As the client services coordinator for Mano en Mano (Hand in Hand), Christina Ocampo understands that helping undocumented farmworkers and other immigrants prosper has a positive impact overall on America’s communities. Nationally, undocumented immigrants account for more than 36 percent of the agriculture workforce. And because this population can feel vulnerable and isolated, she says, they are often afraid to report crimes and unsafe workplaces. As a result, not only can employers subject all workers to subpar labor conditions — a situation that has a deleterious affect on U.S.-born wage earners — but communities also become less safe for everyone. The primary reason she wants to see the current immigration system reformed, however? “I believe all 11 million undocumented people living in the United States deserve permanent protection, dignity, and respect,” she says. “Not because of their labor and economic contributions, but because of their humanity.”
In Maine’s Second Congressional District, a large, rural region that covers all but the state’s southern coast and its cities, only 2.7 percent of the population is foreign-born, far below the national average of 13.2 percent. But 58 percent of these foreign-born individuals are of working age, and adults are twice as likely as natives in the district to have less than a high school education. As a result, they tend to be over-represented in low-skilled jobs that Americans don’t want and that Maine desperately needs, comprising 4.9 percent of the workforce in hospitality and food services and 3.8 percent of the workforce in education, healthcare, and social assistance. “These people are the backbone of our nation,” Ocampo says. Maine, the nation’s oldest state, faces a constricting economy if it fails to attract newcomers of working age.
Ocampo grew up in a family of immigrants and knows firsthand how hard many work. Although she was born in New York, her mother, a single parent, and her two siblings were all born in Colombia. “We’ve grown up in a home led by an independent woman,” Ocampo says. “My mom worked double shifts at a restaurant, then delivered newspapers through the night to provide for us. It was tough because she couldn’t be with us; she was gone to work when I woke up and wasn’t yet home when I’d return. But witnessing how hard she worked was really influential and motivational for me.”
Today Ocampo’s family lives in New Jersey, where Ocampo earned a bachelor’s degree from Drew University, double majoring in environmental studies and sustainability, and in anthropology. After graduation, she worked with several nonprofits focused on environmental and food issues before taking a permanent position with Mano en Mano, where she helps to integrate a population considered critical to Maine’s economic future. Despite the relatively small number of immigrants in central and northern Maine — there were 17,889 foreign-born residents in the district in 2014 — they contribute a combined $141.2 million in tax payments and hold $372.4 million in spending power annually, vital contributions in a state that faces a critical shortage of workers.
“I think they deserve protection and to be treated with dignity and respect,” says Ocampo. “It’s not just the labor they give. They are humans and part of our society.” It’s important to remember, she points out, that many immigrants came to the United States because they were unsafe or lacked any employment opportunities in their own countries — conditions sometimes fostered, in part, by U.S. foreign policy.
Ocampo advocates a pathway to permanent documented status for every immigrant who is already contributing in the United States. Currently these people have no path to citizenship unless they can secure temporary protection, which “allows for too much grey area,” she says. “That tears families apart and causes everyone to live in fear. We have to do better.”