Stephen Miller’s Former Rabbi Speaks Out About Trump’s Adviser and Immigration
Before Stephen Miller, who is said to be an architect of Trump’s zero-tolerance border policy, began espousing far-right views as a teenager, his family belonged to Santa Monica’s progressive Temple Beth Shir Shalom.
White House speechwriter and senior adviser Stephen Miller did not grow up poor in a rural town, anxious over his father losing a manufacturing job to a trade agreement — a popular origin story for the nativist movement led by Miller’s boss, President Donald Trump. Before reportedly devising the plan to separate immigrant children from their parents, Miller, 32, grew up in socially liberal Santa Monica, a beach city that is whiter and wealthier than the rest of the United States.
According to a Los Angeles Times profile, it wasn’t a bad economy but the “culturally sensitive environment” that “infuriated and ultimately shaped” a young Miller. High school announcements in Spanish as well as English, for example.
Before he began espousing far-right views as a teenager, Miller’s family belonged to liberal places of worship, the Jewish Journal reported, including Beth Shir Shalom, a progressive Reform temple.
“The Judaism that we teach here is a liberal, progressive Judaism based on longstanding, Reform Jewish values. That of course includes respect for all human beings, respect for families and respect for children,” Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, organizer of a planned Thursday protest against the Miller-Trump policy of separating and detaining foreign children, said in an interview. “The message was clear,” he said, and it was the opposite of what Miller espouses today.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a phone interview with Comess-Daniels.
Capital & Main: As an educator and a man of faith, what lessons do you take from the fact that maybe some of the people you teach grow up to be Stephen Millers? Does that make you hopeless at all?
Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels: Oh, it doesn’t make me hopeless at all. What it continues to underscore is that I have a lot of work to do. We teach people to have respect for other people — by respecting them and respecting their perspectives and their input. I don’t really remember anything about Stephen Miller as a kid — I have no recollection of him being part of who we are. That may tell you a lot too, that he sort of kept it under wraps or it wasn’t even really developing yet.
But the reality is that when you tell kids their opinion matters, and you take that risk of allowing their perspectives to flow forward, you have to be able to give that respect to them so that they can give it to other people. That may well be part of the lesson that he didn’t pick up.
Do you think bigotry, or anti-immigrant sentiment, manifests itself differently in a wealthy, socially liberal environment?
There are people in Santa Monica who have been here quite a while, and people who are here as rather newbies. There is a certain degree of NIMBYism that’s going on here, and a certain resistance to growing this little city literally, physically upwards, because it’s really the only place it can go, and also to being inclusive of people at many levels of the economic ladder. Those of us who are working on that are doing everything that we can to try to make that happen.
People who have been here for a while and see it as a haven and very nice place to live, they hear of people coming from other economic levels and they get frightened. It’s not just xenophobic — in a lot of ways, it comes out racist too. And fear is easily stoked among people. That’s what we’re experiencing on a national level and it takes a lot to combat it.
I live not too far from Santa Monica and it’s my sense that some of these nationally progressive people that live there might support the idea of a wall — around Santa Monica. There was some opposition to even building out the Expo [light rail] Line to the beach for fear it would bring a bunch of people from a different economic class.
I think the progressive work that people try to do has to base itself in the reality that every single one of us is prone to pull inwards and prone to self-select our friends and neighbors. But for the sake of an American model, and a Santa Monica model and an L.A. model that we want for the future, this is something that we have to deal with every day. A future, inclusive America means we’re going to have to get comfortable with something else.
White people are going to be a minority, despite this administration’s current efforts. Is this the last-gasp backlash of a minority that has, for now, power?
I don’t think that this is any kind of a last gasp. We constantly have to be vigilant to make sure that all of our institutions, from the bottom up, are transparent and treat their neighbors, their workers fairly. People need to have a living wage and have a decent standard of living. And like I said, intolerance is very easy to unleash; it’s always waiting in the background.
What’s happened is that this xenophobia, this racism, this anti-Semitism, has been let loose from the top down and people who have been hanging on to it more secretly have felt bolder over the last two years. But it is going to ebb and flow. It’s never going to go away. That’s what humanity is, unfortunately.
What is your reaction to a powerful person claiming their reactionary politics are a product of everything you stand for and have done?
You catch me having just seen the movie about Fred Rogers. That happened to him, from Fox News. They went after him for acknowledging the specialness and wonderfulness of each individual, and saying, “that’s not America. In America, kids need to earn that — and he’s destroying that American value of earning your place in society.”
That whole conservative cliche of “everybody getting a merit badge for participation, and that’s ruining our children.”
Look, I get that. But I’m going to respond the same way [Rogers] did: It’s very, very sad. And the kids who grow up under that cloud need my outreach. The baton has been passed to those of us who are going to take care of these kids who are being separated from their parents. I’m involved in creating an action downtown on Thursday morning, a prayer vigil, at the Department of Homeland Security. What we are going to do is just let these people know there are values and perspectives that are deeper and more important than theirs, and we will never go away. We’re just not. And we’re not going to become them, in terms of their tactics. We’re going to hold on to our integrity and do this the right way.
What are you doing in reaction to what is going on in our country and what should we be doing?
Number one, sign every petition you can. When you sign a petition, give a small donation to that organization to keep them going. Constantly call your senators and congresspeople, even if they agree with you. They count up those emails and they count up those phone calls.
But also we should march every time there’s a march…. We all need to “pray with our legs.” We all need to just do something and set that example for our kids and grandkids. That’s really, really important, that they pick up this baton.
The other thing is to personalize it. There is this story of a rabbi who was on his deathbed — there’s all these stories of rabbis on their deathbeds in literature — and students are gathering around and he’s starting to cry and they ask, Why? He says, “Well, when I was a young rabbi, I thought I could make change all over. I tried to do it in our region. I tried to do it in our city. I tried to do it in our little community. I tried to do it in my family. And then I realized I should have started with myself and worked outwards.” We need to do that.
