Tag Archives: Migrant workers

Strongman on the Border

The border was closed and immigration authorities simply ‘at capacity,’ announced newspapers, after a Caravan of migrants from Central America arrived.  In rejecting the ability to process new arrivals who lacked necessary papers of transit, the papers parroted a an anti-immigrant line, revising the southwestern border from a line of passage, or space of transit, in what seemed a meme about the border as a threshold of legality-as if a line defines the legality of those who cross it. The image that suggested migrants atop the wall, or of others scaling a dilapidated section of slatted border fence near San Isidro–“through a dark, treacherous canyon, notorious for human trafficking and drug smuggling”–collapsed multiple tropes of border-crossing on the least likely of targets:  a peaceful procession through Mexico that began on Easter Sunday, crossing borders to call global attention to migrants’ rights.

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While the simple visualization of the course of the procession that wound through Mexico City from the southernmost border of Mexico cannot trace the mental geography on which the arrival of migrants was mapped in the United States, the progress of Central American migrants was viewed and mapped by Donald Trump and FOX in terms of the desire to see their arrival from behind the proposed $18 billion border wall that has become a contentious object of debate.  As the number of arrests along the border has grown above 50,000 for the third straight month in a row, and more children separated from parents in an attempt to broadcast cautionary warnings about the dangers of attempting to cross the border, or to appeal to existing immigration laws by asylum pleas, stories of migrants that the proposed wall would silence are increasingly difficult to silence or contain, and the human narratives of migrants are increasingly difficult to place behind the imaginary screen of an insurmountable border wall,–which of course does not exist, save as a mental construct–but is cherished as one and difficult for many to relinquish or deny.  Even though there is no structure corresponding to the height, thickness, and architectural design that Trump had treated audiences during his campaign, the Caravan threatened to remind us that the wall didn’t exist, despite the attention that has been lavished on its proposed construction at a cost of an estimated $18 billion, far below what actual costs might in fact be.

The specter of the arriving migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras–the triumvirate of “failing states” that Trump has demonized and sought to distance the nation–seemed cast as an oddly unstoppable “horde” that had defied Mexican immigration authorities who had not turned them back, and whose arrival was magnified as a threat to create a persuasive image that reminded the nation of the urgent need for the wall.  After months of dehumanizing migrants as faceless hordes, poised at the border, migrants seemed to have arrived at the border fencing, about to breach an inadequate barrier that is a relic dating from the era of the Vietnam War.  The news of the progression of the Caravan–and clouded interpretation of what their aims for crossing the United States’ southwestern border truly were–led them to become a poster child for the urgency with which Donald J. Trump has so stridently advocated the construction of a “real wall,” with an intransigence that almost embodies the physicality of an actual concrete wall, a month before the construction of the border wall began in San Diego and Calexico, CA, replacing some fourteen miles of improvised border fencing that was long ago made of scrap metal to “secure our border” as a way to “make America great again.”  The promotion of building the border wall was a way to ensure “public safety” followed repeated images of migrants attempting to scale or protest before existing improvised fencing–

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-whose inadequacy to deal with the border threat Trump had relentless ridiculed as useless during his Presidential campaign.  The danger of cross-border traffic that Trump had repeatedly magnified circulated back to prominence within the national media with the arrival of the migrant Caravan.  The hope for the migrants to gain asylum in the United States was immediately questioned as their true agenda was assumed to be one of evading the border controls before the Wall was built–and the immigration laws that would permit their entry changed.

