $7.50 to $20 an hour plus free housing and electricity during the picking season, said Julius Kolarik, who hires the same migrant families year after year.
In some years, if you take the husband and wifes earnings together, they can do very good, he said.
Some farmers use only migrants, tolerating the language barrier, while others like Jeff Send employ mostly local people, including teens, retirees and teachers.
Do migrants take jobs away from Americans?
Kolarik said, yes, they probably do when jobs are scarce, but most adults with families wont work for just one month here and then wait a few weeks with no work until the next crop comes in. Nor would they tolerate the unpredictable wages you get with the weather or moving around the country with the crops. Teens will work in the summer, but then they have to go back to college and the farmer is left empty handed, he said.
Nita Send doesnt think migrants are siphoning jobs. She said she usually cant find enough teens to work, except for this year when they had more calls for jobs than they could fill.
Young people are not eager for physical labor. Most young people do not want these jobs, she said.
Nevertheless, Jeff Send makes a point of hiring local teens as a way of making a difference. Of giving them a work ethic.
If I can give them a piece of it they can grab it and take it for life. I can teach them something their parents cant. Work ethic. And Im trying to teach them common sense. I know thats not taught in school.
Most Americans are lazy. Period. Thats why I hope to make a difference. The older ones are harder to turn. A couple of kids live with me, and theyre serious. Theyve had some rough times at home, but they want to work. Theyll turn out fine.
Mexicans earn a good wage, in part, because they are hard workers and their skills are far superior to the locals when it comes to hand-picking crops, but many have a tougher time working with machinery, Send said.
They can make a lot in a month and take it down south and live on it. Quite honestly, I have no problem with that, he said.
The sheer numbers of foreign born workers nationwide is staggering.
Heres a statistic from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas in December 2003:
The pace of recent U.S. economic growth would have been impossible without immigration... In the 1990s, the labor force grew by 16.7 million workers, 6.4 million -- or 38 percent of them -- foreign-born. The majority of foreign-born workers (4.2 million) came during the boom of 1996-2000 when their share of job growth shot up 44 percent. In essence, immigrants filled four of every 10 job openings at a time when the unemployment rate hit record lows.
Yet theyre certainly not getting rich. The migrants live simply. Some camps are very basic, where they have to carry water and squeeze several families into a one-bedroom apartment. Others, like Marias apartment, are basic but comfortable and clean.
I think theyre necessary here, said Nita Send. Somebody like Gary Bardenhagens strawberry farm couldnt operate without them. Theyd be done. Even picking. I love to go and pick a couple of lugs. But to do it everyday, all day. Thats hard.
Part II: Next week in Northern Express: A 16-year-old migrant copes with living in two worlds.