Without falling into solipsism.
Right. I know so many people who, unfortunately, have just become cynical about all of this. And I don’t blame them. My tradition says when you doubt, climb out of it. We need to climb out of it and get to work. That’s again what my tradition teaches: We’re not expected to complete the work, but we’re not free to desist from doing it.
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The Power of the Poster
Carol Wells, the founder of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles, talks to Capital & Main about the enduring power of political art.
Carol Wells remembers the exact moment she discovered her calling. An art historian at the time, she was on a trip to Nicaragua with her friend David Kunzle, a UCLA art history professor, who was collecting political posters to add to his burgeoning collection. While staying with friends, Wells watched a neighbor’s 8-year-old son approach a poster on the wall, stare at it intently, and then start to silently mouth the words. Wells was struck by how engaged the boy was. “In that moment I became obsessed with collecting posters.”
Now almost 40 years later, Wells is the founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles. Wells has amassed approximately 90,000 posters, building one of the largest collections of its kind in the world. The Center shares its collection with the public in part through curated exhibits. This year the CSPG has produced Feminae: Typographic Voices of Women by Women and its latest is To Protect & Serve? Five Decades of Posters Protesting Police Violence, running through July 15 at the Mercado La Paloma in downtown Los Angeles.
Since that encounter in Nicaragua in 1981, Wells’ obsession with collecting posters hasn’t waned. In CSPG’s nondescript West L.A. office space, Wells pulls out poster after poster, lecturing passionately on the backstory and cultural impact of each, including one that superimposes text from a New York Times interview with a shocking image of the My Lai Massacre (“Q: And babies? A: And babies.”). Recently, she managed to sit down with C&M to discuss her passion.
Capital & Main: So, you were an art history professor, you happen to see a kid on a trip, and suddenly your life was changed forever?
Carol Wells: Yeah, I’m in Nicaragua alone in the living room with this kid. He’s looking around, and all of a sudden, he sees the poster. It was pretty big, bright green, a thick outlines of a woman holding a big basket of coffee beans. And the text in Spanish said, “In constructing the new country, we are becoming the new woman.” I see him walk over to the poster and I’m watching him mouth the words. It was a pretty sophisticated concept, so I doubt he figured it out. But I literally had this epiphany: “Oh my God. That’s how posters work.” You’re going about your daily life, and all of a sudden something breaks through the bubble, and it grabs your attention. It’s the graphic, it’s the color, it’s the combination, and it pulls you out of your head and into that poster and it makes you ask a question. “Why is this here? What is this about? What does this mean?” And every time you ask a question, you’re a different person than you were before you asked the question.
How many posters do you get a year?
We get between two to five thousand a year donated from all over the world. The bulk of our collection is [from] 1945 and later.
I assume technology has probably hurt the art form, but has it helped get the messages out?
Most people think that, and it’s actually not true. Since the internet age started, there’s actually a poster renaissance of works on paper. Because you can’t walk with your computer monitor in a demonstration. You can’t plant your monitor on your lawn.
And you can’t put a laptop on the wall…
Exactly. You want to hear a really great story? Truthdig.org published a cartoon [made by] a political cartoonist named Mr. Fish. It was during the Arab spring, and he had superimposed Che Guevara with the stylized beard and King Tut’s face, but it had Che’s beret. And it [was titled], “Walk like an Egyptian.” So, it was a reference to the music, but [it was also] a reference to what was going on the streets of Cairo. I sent it out as our poster of the week to 9,000 people. The very next day, somebody took a photograph on the street of Cairo, with somebody holding a piece of paper with that image on it. A poster can literally go around the world and people will print it out.
What struck me in viewing your exhibits is how many of these posters could still be used today, not only artistically but also, sadly, in the timeliness of their messages.
We had this fabulous poster by Yolanda Lopez, a Bay Area artist, which she first did in 1978. It depicts a young man in Aztec garb pointing a finger like Uncle Sam saying, “Who’s the illegal alien, PILGRIM?” And it’s a great poster, it’s simple, not too many words, funny, provocative. So, we had an exhibit at UCLA in the mid ‘90s and there were 4 or 5 high school students standing around this poster saying, “Wow, you’ve got posters up to the minute.” And I went over to them and I said, “Look at the date. This is before you were born.”
Is that one of your goals with the exhibitions? To show the evergreen nature of this work?
Absolutely. I mean that’s why we did the police abuse exhibition now. It basically goes back five decades. It’s 50 years of posters protesting police abuse. Mainly in the United States, but also internationally.
What’s the goal for CSPG?
Well the aim right now is really to digitize the collection and get it online. We have 10% of the collection digitized. But the mission is to collect and to document, because stories get lost. All the exhibitions, they’re showing massacres, they’re showing genocide, they’re showing police abuse, they’re showing all of these horrible things. And people often ask me, “How can you look at this stuff all day long?” I said, “Because the poster artists are optimists. They believe people can change if they have the information.”
Yes, that’s the reason why they’re doing it, right?
That’s why they’re doing it, and that’s why I’m doing this, because I believe that people can change if they knew the truth.
And what happens 20, 50 years from now?
Well, my goal is to stay independent, because the other option is to become part of the university. Universities, for all the fabulous things that they do, they also censor. We did an exhibition at USC in 1992 on the 500 years since Columbus, and how the legacy of racism and exploitation and genocide continues. And one of the board of trustees was Italian and took [the exhibit] as an affront to Columbus. It really wasn’t about Columbus, it was about colonialism. And he ordered it down.
Do you have a favorite poster?
I’m always amazed at the creativity and vision of artists. Every week I’ll say, “Oh my God, how do they think of that?” But it’s always still going to be the poster I saw that kid trying to figure out. It has to be my favorite one because that one changed my life.
What makes a perfect poster?