If the announcement of the construction was a feign of a a show of strength, and promoted as a basis for national pride, it was an insult to migrants petitioning for asylum, as the promotion of the border wall as a sign of national security debased the notion of the nation as one of laws and civil society.  The promotion of the wall as a slogan of nationalism remapped the nation in relation to the border, after all, in the Newspeak of social media and twitter–“Strong Borders are Security”, “Immigrants are Criminals”; “Refugees are Terrorists”–the border wall protected national security and projected the idea that all migrants were illegal.  The spatial imaginary of the border wall echoed the longstanding claim, made without evidence, that the immigrants at the border were “the worst” of their society, and for allowing an untold number of undesirables to enter the the nation.  As well as protesting the treatment of the United States”the dumping ground of European Refuse” as an insult to the nation, the insult was accepted by the nation.  The blame rests on citizens who are accept the very immigrants Europe does not want.  The image, which appeared just before Bartholdi’s “Statue of Liberty” was erected in New York Harbor, raised objections to accepting those rejected by Europe’s crowned heads, of dubious value to the nation that echoed Trump’s position.

European Refuse.pngKendrick, “And We Open Our Arms to Them” Life Magazine (July 12, 1885), 

The very chaotic narrative of depositing “human refuse”–a group of former colonials identified as “not like us” but being advanced by an invisible broom–was repeated in the image of the approaching Caravan, as the legitimacy of their requests for asylum from Central American nations were questioned, and suggested to be fundamentally an illustration of disrespect for the law.  The “Caravan” of over 1,000 migrants seeking a better life was widely mapped as a threat to sovereignty and law, recasting a protest march that promoted migrants’ rights as an invasion of sovereign space–and a grounds to deny migrants’ rights.  The  tweets of President Trump directed the attention of the country to the border to query the status of the migrants who were headed to the nation, as he announced instructions  “not to let these large Caravans of people into our country”–magnifying the migrants as a national threat through a dichotomy between “them” and “us.”   The anxieties about immigration policies that Kenrick’s cartoon registered panic at the caricatured faces of the new arrivals.

In announcing an intent of illegal entry across the border, Trump once again conjured the need for a border wall, as if trying to co-opt the message of migrants to create an image of a cross-border threat.  The construction of border walls against an “existential threat to the nation”–as did the former commander of the southern border who was named Trump’s director of Homeland Security and now his Chief of Staff—creates an urgency for protection that corrodes the possibility of an open society.  Kelly’s disparagement of migrants as “people who would not easily assimilate into the United States,” “overwhelmingly rural,” from countries where “fourth, fifth, and sixth grade education are the norm,” described them with the same disdain as Kendrick’s cartoon from the early Life of the 1880s protested the insult by which ex-colonials were sent to the United States as to Australia or India, which had indeed become “dumping grounds” for convicts, remittance men, and socially unwanted cast-offs, as well as seeing them as barbarians who threatening the social fabric of the United States.  The disparagement of migrants who are seeking asylum as uneducated, of rural origins, or indeed, as Kelly’s remarks must have reminded his audience, criminals.

ICE 2014 arrests gangs--ms13?ICE Arrests of undocumented immigrants, 2014

The disproportionate warnings of a “border threat” or “trouble at the border”  telegraphed on Twitter was inserted in a narrative rooted in the plan to create a border barrier of cast concrete in August 2015, in the heat of the Presidential election–a mission that crystallized support behind Trump’s campaign.  Trump insisted that the border wall he advocated wasn’t rhetorical, symbolic, or virtual–a space defined by hi-tech monitoring–but an impervious barrier that would succeed where other poor-quality fencing had failed.

The build-up of the arrival of the migrant caravan ran against the disproportionate attention that Trump had drawn to the border.  As Trump pedaled the fiction that the wall had already been begun, newscasters on FOX mapped a showdown by the approach toward the border of “that scary migrant caravan” of Central Americans with American law enforcement as inevitable, placing the migrants in a narrative of unwieldly crisis of immigration management on the US-Mexico border.  In ways that intersect with a broad unease of increased immigration–often manifesting itself in extreme xenophobia, othering and racism–a vaguely masked anti-immigrant sentiment that has growth in the United States over the last four to five years which Trump has deftly exploited. For the ‘border wall’ was recognized code for a thinly disguised racism, captured in John Kelly’s characterization of the Caravan–and migrants–as “overwhelmingly rural people” not capable of assimilating, who “don’t have the [necessary] skills” to do so, and are “overwhelmingly rural people,” as if ignoring just how dependent U.S. farms are on immigrant labor.

