Going on a Delegation to Get at the Truth

by Elvia R. Arriola, Executive Director, WOMEN ON THE BORDER

I. Introduction

For many years, Women on the Border has participated in cross-border delegations produced by our social justice partners Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera and the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO). Delegations of eight to twelve persons from the United States and sometimes from other countries cross the Texas-Mexico border and meet maquiladora workers who share their experiences of life working in the mostly U.S.-owned factories on the Mexican side of the border. These interactions raise awareness and concern about the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the formal agreement implemented in 1994 that established foreign investor rules highly favorable for corporations in international trade between the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The experiences on a delegation raise awareness of the effect of “free trade” rules on workers’ lives. Delegates’ experiences frequently motivate solidarity actions by the delegates when they return to their home cities.

Women on the Border has, on occasion, helped to produce delegations with Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera and the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras. Since 2011, Women on the Border and Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera have also worked together to produce a delegation we title “Journey of an Immigrant”. This delegation format sheds light on the real human impacts of:

• American immigration law and policy;
• The militarization of the border; and
• The social construction of undocumented migrants as “criminal” or “illegal.”

Two immigration delegations have been produced since 2012 — one in which delegates toured the Port Isabel Detention Center (McAllen, May 2012) and the second including a tour of the South Texas Detention Center (San Antonio/Pearsall, May 2014).

This essay provides the history and an overview of our organizations’ typical, collaborative NAFTA or “solidarity” delegations. It is essential background information for another essay forthcoming in 2015 — a comprehensive report about the May 2014 “Journey of an Immigrant” Delegation in which delegates toured the South Texas Detention Center at Pearsall, Texas.

II. The NAFTA/Solidarity Delegation – a Brief History

This is the history of the emergence of ATCF and WOB following a visit to Austin by the women of the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (the CFO) in the Fall of 1999. Invited by the Austin, Texas regional chapter of the American Friends Service Committee (the AFSC), an affiliate of the Religious Society of Friends, more commonly known as the Quakers — the Mexican “maquiladora,” or factory workers of the CFO traveled to speak at an event at the Quaker Friends’ Meeting House in Austin. At that event, they met members of the Austin, Texas community who were active in the emerging anti-globalization movement and who eventually created Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera — partly in response to their meeting.

The women of the CFO came asking for support for their efforts to empower maquiladora workers who were often afraid to confront abusive employers in the factories of the Mexican border towns of Ciudad Acuña, Piedras Negras, Reynosa and Rio Bravo . The corporations located there were mostly and many still are, American companies that have outsourced production to Mexico under the lucrative investor provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement. On their visit in 1999, the women workers’ stories created a deep and lasting impression that ultimately fueled the activist energy that birthed Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera.

The women of the CFO, all of them current or ex-maquiladora workers, described such problems as:

1. Bodily exposure to toxins in the workplace
2. Chronic illnesses from stressful schedules
3. Wage theft
4. Sexual harassment, and
5. Blacklisting of anyone who dared to challenge the unjust working conditions.

They also described the courage of workers who, despite harsh treatment, routinely fight for justice for themselves and their co-workers. They file grievances and hold employers accountable in other ways. They talked about peaceful organizing tactics that primarily involve inviting other maquiladora workers to learn more about their rights to better wages and/or treatment under Mexico’s progressive, constitutional labor law, La Ley Federal del Trabajo.

Impressed by the CFO testimonies on that visit in the fall of 1999, the Austin activists made plans to continue the delegations and to enter into a solidarity relationship with the workers who volunteered with the CFO. As described further below, the Austinites’ decision to support the CFO’s efforts to empower maquiladora workers would end up playing a key role in the founding of Women on the Border.