The right balance between aesthetics and message. If you only rely on the corporate press, the New York Times and L.A. Times, for your information, you’re not going to get the side from the street, from the movement, from the activists. The posters are primary historical documents that are recording the issues that were at the time, and the passions that were at the time, and the divisions that were at the time. You’re not going to get it anyplace else.
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Another Sexual Harassment Case at USC Fuels Student Outcry
USC grad students are dismayed by the university’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against a professor.
The University of Southern California is under federal investigation for its handling of sexual misconduct complaints against long-time campus gynecologist George Tyndall. The Los Angeles Police Department is investigating some 52 complaints about Tyndall and multiple lawsuits have been filed against Tyndall and USC.
In the shadow of Tyndall’s case and other high-profile scandals at the university, a coalition of graduate students at the USC Dworak-Peck School of Social Work worry that another ongoing harassment case against associate professor Erick Guerrero is drawing too little attention.
“With the Tyndall case coming forward, it’s disappointing that there hasn’t been any connection between our issue and this larger thing,” said Robin Petering, who completed her Ph.D at USC last year and is the leader of the coalition Social Workers for Accountability and Transparency (SW4AT). “So few people know about the case.”
At issue is a finding by the campus Office of Equity and Diversity that Guerrero had sexually harassed two students. Guerrero was disciplined but remains on staff.
The OED findings were kept confidential. In October, more than 70 social work school faculty signed a statement complaining that they became aware of the case through media reports of a lawsuit filed against Guerrero and USC by one of the students allegedly harassed.
In a lawsuit filed in L.A. County Superior Court, graduate student Karissa Fenwick says Guerrero – then her dissertation advisor – made unwanted advances while they attended a conference in New Orleans. Fenwick’s complaint details sexual comments and inappropriate touching at a bar where they met for a meeting. Guerrero then suggested the student wait for an Uber in his hotel room, where he tried to kiss her. Fenwick says she fled the room, and was warned the next day to not speak of the interaction.
An unnamed student, not a plaintiff but noted extensively in the lawsuit as “Student X,” was also allegedly the target of unwanted and “inappropriate conduct of a sexual nature,” including remarks about her hair and physique.
The SW4AT coalition has launched a campaign called “I Am Student X” to raise awareness of the issue of sexual harassment in academia. The group is highly critical of the university’s handling of the Guerrero case and contends that “the University does not prioritize student safety or health over other agendas.”
“Every department has a story and experiences,” Petering said. “Our experience in our school is not unique.”
Guerrero denies the charges in the Fenwick lawsuit and filed a grievance last September challenging the OED findings, which were upheld. On June 5, Guerrero’s attorney Mark Hathaway filed a writ in L.A. Superior Court challenging what it calls “a quasi-judicial proceeding” by the OED.
Hathaway declined to discuss next steps in the court case against Guerrero, as did Fenwick’s attorney. The School of Social Work did not respond to calls for comment.
The SW4AT coalition is strategizing on how to use the momentum of yet another USC scandal to raise the profile of the cases at the school of social work. “If you don’t connect them you run the risk of not being able to prevent these things in the future,” Petering said.
“What is the university going to do to prevent another Tyndall?”
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The Real Costs of Living in California
A new report from United Ways of California shows that 1 in 3 working families struggle to make ends meet.
These seem to be boom times for Americans, as monthly statistics from the U.S. Labor Department tout a fast-rising economy and dwindling unemployment since the final years of the Obama administration. What those numbers fail to measure is the real cost of making ends meet, and how far out of reach that remains for many working households that continue to struggle.
The reality in California is that one in three households are falling short, according to Struggling to Stay Afloat: The Real Cost Measure in California 2018, a new report from the nonprofit United Ways of California. The study sought to document the actual costs of a “a bare-bones decent standard of living,” says Peter Manzo, president of the nonpartisan advocacy group, and include the real-world impact of housing costs, transportation, education and other immovable factors.
The report is downloadable from the United Ways website, which also has interactive features where each county is examined in detail. In an interview with Capital & Main this week, Manzo explained the report’s findings.
Captial & Main: What inspired this study?
Peter Manzo: The federal poverty level doesn’t really take into account the cost of living in California. It also doesn’t tell you where we would like families to be. It doesn’t show you what is doing OK and how far most households are from it. Everyone knows it can be expensive to live in California, but this adds more detail.
How did you determine what the real costs were?
The real cost measure we used is a basic needs budget: housing, food, transportation, health care, childcare, taxes and 10 percent of the total for miscellaneous – things like your mobile phone bill. The interesting thing about the real cost measure is that the household budget varies by composition. So if you have two adults working full-time minimum-wage jobs, the household budget was different from the same two adults with an infant. The cost structure changes significantly by adding family members.
It looks like different parts of the state are affected differently.
Obviously, coastal areas are more expensive to live in than inland areas in terms of housing. Even so, there are high numbers of households struggling to meet the cost of a decent standard of living in those lower-cost areas. It’s interesting to contrast much of the Bay Area with L.A. County, which has a much higher rate of struggling households: 38 percent of households in L.A. County struggle vs. the composite number across those Bay Area counties, which is about 25 percent. It’s very expensive to live in Santa Clara County, but there are more households that are earning above what they need.
If you look at Fresno County, that’s a very different situation.
On our website, you can look at neighborhood level data. You can look at it by neighborhood, which is real important. With Fresno, you have a high rate of need. And if you look at West Fresno, which sadly is pretty well known for having a very high unemployment rate and a lot of struggling families, it looks worse than other parts of Fresno.
In the Bay Area there is more opportunity, while in Fresno County the opportunities are less and people are struggling at a higher rate than other parts of the state.
Yes. It’s very tough in a lot of place in the Central Valley and the Inland Empire. There are struggling households in just about every part of the state. Every ethnic and racial group struggles. No one’s immune to it.
