August 26, 2014

To say the The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck inspired me to be an immigration lawyer may be a little too simplistic. It seems that my life has been guiding me to this profession since I was a teenager.

 When I was 15 years old I spent a summer picking strawberries on a nearby farm by my house in suburban Syracuse, NY. My friends and I would get up before five and ride our bikes to the farmer’s house and he would drive us the rest of the way to the farm. There we would work from about 6 am until 1 pm picking strawberries and having random strawberry wars with the Mexican pickers on the other side of the field. I assumed they were Mexican, but I honestly don’t know where they were from. We didn’t have much interaction with them, other than a periodic outbreak of strawberry throwing, but they seemed like decent dudes.

 I probably only did the job for a few weeks. We made about $50 a day and were so happy with that money. I remember going home and taking a shower and the water hitting the small of my back and me jumping from the pain of the water hitting my sunburn. It did not occur to me than the pain those migrants had to endure from working those fields until dark, day after day for that short season and then having to move onto another crop. My mother was at home to make me lunch and dinner and I was able to see my father every night when he came home from work. I felt like a grown up because I was doing hard labor and never thought of those workers having to go to a ramshackled hut at the end of the day where their moms and dads were not. Where their wives and children were not. This was not in my consciousness at that point in time, but the experience of working a hot and dry field, with my hands, hunched over with my face close to the dirt, smelling the sweet strawberries mixed with the slightly pungent smell of the earth was embedded into my mind and my soul.

It would not be later in my life that I would put these sensations together with the sensations these men must have been feeling. Their feelings of loneliness, despair and perhaps a hit of anger and resentment at the suburban white kids coming to pick at some of the ripest and best strawberries in the field, stealing them of an opportunity to get them and make more money to send home in order for their children to be able to buy their school uniforms or to fix their family’s roof.

At Siena College my advisor pushed me to go to law school and I thought he was crazy. I needed to save the world first and went to Angola and then Ecuador and finally South Korea to work as an English teacher. Most of my time there was spent working illegally on a tourist visa, looking over my shoulder as I entered and exited apartment complexes to teach my private classes. Here I met my wife who was in Seoul without proper documentation from Peru working in factories and restaurants in order to send money back to her family. Through her I met many undocumented immigrants from mainly Central and South America who were horribly exploited at their jobs in South Korea with seemingly no recourse. They were workers in factories who were being sexually harassed and worse. They were stone workers, moving tons of stone a day not getting paid for months of work. They were scared humans far away from their homes too scared to complain and too scared to go home a failure for not providing as much as they felt they should.

When I returned to the United States with my new wife I explored being a teacher, but quite frankly, I was a horrible teacher. I felt I needed a profession were I could help the very types of people I had met in South Korea that were being so exploited and decided to go to law school. While at law school I worked at Friends of Farmworkers, an organization that advocated for the rights of farmworkers, specifically the mushroom workers in Pennsylvania. This work was inspirational.

I met, on a personal level, those same types of workers I had engaged in strawberry throwing wars with so many summers in the past. I began to know and understand their pain and the hardship they were going through living in working in a foreign land, in often hostile environments. I learned that they would have much rather been working and living in their home countries with their families but felt they had no choice but to migrate here to the US in order to best provide for the ones they so loved and longed for.

This was my life and then I read Chapter 25 of The Grapes of Wrath.

“There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And the children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates- dies of malnutrition-because the food must rot, must be forced to rot. 

The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to he screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

The whole book was somewhat transformational for me, but this chapter sealed my fate and I knew that I must devote my life to working for migrants like the Joads, who were being crushed by a capitalistic machine that did not care about them and did not care about us. I was seeing the failure and the same sorrow in the eyes of those farmworkers as were so evident in the Joads and their fellow migrants.

 When I need inspiration I read this chapter and also a passage from chapter 22:

“And the companies, the banks worked at their own doom and they did not know it. The fields were fruitful, and starving men moved on the roads. The granaries were full and the children of the poor grew up rachitic, and the pustules of pellagra swelled on their sides. The great companies did not know that the line between hunger and anger is a thin line. And money that might have gone to wages went for gas, for guns, for agents and spies, for blacklists, for drilling. On the highways the people moved like ants and searched for work, for food. And the anger began to ferment.”

I often work out of anger and I find my anger, properly channeled has led to positive results for my clients. I often get despondent because I feel somehow I am failing to live up to my rage and my calling. I so often want to flip over the table in the court room and yell that the system is simply watching the potatoes float by and the pigs are being covered with quicklime while good people are left to starve. I often feel guilty after polite and congenial conversations with government attorneys trying to disrupt and deport my clients away from their families. I want to be like Tom Joad and hit them with a bat and scream for the rest of my colleagues to do the same.

In short and in long, that is why I became a migration attorney. My clients are migrants, as are all of us. I am that boy who worked in that strawberry field, trying to make things better for my co-workers and my fellow migrants on this beautiful planet.

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