Special Report: A lens on immigration

Published 7:00 pm Sunday, November 13, 2011

Jon Wetterau and Alexander Ruis Euler are are producing a documentary about immigration and poverty which features Austin residents and their views on immigration. - Photo provided

Editor’s note: This is the third in an ongoing series on reverse immigration in Austin.

It’s hard to frame immigration issues in Austin. Jon Wetterau tried to, however.

Wetterau and director Alexander Ruiz Euler filmed documentary footage about Austin’s Latino immigrants and their ties to Mexico several times over the past three years. Their documentary, “Mexican Dream,” focuses on immigration and poverty.

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“It’s more of a political piece, trying to resolve some issues that are amiss,” Wetterau said.

“Mexican Dream” comes at an appropriate time for Austin, as Latino residents are rumored to be leaving the city amidst rising anti-immigration sentiment and increased identification scrutiny at local meatpacking plants. Austin’s Hispanic population mirrors a national trend where Hispanics are leaving areas with increasingly tough anti-immigration stances.

The project started when Euler, a doctoral candidate at the University of California-San Diego, started his thesis on education in indigenous areas in Mexico. Euler’s studies led him to Oaxaca, a small region in southern Mexico known for its rich history, culture, and somewhat crippling poverty.

“There is no industry down there,” Wetterau said. “For the rich people, that means having a couple goats or cows.”

In some areas of Oaxaca, the education is just as poor as the economy, trapping residents in an endless cycle. Yet the Oaxacan town of Magdalena Penasco found a way to help itself: Many Magdalena residents came to Austin, Minn.

“Almost half the population has immigrated,” Wetterau said. “About half those who leave go to Austin. More than half the Mexicans living in Austin, Minn., lived in Oaxaca.”

Wetterau and Euler found three families with strong Magdalena ties to feature in their documentary, some of whom were in the country illegally.

They followed them around, chronicling their jobs, their friends, how they paid their taxes, how they said they dealt with latent racism and more. They spoke with many residents around town, from VFW patrons to Dick Knowlton, former Hormel Foods CEO and Hormel Foundation chairman, about Austin’s Hispanic population.

The connection between Magdalena and Austin is apparent: some Latinos here speak Mizteco — a Spanish dialect found in Mexico’s Miztec population — more than recognizable Spanish.

“Everybody has some relative or at least some friend in Austin,” Wetterau said.

The stories they collected read like a novel: One family was robbed on their way to the border, wandering through the desert alone drinking their own urine for five days before finding shelter.

“That is when they realized they could never go back,” Wetterau said.

The documentary’s focus, however, is on immigration reform. As Wetterau puts it, immigration policies are tough to reform since workers benefit by doing lower-education jobs no one else will do and in turn keep corporations profitable.

“The fact that immigration policies aren’t enforced is purposeful,” Wetterau said.

Yet Wetterau and many other immigration experts don’t blame corporations for offering jobs to immigrants regardless of status. Corporations are only responsible for filling out the proper paperwork and going through background checks. By using government programs like E-Verify, corporations are making sure they’re compliant with federal law while trying not to hire undocumented workers.

“We do not require employers to be document experts,” said ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer. “We require them to fill out the paperwork appropriately and correctly.”

What’s more, corporations are getting involved in programs like ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employer (IMAGE), where corporations voluntarily submit to employment eligibility checks through I-9 tax form audits and Social Security number checks. IMAGE is a program companies sign up for, though the process takes some time to complete. (For more on IMAGE, read Jobs in Jeopardy in the Friday edition of the Herald.)

“It builds a relationship between the government and a private business,” Neudauer said.

Local community and government leaders have heard about Latinos leaving Austin. There aren’t concrete numbers as to how many have left, though residents say plenty of people have gone to towns in Wisconsin, Iowa or Missouri looking for work.

Still, some leaders are calling on local employers to help displaced workers any way they can.

“I know that Hormel contributes to many charitable causes both here and in other parts of the country and world, but I would like to know if they have ever worked to change the system,” said Sister Ruth Snyder of Queen of Angels Catholic Church. “Hormel and QPP have benefited from the hard work of Hispanics for many years and now it seems they turn their back on them when the immigration authorities ask them to check papers.”

It’s tough for undocumented workers to get legal status to work. If an undocumented worker is in the U.S. for less than six months, they are deported and cannot apply for a visa for three years. The ban extends to 10 years if undocumented workers are caught living in the U.S. for more than one year.

Immigration law is tangled enough, but U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials are running through a backlog of visa and greencard applications.

A Mexican-born resident looking to bring his or her spouse to the U.S. would have to wait several years for a loved one’s applications to go through, due to immigration quotas. CIS officials are working this month on spouses’ visa applications from before December 2008, according to the CIS visa bulletin.

“We’re not even talking about dealing with the court system,” said local attorney Dan Donnelly, who practices immigration law. “There’s a huge backlog (of visa cases.)”

That’s why city officials say there’s nothing they can do for undocumented workers, though they’ve appealed to state and federal officials over the years.

“What we’ve always wished for and hoped for in city government is a policy that would legitimize the Hispanic population here,” said Mayor Tom Stiehm. Stiehm is featured in “Mexican Dream” as well.

Wetterau and company haven’t found a publisher for the documentary yet, though Wetterau is showing a rough cut to fellow filmmakers.

He may have a distributor from India show the documentary on European cable channels, but nothing is set in stone. Wetterau is also entering “Mexican Dream” into several PBS-related contests to get distributed through the public TV company. He said the documentary will be publicly shown in Austin in the future.

Yet the documentary is just a picture in Austin’s growing immigrant population. While some Latinos may be leaving, more refugees from different parts of the world are coming into the area. QPP and the Welcome Center are working with the Karen Organization of Minnesota to help Karen workers new to the area according to Saw Morrison, Program Manager of employment and social services at the KOM, a group for displaced Burmese refugees who fled their country due to ethnic discrimination.

As communities of color move into the area, Austin may turn into a shining example of U.S. immigration policy. When and how immigration policies gets untangled is anyone’s guess, however.

“It’s become an endless circle,” Stiehm said. “We don’t expect a policy any time soon. They’ve left us to fend for ourselves.”