The Bay Area has been going through a difficult boom period where a lot of people moved in and housing costs went up. L.A. seems to be in the middle of that too. How do those kinds of changes affect people’s ability to keep up?
HUD fair market rent, which is a proxy for actual rents, increased almost 45 percent in the last three years in Alameda County. That’s a steep jump. The Bay Area cost ripple is still going on. L.A. County has rising rents. Our offices are in Downtown L.A., and you can’t turn around without bumping into a crane. In the last three years, there has been an incredible boom in construction. And it seems to be mostly high-market condos that aren’t very affordable and aren’t that well occupied. My sense is that people are buying them for a second home. Obviously we need more housing units, but they need to be affordable. What we want to point out in our study is that we need to do more for renters. There are many more people living in apartments whose rents may go up than would be housed by new construction. Maintaining affordability is key.
How does education play into it?
We see a correlation between a higher level of education and a lower rate of struggle. Households led by college graduates, only 15 percent of those households struggle, compared to 78 percent for households led by somebody who doesn’t have a high school diploma.
How do children in a household affect the ability to keep up?
That’s one of our big findings. A household with kids really changes the budget of what a decent standard of living looks like. Some people would quarrel with us about this, but we feel children should have access to quality pre-school and childcare. We know most kids don’t actually get access to that, but we think they should, and that’s included in our budget. We find that 6 in 10 households with a child under 6 are struggling – especially when they’re led by a single mother.
It looks like in many parts of the state, transportation is also a big cost, approaching the level that people pay for housing.
Our assumption is that families need a car. We talk to people who do studies back east, and often the assumption there is that low-income households are using public transportation. But even in the Bay Area, most people need a car. It’s like a lifeline, to drive around and get to work. It’s a little like Grapes of Wrath: You need to be able to move. Our costs are based on reported expenditures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If we had a high functioning public transportation system down here, that would help a lot of people.
These are overwhelmingly working households: 9 in 10 of them have a working adult, and in 80 percent of them the household is working full-time. Oftentimes, when people talk about poverty, they just know what the poverty level is – but it doesn’t really tell you what they’re contending with, and the trade-offs they’re having to make. And there’s often an assumption that poor people are lazy and if they just get a job, things would be better. Our point is that these are overwhelmingly working families. They have jobs and they’re still not earning enough for a decent standard of living.
Tom Steyer and the Case for Impeachment
Tom Steyer, one of the Democratic Party’s biggest financial supporters, talks to David Sirota about his campaign to impeach Donald Trump.
Tom Steyer has been one of the Democratic Party’s biggest financial supporters. He made his fortune in the investment world, and has spent tens of millions of dollars to support Democratic candidates, as well as to support efforts to reverse climate change. Lately, he has made headlines with a new project – a campaign to impeach Donald Trump. The campaign is called Need to Impeach, and can be found at www.needtoimpeach.com.
Capital & Main’s David Sirota recently spoke to Steyer about his impeachment campaign, America’s divided politics and the role of money in politics.
Blindfolds: Iranian Hostage Drama Offers Few Surprises
One of the play’s weaknesses is the surfeit of soap-operatic family exchanges that spill into melodramatic shouting matches.
On November 4, 1979, several hundred Iranians, mostly students, stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took 60-odd hostages — 52 of whom were held captive for 444 days. It was a humiliating event for the U.S. government and, in general, a wake-up call for Americans heretofore unaware of the antipathy of many Iranians towards the United States.
Against the wishes of the Carter administration, a mother of one of the hostages, Barbara Timm, flew to Tehran to see her son. Hostage, by Michelle Kholos Brooks, re-imagines the exchange that took place among Barbara (Tracie Lockwood), her captive son Kevin (Zachary Grant) and two of his captors: Tehran Mary (Vaneh Assadourian), a media spokeswoman for her cause and Ebrahim (Satiar Pourvasei), a rifle-wielding guard swift to anger. The drama, some of which takes place in Barbara’s mind, shifts between the embassy, where a handcuffed, blindfolded and barefoot Kevin has been doing his best to survive, and Barbara’s Wisconsin living room, where she struggles to cope with both a controlling ex-husband and an angry mob outside her home. The latter has gathered to protest a public statement she made critical of the failed rescue attempt to free the hostages — a statement interpreted by “patriots” as her having taken the side of the revolutionaries.
As the drama progresses, scenarios begin to overlap; Kevin, always on Barbara’s mind, is physically present onstage as she disputes with her former spouse about the latter’s parental responsibility — or lack of it — and whether or not he betrayed her when they were teens, salaciously spreading the word about their intimacy. An argument also ensues between Richard and Barbara’s current husband, Ken (Jack Clinton), who accompanied Barbara to Iran and has open-heartedly raised Kevin as his own.
Directed by Elina de Santos, Hostage aims to explain and garner sympathy for both sides, but it offers few surprises or depth. One of its weaknesses is the surfeit of soap-operatic family exchanges that filter attention away from more vital dramatic themes: how far a mother is prepared to go to protect her child and the distance its pivotal character, a Midwestern matron and a Republican, will ideologically travel before the play’s catharsis (the dynamic most interesting to us). While these threads, as well as the propensity for intolerance of people on both sides of the cultural divide, are clearly most central, they get obscured for long stretches by melodramatic shouting matches between Kevin’s two fathers or the past marital problems of Barbara and Ken.
Grant turns in a well-grounded performance as the palpably fearful Kevin, drilled in compliance and anxious for his mother to understand how precipitous his situation is. But other performances on opening weekend were less persuasive. Lockwood, usually an excellent actor, did not seem entirely comfortable as the maternal lioness the playwright aims to conjure. One problem is the script, which calls for her to assertively challenge Kevin’s captors’ motives and beliefs — a device for getting us to understand where they are coming from. Some of these confrontations appear as the artifices they are. None of the other actors were able to get past the polemical nature of their roles, either. One hopes they will evolve.
Designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s no-frills set features an American flag splayed across the back wall — albeit behind a scrim, an apt reference to the covert power wielded (this time not so successfully) by our government.
Skylight Theatre, 1816½ Vermont Avenue, Los Feliz; Fri.-Sat. & Mon., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through June 24; (213) 761-7061 or (866) 811-4111.
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LISTEN: Why Deloitte Believes That More and More Companies Are Becoming Socially Responsible
On the latest episode of “The Bottom Line” podcast, Deloitte Consulting’s Erica Volini explains what’s behind what the firm calls “the rise of the social enterprise.”
If companies often seem to stumble as pressure mounts on them to respond to major societal challenges, Deloitte’s Erica Volini isn’t surprised.
For executives to figure out what “they’re going to speak out on, and how they’re going to make decisions, and how they’re going to manage the impact of those decisions across all the various stakeholders is very new for a lot of organizations,” Volini, the U.S. Human Capital leader for Deloitte Consulting, told me on the latest episode of my podcast, The Bottom Line.
But just because this is new, Volini adds, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t real—and quickly gaining momentum. “We’re at the beginning of a trend here,” she says.
Volini and her Deloitte colleagues recently documented what they call “the rise of the social enterprise,” pointing to several factors that are pushing corporations to be mindful not just of how they’re performing financially, but also how they’re treating their employees and their customers and affecting their communities and society at large.
First, companies are eager to attract millennial talent and consumer dollars, and this generation is “actively questioning the core premises of corporate behavior and the economic and social principles that guide it.” Second, according to the Deloitte analysis, “businesses are being expected to fill a widening leadership vacuum in society” as government institutions falter. And third, the pace of technological change is accelerating, and many people are looking for business “to channel this force for the broader good.”
Of course, all of this can sound a little naïve at time when more than 40% of American families can’t afford a basic monthly budget, even though the vast majority of them are working households; trust in business is itself at a low ebb; and tech companies are under fire for “creating problems instead of solving them,” in the words of the New York Times.
What’s more, for all of Deloitte’s talk about companies becoming increasingly attuned to their “stakeholder network,” most corporations continue to act as though one constituency matters far more than all of the others: their shareholders.
Despite all of this, Volini is confident that more and more companies are, in fact, starting to consider a range of issues “beyond financial results” to a degree that they haven’t over the past 40 years. “I have faith,” she says.
One example she cites is Dick’s Sporting Goods, which took a stand on gun sales after the Parkland, Fla., school massacre. Another is Nordstrom, which has filled its new men’s store in New York with high-tech features but has also seized on “an opportunity to reskill the workforce” and “create net new jobs that haven’t existed before,” Volini says.
Volini suggests that other companies will show themselves to be similarly responsible as they learn to become better listeners.
They need to be “vested in what’s happening in the external environment,” Volini says. “That, in and of itself, is a huge shift because many companies operate within their own four walls.”
Another area ripe for improvement is breaking down silos across the corporation. Without constant collaboration among the chief financial officer, the chief marketing officer, the chief human resources officer, the chief information officer, and others, Volini says, it’s impossible for a business to gain the kind of holistic view that is required for it to truly understand its place in society.
“The CFO should have the voice of the investor community,” she says. “The CMO should have the voice of the consumer community. The CHRO should have the voice of the employee community. The CIO should be thinking about how do I take all these voices using analytics and pull them together to be able to drive insights.”
Yet 73% of the 11,000 business and HR executives surveyed by Deloitte said that their C-suite leaders rarely, if ever, work together on projects or strategic initiatives. Says Volini: “That was the most shocking aspect of the report.”
You can listen to my entire interview with Volini here, along with Marty Goldensohn reporting on BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s call for companies to show how they’re making a “positive contribution to society” and Natalie Foster examining how the retail industry is being decimated by avarice, not just Amazon.
Growing Pains: Guest Farm Workers Face Exploitation, Dangerous Conditions – Part 2
The influx of migrant agricultural workers brought to the U.S. on temporary visas means increased competition for resident laborers – and less bargaining power.
The H-2A temporary agricultural program allows employers to bring workers from other countries, mainly Mexico, for temporary farm labor in the U.S. The workers are given visas that allow them to work in the U.S. but tie them to the employer that recruits them. Part 1 of this story explored unsafe working conditions and the explosive growth of the program.
In 2013 a pair of recruiters showed up in the Mexican state of Michoacán, promising jobs in California with free housing and transportation. To get the jobs, however, recruits had to pay a deposit of $1,500 each into the bank account of labor contractor Jorge Vasquez.
Charging recruitment fees is a violation of federal H-2A regulations. Nevertheless, Jose Raul Gonzalez, Efrain Cruz, Ana Teresa Cruz and Rosaura Chavez paid the money and went to Tijuana to wait for their visas. There they were taken to a house where 12 recruits slept in each room. The workers had to wait six weeks before they finally crossed the border. Then their passports were taken away. Their recruiter, Vasquez’s nephew Diego, said they’d get them back only after they came up with an additional $1,500.
The four wound up in Santa Maria picking strawberries, housed in a two-bedroom residence with 14 to 16 other H-2A workers. Each paid $80 a week for housing and food — another legal violation. Vasquez told them they couldn’t leave the residence except to go to work, threatening them with deportation and saying he could hurt their families in Mexico. Every day they were dropped off at the fields at 4 a.m. and worked until 3 to 5 p.m. They picked 30 to 35 boxes of berries a day, at $1 per box, but their first week’s pay was only $200. They were paid in cash, with no pay records. At the AEWR wage at the time, they should have been paid $721.
The second week they weren’t paid at all. Instead, they were told their pay was going towards their $1,500 “debt.” When Chavez asked to leave, Diego told him that he had to continue working until the debt was paid. Finally one of them escaped. The other three worked for two more weeks. After each deposited $1,500 into Vasquez’s account, they were fired and thrown out of the house.
