By Jesse Marx
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Sue Zollar, the next speaker, is concerned that illegal immigrants might be allowed to attend college. She mentions recently introduced federal legislation, known as "The Dream Act," that would permit undocumented high school graduates who have been in the country for more than five years to qualify for in-state tuition rates. "You, the American taxpayers, should not have to foot the bill for illegal immigrants to attend our colleges and universities," she says. "Yet Congress has proposed to make this outrage the law of the land."
The final speaker of the evening is Amon Hilo, a stoop-shouldered man with a shaky voice and trembling hands. His rambling speech jumps from the perils of diversity to the Holy Trinity, and ends with a sort-of call to arms. "We're never going to influence anything and we're never going to change anything just by possessing facts," Hilo informs the group. "As a Christian, I myself feel the first response to what we've heard tonight must be to pray, because that's the only way to bring the change that's necessary." Hilo then goes on to declare that the country has been "conquered by pagan philosophies and ideas and thoughts." Marlene Nelson finally manages to usher Hilo off the stage with a nervous smile.
After the meeting I speak with Esther Dabill. She became involved with the Steele County Coalition out of frustration over not being eligible for government benefits. After twice battling leukemia, Dabill relates, she wound up unable to work at age 56 and sought financial assistance from Steele County. The government proved to be of no help. "As a native-born Minnesotan, I wasn't eligible for any services whatsoever even though I couldn't work," she claims. "And I'm a single person, so I have to take care of myself."
We're soon joined by Marlene Nelson. She takes umbrage at the suggestion that the Steele County Coalition and other anti-immigration groups are racist. "We deal in facts here," Nelson says. "That's why I get so upset with people saying we're like the KKK, or we're racist or bigoted. That's not true." To illustrate this point, Nelson tells a story about an Owatonna resident originally from Jamaica whom she befriended. She says that they began chatting regularly over coffee and that he agreed with her views on immigration. The man, who went by the nickname Ten Speed, had even promised to accompany Nelson to an upcoming Steele County Coalition meeting. "Well, before I could pick him up he got arrested in Central Park, right in downtown Owatonna, for being an illegal immigrant," Nelson says incredulously. "How silly I would have looked if I had brought him to this meeting."
As people begin to head home for the evening, I'm buttonholed by Amon Hilo. He says that he worked on the assembly line as a deboner at the Turkey Store in Faribault in the mid-'90s and witnessed firsthand how cultural diversity plays out on the factory floor. "I would have always thought that the Hmong and the Vietnamese and the Cambodians, being from the same general part of the world, that they would sort of work together and cooperate," he says. "But they hated one another. Knife fights! They had to call the cops because guys with big boning knives would get in knife fights."
Hilo is at a loss as to what should be done about all the problems that he associates with immigration. Luckily, he has ruled out violence as an option. "Is me putting anthrax in an envelope gonna solve anything?" he asks. "Or me getting my carry license, and getting my pistol, and going over there to the cultural diversity meeting and shooting all those people? What's that gonna do? Violence don't propagate the truth, you see?"
Fatima arrived in Minneapolis in 2001 directly from a Kenyan refugee camp. Four months later--single, unemployed, and unable to speak English--she moved to Faribault to take a job at the Turkey Store. She worked on the plant's assembly line, slicing up one turkey after another as it passed by overhead, earning $9.50 an hour. The repetitive, arduous work eventually caused Fatima to tear her rotator cuff. (Fearing retaliation from the company, Fatima did not want her real name used in this article.)
After having surgery, Fatima returned to work. Initially, per doctor's orders, she was placed in a less physically taxing job. This reprieve didn't last long. According to Fatima, the company insisted that she return to a job on the assembly line, even though she had not been cleared by her doctor. Unable to speak English, she felt powerless to argue with her immediate supervisors. "No matter how much you get injured, you have to be working," Fatima says through a translator.
When she attempted to bring up her medical problems with officials at the Turkey Store, Fatima says she was punished. In one instance she was sent home from work early. Then she was suspended for two weeks without pay. Fatima remained on the job because she didn't know where else she could find work and her family members back in Somalia were depending on her for support. In order to try to protect herself, Fatima got involved with a union drive being conducted at the plant by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).