The disproportionate attention the Trump and his planned border wall directed to the southwestern border made the region seem far more immediate to all Americans–and defined the Caravan’s approach as national news.  Although the formation of such “Caravans”–a name not coined by Americans, though it gained new spin in the mouth of President Donald J. Trump, who had grown frustrated with an uptick in U.S. Border Patrol metrics of illegal entry–the tactic that was long adopted by advocacy groups to foreground migration difficulties was used by the group Pueblos sin Fronteras, or Peoples without Borders, whose name was seen as revealing their opposition to the redefinition of the southwestern border of the United States, which has also been mapped onto the wall–creating a reflexive panic at the sight of large crowds of unidentified migrants marching toward the border.  The legal and physical obstacles that Trump promised to place on Mexicans or Central Americans seeking entry to the United States were always twinned, but the arrival of the migrant Caravan seemed to give it a new urgency, and to legitimize, as a suddenly mainstream demand of border management, the ability to control human cross-border flows.

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The march was described disdainfully as a “political stunt” in media, as the Attorney General and Director of Homeland Security demonized the “Caravan of migrants.”  Trump had promised the nation a border wall unlike the reclaimed corrugated metal fencing in Tijuana, but made of  “precast [concrete] plank,” a protective barrier far more powerful and robust than the inadequate fencing he treated as “a joke” and a disgrace to the nation, and which the multitude of migrants were seen as able to cross, but in need of immediate arrest and detention in a fantasy of border enforcement.  If Trump had promised to be a strongman at the border, the old border wall seemed indeed flimsy obstacles, unable to stop even the crowd from the Caravan who arrived to petition for asylum at San Ysidro, CA.

Migrants arrive at Tijuana

The peaceful protest of the Caravan de madres centroamericanas, to use their full name, was recast as a march of opposition to Trump’s border policy, while for Trump, as some three hundred odd members of the Caravan arrived at San Isidro, a recognized port of entry, in five busloads, and mounted on a fence made of repurposed scrap metal became for President Trump evidence of a crisis of sovereignty.  In response to a crisis he seemed to have created on Twitter, he ordered the Department of Homeland Security to “stop the caravan,” displaying his knack for sound bytes and slogans, and imagine that, searching for the right string of capital letters on his keyboard,  only “a strong, impenetrable WALL. . . will end this problem once and for all”–even if the problem lay with the places the migrants had fled.  The motion of “migrants,” now cast as “illegal aliens” in the right-wing press, even as they hoped for a miracle from god able to “touch the hearts of immigration agents,” was not able to be seen clearly by many, even if their course was carefully mapped over the previous month in increasingly colorful reportage.

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Filed under 2016 US Presidential Election, Donald Trump, immigration, mapping the US-Mexican border, unauthorized immigrants

Looking for the Local in the Age of Unilever

The branding of Ben & Jerry’s “Home-Made” ice cream exploited Vermont’s appreciation of its local dairy farms from its very start:  the image of the green grasses that fed Vermont cows and independent farmers helped promote the home-grown qualities of what once passed as artisanal ice cream in America–as much as its super-premium swirled chunks.  But fears that the famously reputedly socially-conscious manufacturer of ice cream might lose track of its local origins as it was distributed by the Unilever ice-cream Anglo-Dutch conglomerate seem to have been borne out by the shifting relation of the brand to space, to judge by the relation of the ice-cream maker that long trumpeted its specific geographic origins to the farms that lie in its real and metaphorical back yard.

