Arizona is in Play in November and It Could Matter

Promise Arizona Get Out the Vote Float

Promise Arizona Get Out the Vote Float

Rock Creek, Montana    Whenever a state is compared to Mississippi, it’s a sure fired signal there’s trouble coming, so I hunkered down to read an article in the recent New Yorker that referred to Arizona as “the Mississippi of the West.” Trust me, that’s not a complement, and trust me on this as well, Arizona has earned every piece of this putdown in the way that it has dealt with its Latino population, calling to mind in excruciating detail the way Mississippi has been infamous for its discrimination against African-Americans over the years.

No surprises, the article focused on the fact that there are huge efforts to register 75,000 Latinos to expand the voting pool. Most of the groups mentioned in the article are organizations we know well and have worked with at various times in the past in one way or another: Puente, Promise Arizona, and One Arizona. These are good people with deep commitments. There’s a real organizing community in Arizona, which makes it a pleasure to work there.

Given the fact there is always more turnout in a general election year, and that Republican nominee Donald Trump has gone out of his way to alienate the Hispanic population nationally, and especially along the border, this is an important peoples’ effort to make a difference and prevail despite incredible efforts by the state legislature to suppress voting access and create voting barriers. There isn’t a poll tax, but there’s’ almost everything else, including the kitchen sink that politicians have thrown in the way of voters. The recent scandal when polling places were reduced in Maricopa County, home of Phoenix the state’s population center where 40% of the electorate is Hispanic, to about one-third of what they had been, thereby creating huge lines and waiting periods is just one example. What’s at stake may not be the Presidential election, because there are other, larger battlegrounds like Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania that will play a larger role, but to the degree that longtime Senator and former Presidential candidate, John McCain, could lose his seat, affecting the Senate majority, and that arch nemesis Sheriff Arpaio could finally fall make this coming election worth watching.

Last time a joint effort called Adios Arpaio came very close to throwing the Sheriff out of office. This could be the time, but only if the registration effort succeeds and voter turnout is high. A recent effort, covered in the article, was successful statewide when all groups joined together to push through a ballot proposition that will reallocate $3.5 billion from the state’s land trust to the public-school system where 44% of the population is Latino. Importantly, the measure won by 20,000 votes.

Much of the article focused on Petra Falcon, a former Industrial Areas Foundation organizer and longtime activist in the state, who directs Promise Arizona. It was fun to read that she still uses the old Fred Ross house meetings as a regular part of their methodology. The piece didn’t paper over the fact that the Latino organizing community is not monolithic. The religiosity Falcon and her organization attach to the work is not shared as widely by other groups and her support for the Gang of Eight immigration compromise, roundly attacked by almost all other immigrant groups when proposed, puts her a bit out of step with others.

More importantly though, on this election, everyone in Arizona is united and that could mean something great for the whole country and speed up the process of taking the Mississippi out of Arizona in the future.

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The Problem of Remittances and Financial Literacy for Immigrants

ACORN International GSU Team: (left to right) Jennifer Phillips, Fred Brooks, Charlene Davison, Alice Lee, Brittany Burgess, Tim Zdencanovic

Atlanta   I got lucky and five students, now calling themselves the ACORN International Team at Georgia State University, picked as their major project at the GSU School of Social Work helping us develop information and support for our Remittance Justice Campaign.   We assembled at a Nepalese restaurant in an Atlanta neighborhood that is at the epicenter of immigrant and refugee resettlement so that we could compare notes and make out plans for the kind of deep and extensive look at remittance experience and costs in a US-city, similar to what we have done in Toronto and Mexico City previously during this campaign.

Going around the table, the reports were encouraging.   The survey instrument had taken shape.  We were making progress securing translators for the target communities among Burmese, Ethiopians, and Latinos.  Several churches and agencies where the students were doing field placements had already been enlisted to help and were showing some interest and enthusiasm in what we would find.  The team was committed to doing blogs and social networking to communicate and get the word out.  The goals of 100 completed surveys per team member could find us with 500 pieces of rich data to work into a report for ACORN International to release in Atlanta, Social Policy, and wider to engage more discussion about the need to change public policy.  We were on our way.

The one roadblock that kept cropping up in some of the reports was a repeated expression of disbelief, if not outright warning, to the team from the “gatekeepers” that immigrants would refuse to share information about the real costs of remittances with us.  One outfit offered to circulate it for us so that maybe they could extend more legitimacy to our questions about costs and transfer methods.  Another well intentioned soul suggested we not ask specifically what the cost of remittances were or the amount sent but give “ranges” between high and low dollar amounts.

As well meaning as the comments might have been, I was amazed at how clearly they and these notions were actually building the infrastructure for financial exploitation and illiteracy for “new” Americans that would inevitably and predictably lead them now predatory and perilous paths.  By avoiding real questions, discussion and engagement on practice and costs, immigrants and refugees would be relying on “word of mouth” recommendations about “best practices” rather than real data on the least expensive and most secure remittance streams and most reputable, reliable money transfer organizations (MTOs).  The gatekeepers were also assuming and projecting cultural values about the appropriateness of discussions about money that might be more common here, than elsewhere, and, more importantly, were making predictions not premised on field experiences.  They were projecting their own lack of comfort around financial issues onto the students before our team was in the field and could evaluate the credibility of their advice.  All of this was also in the face of information from the team already that those groups receiving resettlement grants from US-based sources almost invariably sent most of the money home immediately to their families left behind, and were also clearly not getting advice on the cheapest ways to make such remittances.  It also goes without saying that the team was not even asking for people’s names on the survey, unless volunteered.

In truth our experience in Canada, Mexico, and around the world where we have collected the data for the Remittance Justice Campaign is the opposite.  People can hardly wait to talk about their experiences in making remittances, especially since the dollars are dear and few can believe how much the middle men are raking off.  The Pew Trust and InterAmerican Bank have also contracted for such surveys repeatedly through “cold calls” and usual methodology without any difficulty.

Why would community organizers and total strangers have found that immigrants are anxious to share remittance experiences, yet some gate keeping agencies been resistant to real discussions with their “clients” about such critical issues?  The answer may lie right there:  seeing them as clients, rather than people, like the rest of us, trying to navigate confusing financial systems with limited information, and desperate for help.  New immigrants and refugees deserve better frankly, and in this area they deserve and have earned justice not continued exploitation.

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