On May 17 Vasquez and two others were indicted by the Department of Justice and arrested for charging workers for visas and making false promises that the visas would last for three years. Since 2012 they have filed petitions for over 350 workers.
Bad housing conditions for H-2A workers are not unusual. Last October the city of Santa Maria filed suit against a local slumlord, Dario Pini, over extreme violations of health and housing codes in hundreds of apartments in eight complexes. One of them, the Laz-E-Daze Boardinghouses at 1300, 1308, 1318 and 1324 North Broadway, is used as housing for H-2A workers. There city inspectors cited Pini for “deteriorated concrete walkways, accumulated trash, abandoned inoperable vehicles, plumbing leaks, unpermitted construction work, bedbug infestation, cockroach infestation, lack of hot water, faulty and hazardous electrical systems and broken windows and missing window screens.”
Two H-2A labor contractors list 1318 North Broadway as company housing in their applications for certification by the Department of Labor. Big F Company says 80 workers live there, and Savino Farms has 60 more. Other certification forms list even more questionable housing. La Fuente Farming Inc. lists one small dwelling at 403 W. Creston St. as housing for 14 workers. A completely tumble-down derelict trailer next to a strawberry field at 1340 Prell St. is listed as housing for six workers, also by La Fuente Farming. There is no record that the Department of Labor or the Employment Development Department actually examined the housing employers said they were providing.
Meanwhile, Santa Maria rents are rising. According to California Rural Legal Assistance attorney Corrie Arellano, growers and contractors bring about 800 workers into the Santa Ynez Valley each year. “At first they filled up almost all the inexpensive motel rooms in town,” she said. “Now they’re renting out houses and apartments, and pushing up rents.” Francisco Lozano, a Mixtec farm worker and community activist, and longtime Santa Maria resident, says his rent for a two-bedroom apartment has gone from $1,000 to $1,300 in three years. Mixtecos are an indigenous population in Mexico, whose language and culture long pre-date European colonization. A large percentage of California farm workers today are migrants from Mixteco and other indigenous Mexican towns.
“Our Mixteco community is upset for two reasons,” he explained. “We struggled with the school district to get them to hire a Mixtec-speaking translator for our children, some of whom don’t speak Spanish. But the new H-2A workers are all single men who leave after the harvest is over, so they have no stake in the schools or our families. In addition, Mixteco farm workers used to organize short strikes at the beginning of every picking season to push up piece rates and wages. Now people are afraid that if we do that the growers will bring in H-2A workers. I think H-2A is a kind of modern slavery.”
Mixtec farm worker: “I think H-2A is a kind of modern slavery.”
Similar community concerns are reflected in a study of housing conditions in Salinas made by demographer Rick Mines, “The Social Impact of the H2A Program in the Salinas/Pajaro Valleys.”
“There is a growing competition between the new migrants (the H-2A) and the old (the settled Mexican families),” he says. “This competition affects the availability of housing as the older migrants face higher prices and increased crowding in the apartments where most live. But, more importantly perhaps, the older settled workers will be getting less work as their younger co-nationals (the H2A) replace them in the fields.” By one estimate, half of the strawberry workers in the Salinas-Watsonville area are H-2A workers.
In Salinas two of California’s largest vegetable growers, Tanimura & Antle and the Nunes Company, are building new worker housing. These complexes are similar to those being rapidly constructed by growers in Washington State for their H-2A workers. While the Tanimura complex, with 800 beds, was made available to local residents, and the Nunes family says it may do the same with its 600 beds, both complexes eventually will likely become housing for H-2A workers. Tanimura already brings 800 H-2A workers into Yuma, Arizona, every year.
The regulation that originally required each employer to advertise jobs to local residents first, and allowed them to recruit H-2A workers only if there was no local labor available, has been drastically altered. Today labor contractors are allowed to apply for certifications, recruit workers and then move them from grower to grower, field to field. In effect, these contractors employ a flexible labor pool they place at the disposal of many growers. The assertion that they’ve tried to find local labor is just that — an unchecked assertion.
Last year Fresh Harvest Inc. was certified for 4,623 H-2A workers, and Elkhorn Packing Co. for 2,653. Fresh Harvest calls itself “one of the largest H-2A employers in the Western United States.” Its website has a special section where potential recruits in Mexico can register, with a schedule of recruitment events at offices in San Quintín, Baja California, and Zamora, Michoacán. Fresh Harvest manages the recruitment, certification and visa processing for growers, sets up housing, trains workers, files all government reports, and provides worker transportation. “We insist on taking an active role in the in-field/job site management of our employees,” the site claims. The company’s owner, Steve Scaroni, predicts that this year Fresh Harvest will bring over 7000 workers into California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Colorado, housing them in motels, apartments and labor camps.
Elkhorn Packing’s website describes the company as “a leading custom harvester with operations in the Salinas Valley, Santa Maria, El Centro and Yuma regions.” With a contract labor force of thousands of H-2A workers dispersed that widely, it is unlikely that the individual growers whose fields it harvests have each determined separately that no local workers are available.
Using Immigration Enforcement to Expand H-2A
While growers’ use of the H-2A program has increased sharply, immigration raids in rural areas of California have increased as well, especially following the election of President Trump. The high visibility of the Border Patrol in farm worker towns was dramatized in March by the deaths of an immigrant couple in Delano, who crashed their van while fleeing in terror from immigration agents. Over the last six months the Department of Homeland Security has initiated document checks leading to the firing of hundreds of workers at several large San Joaquin Valley farms, including Pitman Family Farms and Poindexter Nut Company in Sanger, Bee Sweet Citrus in Fowler, and Fresh Select in Dinuba.