What are the costs at which the Vermont ice-cream maker that  cast its use of local dairy–before the allegedly Scandinavian recipe of Haagen Dasz–as a defense of the home-made forsaken its ties to the very state that it once announced as its  home?  While long known for paying premium prices to Vermont dairy farmers, as well as for its super-premium ice cream, recent questions about the company’s treatment of migrant workers may lift a corner on some deep transformations of its ethos.  Despite the celebrated smoothness with which the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate fielded a CEO to the guys who marked “Imagine Whirled Peace,” and spun other up-beat slogans into their wares with the abandon of clusters of chocolate-covered caramels and toffee while donating percentages their pre-tax profits, the transition of the ice-cream maker’s identity may have been far less smooth.  Despite the continued services provided by listing Flavors We Could Lose to Climate Change on their website, the strained relation between the “local” and “global” is increasingly apparent in the balance between sourcing local ingredients and caring about global issues, even if everyone loves ice cream and the donation of 27,ooo pounds of ice cream to help create the world’s largest sundae merits congratulations–as does all their work in creating jobs with a product that continues to taste good.

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The early appropriation of the image of local Vermont dairy farmers’ cream and milk was no small part of the allure Ben & Jerry’s long cultivated as a locally sourced ice-cream, created only with milk purely from Vermont cows–and co-opting the support for local milk, long, long, before ban-RBGH concerns were even voiced, and when the ice cream appealed primarily to the local sweet tooth, and the milk seemed unproblematically local.

Has the sweetness of Vermont dairy curdled in an age less tied to place, and where the community of Vermont dairy workers is no longer entirely clear?  For even as the external values of the corporation have thankfully remained fairly intact since 2001, allowing continued philanthropy, embrace of progressive politics as well as of organic, sustainable, and Fair Trade suppliers,the ice cream maps far less closely onto the local community from which those crêpes and ice cream sundaes first sprung.

 

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Ben & Jerry’s Finest ice cream quickly became a local icon in Vermont; its Waterbury location is near the now legendary first site of ice-cream churning with an old VW bus, where it has served as a sort of shrine, tourist destination, and site for indulging in ice-cream concoctions, and the official burial site and graveyard of retired flavors, and the firm has long reached out to support worthy local causes to illustrate the centrality of its membership in the local Vermont community.

The brand has of course long capitalized on exclusively using locally sourced cows for its milk and supporting Vermont farmers–years before and after they went public in 1984, and back in the late 1970s.  But something slightly odd happened to “all those quirky values” in the agrarian economy of the state and the local status of the brand that is all too evident in the geography of its current Scoop Shops.  For the renegade ice cream of two regular guys changed from one of the most popular items at local gas stations, general stores, and Scoop Shops in Vermont, to being an object of relative revile in some areas of the same state.  While the celebrated “quirky style” of super-premium flavors boasts by Ben & Jerry’s Homemade was long part of the local geography of a region dotted with dairy farms, the promises of the glocal mission of a corporate distribution of the expanding flavors has swiftly bent the rainbow of Scoop Shops to the forces of marketing with visible results.

The result is to warp the landscape of local loyalty, spreading with a density that seemed like broken “Oreo”-style cookie bits throughout the northeast and eastern seaboard, albeit with large, empty distances apparent on Google Maps.

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In this condition of national expansion–and distribution world-wide–it makes sense to consider the relation of Ben & Jerry’s home-made is to the Green Mountain state with which it still publicly self-identifies.

For the embrace of global causes by the ice-cream maker seems to dovetail with the distribution of a globalized world, so that as it has spread across America, the ice cream seems to have become distanced from Vermont.  When the store-owner of one store was politely asked whether they carried the ice cream advertised on a poster showing the smiling faces of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield from days gone by, the amiable if gruff shop owner seated directly behind a worn wooden counter replied “Nope,” and when asked why grumbled the equally reticent if slightly exasperated and drawn out “Because they’re assholes,” without further comment.  None was needed for the shopkeeper, who kept a worn Ben & Jerry’s post in the window as if in memory of times past.