A few weeks after the CFO visit to Austin, several Austin residents soon organized themselves into a delegation to travel to meet the maquiladora workers in their own country and homes. People from both groups met again in the CFO offices in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. Within a few weeks the committed travelers from Austin understood that they had been protesting corporate power and globalization further abroad while examples of the human rights problems they protested were just a few hours away by car. Soon after the first delegation to Piedras Negras, the delegates’ awareness of this irony yielded the name they embraced — Austin “so close” — Tan Cerca “de la Frontera” –to the border – Those two cross border visits or delegations resulted in a solidarity relationship between the CFO and the ATCF that remains strong today.

When both groups first met in Piedras Negras, the CFO itself was already almost 20 years old, having grown out of a response to the dire need of working women who were being exploited by American companies under the pre-NAFTA, Border Industrialization Program (1965-1993). In the pre-NAFTA years, the CFO’s members were all female, reflecting the industry norm to prefer the hiring of young girls and women.

By the 1990’s, the CFO stood on its own as a nonprofit organization able to solicit aid from foundations and other supportive individuals and groups, whether in Mexico or abroad. The message they brought emphasized that working and living conditions for maquiladora workers had worsened under NAFTA.

In 2000, ATCF began producing regular delegations to the border and collaborating with the CFO. They created a standing agenda in which delegates would meet workers, hear about their experiences and tour industrial parks to see examples of the tremendous physical presence of American foreign companies in Mexico.

III. Women on the Border

Women on the Border came into existence around this time in large part due to the activist energy of the Austin residents who first met the women of the CFO in the fall of 1999 and who decided to travel into Mexico to meet the workers in their own communities.

That fall of 1999, I had sent to press a lengthy law review article on the subject of NAFTA and women in the maquiladoras which was published in the spring of 2000 by DePaul University Law Review. That June of 2000, I attended my first delegation with the Austin organizers – possibly their third delegation to Mexico. As a more educated delegate on the subject of what workers endured under NAFTA, I was able to quickly understand that the delegation provided me with a unique opportunity to further my own first hand, testimonial knowledge about the discriminatory impact of NAFTA on working women. Following my meeting the women of the CFO in that June of 2000, I became convinced of the need to continue gathering and sharing stories of workers, especially stories documenting the health effects caused by the maquiladora system. The internet was also becoming an effective tool for research and education. Within months I turned to some of the key organizers who had now named their group, Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera. I invited them to help me create an educational project that would have the mission of raising public awareness particularly in the higher education and legal sectors about the effects of NAFTA on working women in the maquiladoras.

Over fifteen years later, ATCF and sometimes also WOB have shepherded dozens of groups of 12 persons at a time from the U.S. or other countries into Mexico to meet CFO volunteers who share their stories about working conditions and about campaigns to improve wages and treatment of workers in the NAFTA factories.

Since the first meeting in Fall of 1999 between Austin residents and the worker/volunteers of the CFO, the groups and their allies, like WOB, have viewed themselves as being in a partnered and solidarity relationship with the workers involved with the CFO. For example, the ATCF in 2000 made a financial commitment to send to the CFO the equivalent of an organizer’s monthly salary so as to help the CFO expand its organizing activities along the border. ATCF has kept its promise with a regular monthly donation since 2000. The two groups have also collaborated closely in producing the quarterly weekend delegations in which visitors can understand the realities created by the privileged corporate activities of the NAFTA. WOB has supported ATCF with financial contributions, public speaking at conferences and in the media, and through documentation with files stored and available on its archived websites and current website at http://womenontheborder.org.

IV.. The Educational Weekend

Every CFO-ATCF NAFTA/solidarity delegation involves meeting maquiladora workers premised on the concept of mutual respect and solidarity between the U.S. groups and the workers/volunteers with the CFO. ATCF organizers of a delegation take care in preparing each person who registers for a delegation. ATCF requests participants to attend a pre-delegation meeting to discuss protocols, cultural sensitivity, and general knowledge about the CFO, NAFTA, and the, changed nature of border crossing under a more militarized environment since 9-11. ATCF introduces the delegates to the concept of serving as witnesses to the impact on people’s lives of law and policy and asks the delegates to support the CFO volunteers by returning to educate others in their home communities about the CFO’s efforts to create more just working and living conditions in the maquiladoras.