Grower concern about maintaining a stable workforce has been exacerbated by threats from the President to build more border walls, and to use the E-Verify database to identify undocumented workers for termination or deportation. WGA President Nassif, who belongs to Trump’s agricultural advisory board, argues that this increased immigration enforcement is restricting the number of immigrant workers. That complaint, in turn, provides a rationale for expanding the H-2A program, reducing its requirements, and even redrafting the contract labor scheme entirely.
Concern about maintaining a stable workforce has been exacerbated by the President’s threats to build more border walls.
Replacing undocumented workers with H-2A recruits is not a new idea. In 2010 immigration authorities went through the payroll records of one of Washington State’s largest apple growers, Gebbers Farms, and identified 550 people they said had no legal immigration status. After the company fired them, it was then encouraged to use the H-2A program. According to Gebbers manager Jon Wyss, “Our first year, we hired 300 workers from Jamaica and 750 workers from Mexico for a total 1,150 H-2A workers.” By 2017 Gebbers was bringing more than 2,000 H-2A workers, Wyss testified to the House Immigration Subcommittee.
That committee was considering a bill sponsored by Virginia Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte, chair of the Judiciary Committee, called the Agricultural Guestworker Act. Goodlatte explained its goal: “A reliable, efficient, and fair program that provides American farmers access to a legal, stable supply of workers … [in] a new, flexible, and market-driven guest worker program.”
That bill would have provided employers with 450,000 workers yearly under a new H-2C visa at states’ minimum wages, or 115 percent [confirmed from actual text of act] of the federal minimum of $7.25/hour. Ten percent of workers’ wages would be withheld, and could be collected at the U.S. consulate only after returning to their home country. The proposal would have eliminated requirements that growers provide transportation and housing, and allowed them to employ guest workers year around, so long as they returned to the border every year to “touch back” before returning to their jobs.
In January Goodlatte incorporated the guest worker bill into a larger immigration bill, the Securing America’s Future Act. It would eliminate family-based visas for parents, children, brothers and sisters of legal immigrants and citizens. Guest workers would be prohibited from bringing their families with them. All employers would have to use the E-Verify system to identify and fire all undocumented workers.
“The White House right now is fully committed to the Goodlatte bill and trying to pass [it] out of the House,” a spokesperson told the Washington Times in February. President Trump owns a Virginia vineyard that employs H-2A workers, and won strong support from rural agricultural areas of California increasingly dependent on guest worker labor. Some of the state’s most powerful Republican congressmen have roots in agribusiness, including Jeff Denham, Devin Nunes and David Valadao. The House Majority Leader, Kevin McCarthy, represents Bakersfield and Kern County.
The Western Growers Association declined to support the Goodlatte bill, saying its touch-back provision was unworkable and its 410,000 annual guestworker limit too low. However, H-2A contractors like the Washington Farm Labor Association (WAFLA) are optimistic. “We are very positive about the Trump administration. I was in D.C. in December and met with the transition team, and our industry lobbyists have followed up,” WAFLA head Dan Fazio told a meeting of growers not long after the election, the Seattle Times’ Hal Bernton reported. “I don’t think there is a person in this room who voted for President Trump who wouldn’t vote for him again tomorrow.”
The Trump administration isn’t simply waiting for Congress to decide on the Goodlatte bill. On May 24 the secretaries of Agriculture, Homeland Security, State and Labor issued an “H-2A Agricultural Worker Visa Modernization Joint Cabinet Statement” promising to change the program rules “in a way that is responsive to stakeholder concerns and that deepens our confidence in the program as a source of legal and verified labor for agriculture.” While the promise is unspecific, changed regulations could do away with guarantees of housing and transportation, AEWR wage rates, and protections for resident farm workers — all changes growers have advocated. The statement also says the administration “plans to incentivize farmers’ use of the E-Verify program.” Requiring growers to use E-Verify to identify undocumented employees and fire them could lead to hundreds of thousands of workers losing their jobs, given that about half the farm labor workforce of 2 million people have no legal immigration status.
United Farm Workers national vice president Armando Elenes, however, condemned the political agenda that combines increased immigration enforcement with rising use of the H-2A program. “There’s a huge explosion of H-2A in California,” he said. “ICE does audits and raids, and then growers demand changes that will make H2-A workers even cheaper, by eliminating wage requirements or the requirement that they provide housing. Reducing the available labor and the increased use of H2-A are definitely connected.”
Growing Pains: Guest Farm Workers Face Exploitation, Dangerous Conditions – Part 1
Many migrant workers in California on H-2A temporary agricultural visas are forced to contend with unsafe working conditions, wage theft and other labor law violations.
Tomato grower Harry Singh had an idea for speeding up the harvest in the fields he rents at the Camp Pendleton Marine Base near San Diego. His foreman told Serafín Rincón, 61, to pick beside two imported contract workers in their 20s. In the summer heat, Rincón was told to run. He could hardly keep up.
Rincón had come to work with his friends Santiago Bautista and Rufino Zafra. They were all longtime farm workers in the area. Bautista had been working in San Diego since 2003, and Zafra since 1975. All day they had to listen to shouting and insults from their boss when they fell behind. “Stupid donkey, you’re old now,” he shouted at them. “You can’t make it anymore!”
The three even started trying to hold it when they had to go to the bathroom, after being yelled at for going too often. Not that using those bathrooms was a pleasant experience. The toilet paper ran out so often they started bringing their own from home. Zafra would even wipe down the filthy port-a-potty with paper towels. The drinking water tasted like “hot soup,” Bautista said. He had a heart attack at work, but still the foreman wouldn’t let him stop working. A medical examiner said later the attack was caused by his working conditions.
Finally Rincón was fired, and the three sued Harry Singh’s company, West Coast Tomato, over the abuse.
Migrant farm worker Santiago Bautista had a heart attack at work, but his foreman wouldn’t let him stop working.