The local shop-owner of few words wasn’t referring to Messrs. Cohen and Greenfield, long locally celebrated stars, but rather to the distributors of ice-cream since 2001, Unilever–an Anglo-Dutch conglomerate who snapped up the once “Home-Made” company, with far fewer ties to the Vermont farmers and stores than the company’s founders, and linked it to the corporate world at $43.60 a share.  Free cone day–famous as the day that its internet site crashed because it coincided with the hottest day of the summer–was in fact celebrated in relatively few stores in the Vermont area, according to B&J’s own website . . .

scoop shops in age of Unilever

The story of what happened to the local ice-cream after its acquisition by Unilever is interesting to map.  The acquisition reflects the transformation of a local success story into a cultivated boutique factory that claims to boast local charm, but ships worldwide to big stores and cultivates college towns, as it neglects its very own back yard.  So much is suggested in the relatively glaring absence of celebrated Scoop Shops across Vermont nearby the factory store itself, which still attracts visitors for tours.  The story surely demands to be told in relation to the changing landscape of ice cream–a $32.4 billion market in 2006–and the currently quite indistinct relation to the concept of the locally sourced, and depends on supermarket chains where the seemingly ever-more-candied and cream-rich confection is sold.

The ice cream makers seem to have themselves cultivated a numinous relation to world freedoms in flavors like ‘Rain Forest Crunch’ and ‘Imagine Whirled Peace’ (an overpowering caramel and sweet cream, swirled with fudge peace signs), the self-satisfied ‘Save our Swirled’ (Raspberry Ice Cream with Marshmallow and Raspberry Swirls, and Dark and White Fudge), pushing new limits of swirling, or ‘Brewed to Matter’ that exclusive uses shade-grown coffee?  Is its promise of “euphoria” a bit too stratospheric in its aspirations?

globe of ice cream cone

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The fears of an eventual loss of the small-town culture once cultivated by the successful if once renegade ice-cream makers of Waterbury, who opted to sell their company as the notion of broadening their commitment to social justice was effectively dangled before their eyes, when Unilever co-chairman Niall Ferguson, arriving to meet Ben & Jerry sporting a knapsack rather than attache case, addressed concerns by promoting his own interest in sustainable agriculture for three hours, and then let Richard Goldstein, head of Unilever’s North American operations, approach Ben Cohen himself with the words, “Ben, do you realize the opportunity you have here to help this company grow in its social commitment?” as a teaser of the still-greater “social impact” the ice-cream maker might have in this new business arrangement.

The broad social platform Ben & Jerry’s has since eagerly assumed have channeled its brand recognition to advance causes from non-GMO foods and marriage equality to rain-forest preservation and global warming.  It has led to the creation of several persuasive maps that are identifiably promoting the font and iconography from cartons of the premium ice-cream, in ways that seem to lend if not cement the ice cream’s logo to progressive causes.  The playful “Ben & Jerry’s” font was used to follow the evolution of states’ legal stances toward marriage equality in previous decades, providing a platform to direct public attention toward tracking the advance of marriage equality in the United States in the very lettering that we might be more familiar from reading in scoop shops or on ice-cream cartons:

B&J Marriage Equality Map Same-Sex Ruling OCt 6

B & J Marriage Equality

And, of course, the Burlington Scoop Shop was indeed often made the symbolic center of advancing progressive causes–especially when Vermont was one of the few states in the union where same-sex marriage was legally allowed–that seem fueled on the sugar-backed ice cream served across the street on Pride Day, adopting the trademarked lettering and rainbow backdrop for cows to sport heart-shaped pink-tinted eyeglasses that echo the nineteen-sixties’ counter-culture it has effectively reclaimed:

B&J Marriage Equality march

Is the political platform of Unilever offered, by allowing the ice-cream to go “hands free” that can promote social causes also a bit of an inevitable abandonment of the very rootedness in the Vermont dairy community that once defined the ice cream’s core values in the days before it marked such core centers as fudge, caramel, or real raspberry jam?

The costs of becoming one of Unilever’s “global brands”–and among its 2000 brands of ice-cream it owned by 2006, in what was a growing 32.4 billion ice cream market, in which place or locality seemed to mean much less.  The contradiction was apparent as the ice-cream began to loose market shares quickly–even as it gained a global presence, and “went warehouse.”

