By David Ford
Jeff Stewart, director and coordinator of the Immigrant Workers Project, detailed his work and dedication to immigrants adjusting to new life in the United States.
The event was presented by the Youngstown State University Heritage Planning Committee and the YSU Latino Student Organization and was held at the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor on Friday.
Forming in 1998, the IWP continues to work for immigrants’ rights and fights to give a voice to the voiceless. Currently, the IWP works in nine regions across Ohio with their headquarters in Canton.
Adjusting to life in America can be rough for immigrants, who either can’t find employment, can’t speak the language or both, Stewart said. He started the organization to help these immigrants escape poverty and violence back in their home countries, including Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.
He said they typically handle a lot of child immigration issues, with nearly 910 unaccompanied minors handled so far.
“There have been a lot of five- to six-year-olds crossing the border by themselves,” Stewart said. “These children know they can expect no help from civil authorities in their home countries.”
Stewart said nearly 46 percent of Mexicans live in poverty, and that number increases dramatically for countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. He said Mexico’s government has an increasing reliability on the drug trade.
“Just last year, Mexico made nearly $39 billion from the drug trade, with nearly 450,000 Mexicans involved,” Stewart said. “That makes it the largest employer of Mexicans within the country.”
For those wishing to escape their poverty-stricken nation, Stewart said the road to the United States is arduous. According to Stewart, there were 220 people traveling together, huddled within a boxcar on the back of a semi. For nearly 40 hours, these people were not allowed to leave, enduring 130 degree temperatures in the process.
“These people are willing to suffer that because of what they’re suffering back home,” Stewart said.
Jacinto Abraham de Paz Ceto, a former intern and client of the IWP, recalled enduring violence back home in Guatemala and his struggles for equal opportunities in the U.S.
“I was left in Guatemala after my father passed away and my mother went looking for a job,” Abraham de Paz Ceto said. “My mom wasn’t able to get a job in the end because of a gang tattoo my father made her get. They had to cut it off of her.”
Abraham de Paz Ceto said he was beaten and attacked by a gang, retaliating against him because of his father’s actions.
“They pushed me into a fence, hit me in the head and threatened that if I ran away, they would find me.”
After crossing the border, he met with Stewart who helped get him start school. Abraham de Paz Ceto attended Dover City Schools at 14 years old, where he entered middle school. Eventually, Abraham de Paz Ceto went on to high school and said he was subjected to discrimination.
“I was removed from the classes I was enrolled in and taken to the basement of the school,” Abraham de Paz Ceto said. “I was told I couldn’t do anything well and that I didn’t deserve to be in regular classes. I failed history because the instructor failed to help with anything.”
According to Stewart, the basement classes were taught by an uncertified Kindergarten teacher who couldn’t control students and lacked proper educational training.
“When the situations got out of hand, they brought in the football coach, who would come down and scream at the students that immigration was coming,” Stewart said. “These [immigrant] students could not take regular classes and had to sign up as seventh graders with teachers who they never actually saw.”
Stewart said these students were required to do this so the school’s graduation rates wouldn’t decrease. In one instance, Stewart recalled racial stereotypes being targeted at some of the students.
“One educator said all they need to know is the difference between a mop and a broom,” Stewart said.
During his senior year, Abraham de Paz Ceto formed a group to help support his fellow students with communication skills. Despite helping fellow peers, he said he saw a situation within the school administration growing increasingly worse.
In response to the racial discrimination, the IWP filed a lawsuit against Dover City Schools, citing unequal educational opportunities for these children. According to Stewart, the lawsuit changed the curriculum at Dover, as well as other school districts in the area.
As for employment opportunities, he said obstacles still remain.
“Slaughterhouses serve as a major source of employment for these immigrants, where the conditions are very poor,” Stewart said. “I hope there are better days for these people, and we will continue to work for their rights.”
Grimilda Ocasio, an administrative assistant in the YSU history department, helped organize the lecture and was pleased with the turnout.
“I’m glad those in attendance were able to get a better understanding of what these people go through,” Ocasio said. “Hopefully, the opportunities for these immigrants continue to improve.”