For years now, the U.S. military has made a concerted effort to recruit members of the Latino community to its ranks--seeing the growing population of military-aged youths as a target-rich environment for enlistments. It's a tactic openly addressed by the Army in particular, which has taken to enticing young Latinos with a tricked-out Hummer that blasts Spanish-language hip-hop as a way of drawing a crowd for the pitch.
While military tactics often draw the ire of counter-recruitment activists -- Portland has the now famous Raging Grannies standing guard, among others -- the Latino community has become particularly concerned because of a calculated vulnerability of its young adults, brought on by the rhetorical and literal dead-end that is U.S. immigration policy.
This month, a group of activists from across the country will be touring Oregon communities as part of No Soy El Army, a bilingual peace tour aimed at helping the Latino and immigrant community at large understand what it really means to join the military, what the options are for young adults, and the facts behind the promises made. The tour includes military veterans speaking about their experiences in the military, with information on alternatives to enlisting.
The tour kicks off in Portland on Aug. 26 with a hip-hop show featuring 2Mex, Mic Crenshaw, Serve Severe, Rose Bent, M4 and Ubunto Project. The event will benefit the Portland Central America Solidarity Committee, sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and Global Fam. The tour is being organized through the Rural Organizing Project, which works to organize and support human dignity groups across the state.
"I'm not against the military, but they need an honest educated decision with all the facts," says CAUSA's Greg Delgado, an organizer in the Latino community in Central Oregon. Delgado said he became involved with the tour after attending a career day with a group of high-school-aged students. The event featured an Army recruiter, whom Delgado said made an enticing offer.
"The message they were getting there was we will give you papers, a college education and you won't have to go to war," Delgado said. Delgado said the recruiter at the career day event said he was able to get his papers because he joined the military.
"It made my stomach turn," Delgado said. "There was a big group there. It was scaring me to see that."
Delgado says recruitment promises of a college degree and citizenship are particularly compelling to the Latino community because their options are so limited: Undocumented or noncitizen youths face increasing challenges in employment, making a college tuition, particularly at out-of-state prices, unaffordable for most families. Delgado says he works with many people who wind up in a cycle of dropping out of school, going back to work to earn enough to get by or back into class, only to repeat the cycle. Recruiters come with an answer. The 2009 Dream Act grants qualifying illegal immigrant students the opportunity to earn conditional permanent residency in exchange for two years service in the military.
"When you hang a big shiny apple like that over their heads, a lot of them jump," Delgado said.
"The seesaw thing of education is really stressful. They're at that point where there is no solution but to join the military."
"It is not for me to tell people what to do or not to do," Delgado said. "We just have to make solid decisions around these issues."
No Soy El Army is a platform to discuss not just military recruitment tactics, but immigration issues and the vitality of the peace movement as a whole.
Kari Koch with the Rural Organizing Project has worked as a community organizer for many years, and says that it has become clear that the movement as a whole has stagnated with the wars overseas appearing endless. The peace movement, Koch says, "is in a bad place."
Meanwhile, the interest and momentum around immigration rights continues to grow, particularly with the recent anti-immigration law passed in Arizona. Koch said that workers with ROP are also hearing more stories about police in Oregon collaborating with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to identify and deport undocumented immigrants. (Clackamas County recently became the first in the state to send all the fingerprints of arrestees to the ICE and Department of Homeland Security to identify and deport undocumented immigrants.)
"More people are getting picked up for nonviolent, minor offenses and getting deported. We're hearing those stories and trying to track that," Koch says. In the past year, Koch says she's also noticed how the anti-immigration movement has ratcheted up racial tension with more negative language and violence.
The attitudes surrounding the wars, immigration and the vulnerable status of Latino youths are all intertwined, according to Koch. One mimics the other, she says.
"We think that the war plays a critical part to that and it's directly linked to the economy," Koch says. "The war is sucking the finances away from the country. There's no money for anything else. And it's feeding on this public sentiment of fear--fear of 'the other.'"
Portland Public Schools allows recruiters access to high schools, but it has a policy against such recruitment efforts for younger grades. However, in March, the PPS board voted 4 to 3 to renew it's $320,000 contract with the controversial Starbase program, a science and technology immersion course for grade-schoolers. It is paid for entirely through the Department of Defense, reportedly funded through its recruitment budget, with classes conducted on the Portland National Air Guard Base.
The Starbase curriculum focuses on the STEM courses - science, technology, engineering and math, and includes a section on STEM careers in the military. The Department of Defense specifically states it wants to encourage a new generation of scientists and engineers "who will apply their talents in support of national security."
With an effort to reach "at-risk" students, the majority of schools the Starbase program contracts with are those serving lower-income and minority populations.
The No Soy El Army tour is hoping to intersect the counter-recruitment and peace movement with the immigration movement on a common concern.
"We want part of the event to be a dialogue about what they are experiencing in their community," Koch says. "How is war, the immigration crackdown - how is it affecting people in the community and what are we doing to try to keep that away from our youths?"
Megan Hise, with the Portland Central America Solidarity Committee says the Aug. 26 event will raise awareness about the acceleration of militarization along the border and South America, even as the military targets immigrants from that part of the world for recruitment.
"We're concerned about these measures that are incentivising the military for the immigrant community," Hise said. "They're getting it on both sides of the border."