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Published: Monday, 10/10/2005

FLOC leader shares insight of immigrants

Beatriz Maya, a native of Argentina, fights for the rights of immigrants with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. Beatriz Maya, a native of Argentina, fights for the rights of immigrants with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.

Beatriz Maya said hearing about the abuses that migrant farm workers and other immigrants face regularly has made her a passionate advocate for immigrants' rights.

Ms. Maya, 48, is a native of Argentina. She said that background has given her unique insight and understanding into the fears of the workers she comes across as a co-director with the Toledo-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee.

"We are a nation of immigrants and the issue of immigration should be an important one to all of us," said Ms. Maya, who has worked with the FLOC staff since 1992.

"We wanted to get involved in immigration reform and make sure immigrants are treated with respect and dignity," she said.

Baldemar Velasquez, FLOC's founder and longtime president, said Ms. Maya has been a driving force behind the National Coalition for Dignity and Amnesty for Immigrants, made up of organizations nationwide fighting for the rights of immigrants and undocumented workers.

Ms. Maya said she believes the general public's view of immigrants and migrant workers reflects how the general public views freedom for all of its residents. She said migrant workers have continued to make the U.S. economy the strongest in the world.

She helps organize an advocacy trip annually to Washington, where immigrants and undocumented workers get a chance to lobby Congress on bills that will give them better protections.

Ms. Maya said companies often recruit immigrants and undocumented workers to do low-paying jobs. She said that FLOC has noticed a shift in the migrant population since the mid-1990s that included a larger number of people from Mexico and numerous other Latin American countries.

She said FLOC saw these immigrants taking jobs in hotels, construction trades, and restaurants. She said FLOC created an associate membership to accommodate these newcomers because they had few other outlets.

Ms. Maya said an immigration bill introduced by U.S. Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.) holds the greatest hope for what FLOC and the coalition would like to see accomplished.

The bill would allow undocumented workers living in the United States to join a guest-workers program and eventually apply for citizenship.

Those who oppose the bill have argued that it rewards those who have entered the country illegally. Ms. Maya said some companies that recruit migrant workers may hold their immigration status over their heads and force the workers to accept substandard conditions.

"[The bill] reflects more of the reality of what's going on in America," she said. "The other bills did not reflect that reality."

She said the reality is that there are about 11 million undocumented workers in America. Many have children who were born in the United States, which makes the children U.S. citizens. In addition, some undocumented workers are married to citizens.

Ms. Maya became a naturalized citizen in 1997. She came to America in 1988 to get her master's degree at the University of Connecticut. She received her degree in 1991 and during that time met her husband, Francisco Cabanillas, an associate professor in the romance languages department at Bowling Green State University.

The couple moved to Bowling Green when Mr. Cabanillas accepted a job at the university.

"When I came here, I wanted to get involved with an organization that was doing work in the Latino community," Ms. Maya said. "Every time I talked with people, they pointed to FLOC."

Mr. Velasquez said his organization is grateful that Ms. Maya landed at their doorstep.

"Her work here has really been invaluable," Mr. Velasquez said. "She was able to pull together the national coalition. I've talked with people around the country and they all hold her in high regard."

Contact Clyde Hughes at: chughes@theblade.com or 419-724-6095.

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