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Farmworkers draw student support

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In the border town of Nogales, Mexico, people prepare to risk their lives trying to cross deserts, mountains and the turf of dangerous drug traffickers. Coyotes, smugglers who are paid to illegally haul immigrants into the United States, scout for border crossers and then drive vans crammed with dozens of people to the Tohono O'odham Indian reservation that straddles the U.S. border.

If the border crossers make it, many will board buses that take them to farms across rural North Carolina, where they handpick fruits and vegetables.

This spring, Triangle college students have delved into the world of undocumented workers, bringing back stories about the complex culture and economic realities, staging local protests at a national restaurant chain and hosting educational events on campus.

Duke students taking a class about farm workers in North Carolina traveled to Nogales over spring break to collect photographs and stories about crossing the border. They collaborated with other student groups and Student Action with Farmworkers, a Durham-based advocacy group, to present a documentary project based on their experiences during Farmworkers Awareness Week, which ran March 26 to April 5.

"In a way, we made our own mini migration," said Lucy Zhang, a Duke student who traveled to Nogales and to Wilson, N.C., to meet undocumented workers.

She said the trip made her realize how fortunate she was just to have a U.S. passport, which sells for more than $20,000 on the black market in Nogales—even if it's expired.

Many undocumented immigrants move through the United States working as migrant agricultural laborers, stopping in North Carolina along the way. Sam Wurzelmann, a UNC-Chapel Hill student, met some of these undocumented workers while on an alternative spring break trip to Newton Grove, N.C. Hearing their stories and seeing the conditions in which they live and work inspired Wurzelmann to join Alianza, a student advocacy group for farm workers.

"I just didn't realize that there was such an exploited population in our own backyard," he said. "In this community, people don't really realize they exist because they are so distanced."

Some students protested outside of a Chapel Hill Burger King as part of a campaign targeting large fast food chains, asking them to pay tomato pickers an extra penny per pound of tomatoes picked, and to agree to a code of conduct for treatment of workers. Tomato workers are paid the same wage today that they were paid in 1978. They must pick and haul two tons of tomatoes to earn $50 a day, says Tony Macias, assistant director of SAF. Other fast food chains like Taco Bell have agreed to the wage increase and code of conduct, and Macias hopes the campaign will bring about similar changes for workers in other crops that are picked by hand.

"I've been very happy and impressed by the number of people who have come out, particularly among students," Macias said. "Folks are really motivated by the fact that people here went to the border."

For more information, see SAF's Web site at cds.aas.duke.edu/saf. For the story of one Burger King protester, see "Protester's case raises questions."

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