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La Liga de Las Americas

2,000 Miles North: A sneak peak into the lives of undocumented guestworkers and their mammoth challenges  


By Arooj Ashraf, on special assignment for La Prensa


With the ongoing immigration reform debate in Washington, D.C., a poignant documentary gives voice to the plight of nearly 1,500 undocumented Guatemalans in Tuscarawas County, Ohio.

Don Bryant


2,000 Miles North’ candidly shares personal stories of these guestworkers and the challenges they face in overcoming language, social, cultural, and legal barriers.


Their story begins in the rural mountains of Guatemala, where the average monthly income is $1.78; where the working hours are long but ends never meet; and where a mother holds her sick newborn till her/his premature death because medicine is beyond her means.


Hope brings them north across borders, north to the United States—to a country that promises equality, jobs, justice, and a prosperous future.


But for most undocumented immigrants, their journey is only the beginning of unbelievable challenges they must endure. From working in inhumane conditions, with meager wages and no benefits, and in constant fear of deportation, they struggle daily to survive in the shadows.


Their children born or raised in the United States face more uncertainty. Their fate depends on their parents’ struggle to remain in the country.


These immigrants play an essential role in the food and manual labor industries. The food industry can not exist without migrant workers who are willing to work 12-hour shifts, at minimum wage, in extremely strenuous conditions.


Nearly 24 percent of the adult population in Guatemala relies on remittance—money sent by undocumented workers in the United States to their native land.


According to the Inter-American Development Bank’s Multilateral Investment Fund, in 2006, nearly $45 billion in migrant remittance money was sent from the United States to Latin American countries.


Sherrel Rieger and Charles Thornton

“Everyone who sees the film says that it has helped them understand the precarious situation of the immigrants,” says Sherrel Rieger, a Dover school teacher. She is one of the main sources in the documentary and the woman who can be credited for its inception. Rieger volunteers her Spanish translation services to Dover hospitals and highway patrol.


2,000 Miles North began as a Master’s thesis project for Kent State University student Charles Thornton, Rieger’s future son-in-law.


During Thornton’s visits with Rieger, he was exposed to the immigrant revelations. Thornton then approached his friend Keith Potoczak and began filming the documentary in January 2006.


Rieger said the documentary has become a tool that humanizes the issue of immigration and creates a personal connection with undocumented workers. She hopes it will inspire people to get involved, by volunteering or in influencing policy-making.


Chicahua Nechahual was moved to tears by the film and says the personal stories depicted speak volumes about the injustices and struggles faced by undocumented workers in the United States.


Nechahual is the co-director of World Peace Exchange, a project of Immigrant Support Network.

“We provide resources for people who need help with legalization, deportation, or are in a crisis situation, and educational services,” she says of the grassroots advocacy group.

Hector Castellanos and Chicahua Nechaual at the showing of ‘2,000 Miles North’
—Photo by Arooj Ashraf


The Cleveland screening of the documentary was sponsored by World Peace Exchange and hosted at the C-Space Center. The event attracted a dozen people who had the opportunity to debate the film and hear personal migration stories from guests.


“This is an important issue and we want people to be educated about it so they can help reform the immigration bill,” said Don Bryant, director of World Peace Exchange.


The documentary addresses many key questions concerning the benefits and setbacks of an undocumented labor force. Many opponents of a fair immigration reform argue undocumented immigrants drain resources and take advantage of healthcare benefits, while contributing little to the economy.


“That is not the case,” says Nechahual
“We forget the people breaking their butts to put food in our stores as we gorge ourselves, sit back getting fat, and demand they be sent back home,” said Nechahual.


Rieger said the first Guatemalans arrived in Tuscarawas County in the early 1990s because companies like Gerber’s Poultry, Inc. [www.gerbers.com] actively recruited from the Latin American labor force. The migrating recruits settled in Tuscarawas County because the work was plentiful and they found support groups like the Catholic charities that made transitions bearable.

According to the documentary, there are nearly 7.2 million undocumented workers paying taxes in the United States. That amounts to 4.9 percent of the entire workforce who are ineligible to collect benefits at the end of the year.


Ruth M. Rubio-Pino is a professional Spanish interpreter and she said the unclaimed taxes benefit the government treasury. An expert source in the documentary said this additional revenue has held up the social security benefits.


Rubio-Pino said most people who are against immigration are ignorant of the facts and if they were educated on the matter they would most likely vote for immigration reform. She said the current situation only leads to exploitation, threat, and fear.


A member of the audience said he was surprised to see the amount of support groups in Tuscarawas County. He witnessed a hostile attitude toward immigrants in southern Ohio, where organized clans harassed all immigrants.

Rieger said audiences have been very receptive to the documentary. “Most people know where I stand, so they don’t really approach me if they are against it,” she said. Nechahual counters those against immigration by mentioning Christopher Columbus, his journey of 1492, and that in reality all citizens of the United States are descendants of immigrants.


2,000 Miles North makes it clear that building a wall across the border will not stop undocumented immigrants. In previous years the border patrols have been tripled but this has only resulted in more migrant deaths.


The movie asserts that the true solution to the problem requires universal economic prosperity in Latin America. It effectively counters common myth about immigrants and raises concerns for the future.  


World Peace Exchange is sponsoring an Immigrant Identity Education Day on February 10, 2007, at 2:00 p.m. The event is hosted by C-Space, 4323 Clark Ave., Cleveland.


For more information or to volunteer contact: Don Bryant 216-631-2233 or [email protected]. To purchase a copy of the documentary, email Rieger at [email protected].







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