Ben & Jerry's vs. Haagen Das

One visible consequence of “going warehouse” is present on the map.  The distribution of scoop shops in the state of Vermont sharply reduce once abundant celebrated stores on the state map.  For the distributors of the locally produced ice cream have, in a snub to their clientele, closed many of the very shops that once sprouted up with the density of candy and cookie bits that once seemed so specific to the super-premium ice cream.  The maps displayed on the company’s website which allows customers to find the stores nearest to their zip suggest the considerable costs of the greater remove from Vermont at which that buyout came–and of the shift to a global/glocal ice-cream that the company adopted in its new corporate guise.

absence of scoop shops

Panning out nationally on the OSM slippy map, one finds a paltry three Scoop Shops in the state that once seemed inseparable from the charm of an ice cream that promoted local values, but seems now more glocal, and more with an eye on outside markets than the state for which local farms were long said to produce the milk and cream–or the notion of Scoop Shops were less appealing, and too much overhead, in comparison to supermarkets after the big acquisition removed the ice cream from the community, and its social mission expanded to making “the world a better place” by taking on climate change through Rain Forest Crunch and GMO farming through its reliance on somewhat carefully sourced ingredients, and its economic mission geared primarily to “sustainable financial growth.”  Although “climate justice” is difficult to see as compatible with a product that depends on refrigeration, long-term trucking, and huge freezer storage space in the warehouses it employs to distribute its product nation- and world-wide–despite some notable attempts to introduce innovative low-energy freezers.

scoop shops in age of Unilever absence of scoop shops Scoop Shops Post-Unilever

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Those few Scoop Shops easily located on the company website indicate the increasingly market-driven nature of the locations of a chain that seems somehow less based in Vermont, site of its main factory that offers year-round tours.  A cute map uses chocolate ice-cream cone designators that pop out of whatever landscape “near me” at its website–yet few stores have survived in the state apart from three scoop shops in Waterbury, Burlington, and Rutland.

Scoop Shops Post-Unilever

southern us

One can’t go home again, to be sure.  But is the disappearance of the local in this once locally-produced confected treat more symptomatic of a deeply corporate design of the marketing and the production of ice cream?  For the production of an ice cream that long vaunted locally sourced milk from Vermont dairy farms seems to depend far more on migrant labor–and poor working conditions–than the brightly colored ice-cream containers would suggest.

But has the ice cream once boasted “Vermont’s Finest” deeply divorced itself from the site of its first success?  For the recent spate of complaints and protests that the ostensibly socially minded brand of super-premiums actually rests on the sweat of migrant workers and low wages raises more than an eyebrow about the wage and labor conditions that go into producing all those rich flavors, and cannot but echo the chagrin of the local shop-owner.  For the problems of profit-sharing–almost a mantra in the early days of the ice-cream makers–has launched a Milk with Dignity (MWD) campaign that aims at improving the living conditions and wages as well as work conditions of the   1,200 to 1,500 migrant workers who help manage milk production on Vermont’s 868 dairy farms.  The sort of demands for  greater autonomy and a say in working conditions is not specific to dairy production or Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, but range from better housing to leave time in ways that would surely fluster the former ice-cream makers.  

For despite the vaunting of global causes on the tops and sides of those containers of ice cream, the local conditions of work for many seem horrendous, and hard to defend.  Of the workers recently surveyed, some 40% earned less than the minimum wage.  Many lack health insurance, are denied medical care, or allowed breaks for eating during their workdays, which sometimes exceed twelve hours in length–in ways hard to square with the company’s stated social mission or its stated ethical imperatives from fair-trade bananas to non-RBGH milk, or cage-free eggs.  Despite the continued window dressing of imperatives that resonate with Whole Foods, the ’s signature do-gooder brand seems to have neglected the workplace conditions of many of the dairies with whom it contracts, and failed to adopt an agenda of improving workplace conditions besides vague hopes that try to link humane farming practices about cultivating a work/life balance.

Milk with DignityMigrant Justice

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Filed under Ben and Jerry's, labor conditions, Vermont