Singh was one of the first growers to bring H-2A temporary agricultural workers to California. These young, mostly male workers are recruited in other countries, mainly Mexico. They’re given visas that allow them to work in the U.S. but tie them to the employer that recruits them. “Many of the younger workers whom our plaintiffs had to keep pace with were H-2As,” explained Jennifer Bonilla of California Rural Legal Assistance. She introduced expert testimony of Dr. Kenneth Silver, who tied the speedup to the production requirements given the younger H-2A workers.
The U.S. Department of Labor allows growers to put production quotas into the contracts under which workers are recruited to come to the U.S., and to fire workers for not meeting them. If H-2A workers get fired before the end of their contract, they lose its guaranteed weeks of work and pay. They also become immediately deportable. The grower doesn’t even have to pay their transportation to the border, much less to the town they came from.
That gives a grower a lot of leverage to get workers to work at an inhuman pace. And because the H-2A workers can be forced into it, workers who are living in the U.S., and laboring at the same job, get pressured into it as well. Humiliation, firings and even heart attacks are the result.
The Impact of the Explosive Growth of H-2A
This is just one impact on farm workers in California of the explosive growth of the H-2A guest visa program. Like everything connected to the state’s agriculture, it’s big business. California farm sales reached $46 billion in 2016 – an enormous production of food that has little to do with agribusiness’ oft-declared goal of “feeding the nation.” Almost half of what’s grown here leaves the country, in exports worth $20 billion.
Employing at peak season almost three quarters of a million people (719,000 in 2017 in California alone), this enormous industry needs workers. The growth of a captive, low-wage and vulnerable workforce at its heart has a profound effect, not just here, but across the nation.
Growers applied to the U.S. Department of Labor for certification to bring 44,619 H-2A workers into U.S. fields in 2004. Last year the number certified had grown to 200,049 — an increase of over 450 percent in little over a decade. California growers brought in 3,089 H-2A workers in 2012. In 2017 that had mushroomed to 15,232 — a 500 percent increase in just five years.
California growers brought in 15,232 H-2A workers in 2017 — a 500 percent increase in just five years.
The impact of guest workers will grow even more severe if Congress passes a bill (H.R. 4760, “Securing America’s Future Act”) that would not only put H-2A on steroids, but would do away with what little (mostly unenforced) protections currently exist for farm workers, both resident and recruited. Farmworker Justice, an advocacy group for farm workers in Washington D.C., calls the bill a “virulently anti-immigrant and anti-worker piece of legislation.” And four cabinet secretaries in the Trump administration have already promised growers to make the H-2A program more grower-friendly.
Growers claim that because of increased border enforcement, the number of available farm workers is falling, although the industry employed virtually the same number, 724,000, 20 years ago. “There is a severe ag labor shortage, and it’s only going to get worse,” wrote Tom Nassif, president of the Western Growers Association, on the WGA webpage. “Changing demographics and stringent regulatory barriers are causing the flow of workers crossing the border to dramatically slow down.” The Department of Labor estimates that about half of U.S. farm workers are undocumented, and in California the percentage is higher.
Unemployment in California’s farm worker towns, however, is always much higher than in urban areas. In April, for instance, the unemployment rate in Imperial County was 14.4 percent, in Merced County 8.7 percent, and Monterey County 6.7 percent. (In Los Angeles it was 4.1 percent and San Francisco 2.1 percent.) Yet according to Nassif, “Increased pay and overtime benefits aren’t going to attract any additional workers to the field. Those extra workers don’t exist.”
In reality, farm wages have been falling since the late 1970s, when the United Farm Workers was at its peak strength, and the base labor rate in union contracts was twice the minimum wage. Even non-union employers had to compete for workers by paying union wages. Today the average wage of California farm workers is just above the minimum wage — $11.68/hour by one estimate. The H-2A program, critics charge, allows growers to keep wages low, giving them an alternative to raising pay to attract labor.
Another CRLA case against Harry Singh dramatized the way West Coast Tomato could pit H-2A workers against local laborers to reinforce low wages and unsafe working conditions. The suit, Espinoza et al. v. West Coast Tomato Growers, accused the company of evading two legal requirements — that it hire local residents before recruiting H-2A workers, and that it pay local workers at least as much as it pays the imported laborers. CRLA’s plaintiffs included Elisa Valerio, Guillermina Bermudez and Felix Gomez, experienced local farm workers employed in the West Coast Tomato packing shed.
Once tomatoes are picked, they’re brought into a hot cavernous building where they’re sorted on high-speed conveyor belts. The three workers described intense pressure to maintain a very fast work pace, much like what Rincón experienced in the fields.
Both local and H-2A workers did the same work. West Coast Tomato, however, called the H-2A workers “packers” and the resident workers “sorters.” Its application to the Department of Labor claimed it couldn’t find local “packers” and therefore needed to fill jobs in the shed with H-2A workers. West Coast would hire only local workers as “sorters.”
Then the company paid sorters less than the H-2A wage. This rate, called the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR), is set every year by California’s Employment Development Department. In 2014 it was $11.01/hour. The three workers, however, were paid the minimum wage — $8/hour until July 2014, and $9/hour afterwards — because they were “sorters” and not “packers.”
Both the older local workers and younger H-2A contract laborers had to meet high production quotas. If the line stopped, the three plaintiffs said, the company docked their pay until it began again (a violation of state law). And when it was running they couldn’t even leave to use the bathroom. Valerio, Bermudez and Gomez couldn’t keep up and were fired in August 2014.
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Whelan rejected West Coast’s classification scheme, saying it allowed the company “to hire H-2A workers as ‘tomato packers’ without a legitimate shortage of qualified Americans and pay them more per hour than its American equivalent ‘tomato sorters.'”
CRLA Litigation Director Cynthia Rice charged, “It’s good that we can win these cases and get justice for some workers, but it’s a small number compared to the total number of H-2A and affected resident workers in the California workforce.”
Read part 2 of the story: Migrant workers housed like sardines, and the use of immigration enforcement to expand the H-2A visa program.
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