The people who sign up for a delegation often arrive with a strong interest in learning more about the subject they think will be addressed by meeting “real maquiladora workers.” A high percentage of the travelers have been university students who might have had study abroad experiences in Latin American countries, or who have taken a course in global studies and read about NAFTA and the maquiladoras. Other popular enrollees have been educators like myself, (I am a law professor at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois.) who sometimes have extensive research knowledge about the rise of globalization or about the tensions between the goals of transnational investors and the workers’ desire to earn living wages in toxic-free workplaces, and clean environments.

A delegation focusing on the human impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) always has travelers crossing the Texas-Mexico border, usually at Eagle Pass or McAllen. The delegates stay in hotels and visit CFO volunteers who act as hosts in Piedras Negras, Ciudad Acuña, Reynosa or Rio Bravo. The trip is designed to introduce delegates to the idea of supporting the workers by relating to them on an equal plane, hearing their concerns, conveying their stories to others, or sometimes doing a bit of fundraising to meet a specific need of the CFO organizing projects.

Those participating in an ATCF delegation are given a unique educational experience over one weekend. The itinerary creates opportunities to engage with workers and their families in settings deemed safe for candid discussion about their experiences and concerns as employees working for one of thousands of U.S. companies who outsourced production to Mexico. The delegates may hear about a typical workday schedule, the expectations for quotas or other production demands, the hours, safety issues surrounding machinery or equipment or maybe concerns over toxicity from materials they have to use for a job.

Delegates might also hear a story about a worker who was poisoned by toxic materials and was refused medical care, or about a worker who developed a chronic illness connected either to the stresses of the typical workday or to some materials used on the jobsite without adequate risk prevention training or safety equipment. Members of a delegation may come to understand why the CFO volunteers do not give up hope for holding employers accountable, why they place hope for a worker’s empowerment in her simply learning that she has a right to dignity and respect under relevant labor laws.

The quarterly delegations from Austin into parts of the Texas-Mexico borderlands have served as important tools for empowerment of the volunteer/maquiladora workers and for building solidarity between the Mexican workers and U.S. citizens.

By learning about the skewed impacts from corporate rights embedded in free trade law, visitors from the U.S. may come to understand how those NAFTA born privileges allow companies to pay workers non-living wages and expose them regularly to unsafe and toxic working conditions.

V. Next Steps in the Journey towards Compassionate Action

In 2011, as the public discourse on anti-immigrant laws and lawsuits intensified, ATCF and WOB began to work closely with each other to produce the “Journey of an Immigrant” delegation which is described in the next essay, Touring a Detention Facility to Get at the Truth. The focus of this second generation of delegations is on highlighting the problems for the migrant laborers who end up in a U.S. immigrant detention facility. Drawing on understandings learned from the NAFTA/Solidarity delegations that a high majority of maquiladora workers are not native to the northern borderlands, we now understand the NAFTA-impacted laborers more clearly as migrants when we meet them in the detention centers. They are people who left parts of Mexico’s southern interior and headed to el Norte, to la frontera, in pursuit of survival. In leaving their now distant homeland on the journey northward, they may have considered the possibility of crossing into the U.S. They may have taken a job in a factory in Mexico on the border with Texas. They may have bypassed that factory all together — or left that factory, crossed into the U.S., found a job in a factory here, experienced a different level of exploitation here, and then experienced the criminalization of their immigration and wound up in a detention center.

It is not unusual for delegates on NAFTA delegations to have heard maquiladora workers mention their rural roots and their connections to relatives somewhere in the U.S. and to understand their disappointment over not being able to connect with family because of the chain linked fence, the massive border walls and the threats of men with guns. This is how NAFTA protects profit-motivated employers who exploit labor and criminalize labor at the same time.