Ninoska Campos is a native Spanish speaker and speaks little English. She, like many other Spanish speakers, comprises the majority of meatpackers and farm workers in Iowa. Campos has been playing an integral role in bringing focus to the rights of migrant workers. Over the past year and a half, she has organized migrant workers and regularly brings them to community meetings, so that they can make their voices heard.
Campos is not to be messed with, and when she is at these meetings, she does not mince her words. Last January, speaking through a translator, Campos told the Johnson County Board of Supervisors that she and other Latinos will continue coming to local meetings to have their voices heard.
“You need to know that we Latinos are the ones sustaining this community. I want you to take us into account with dignity,” she added.
During these meetings, Campos always takes the lead. The first one to approach the podium, she is unafraid. Campos is the voice of those who don’t speak out, fearing the backlash. Many migrant workers fear that raising their voices will get them into trouble in case they are undocumented.
Many migrant workers like Campos worked through the pandemic because they were essential workers. Despite playing an important role in navigating the country through a tumultuous time, many are now faced with rising inflation and are unable to put food on the table.
Campos started an organization called Escucha Mi Voz (Hear My Voice). The objective was plain and simple, shed a light on the plight of migrant workers and raise money to have their needs met. Her story is part of an award-winning documentary called “Rising Up in the Heartland”.
Campos started the group in 2021, with the help of Emily Sinnwell and David Goodner. They were successful in raising $1.5 million from Iowa City and another $2.2 million from Johnson County. And now the group has set its sights on organizing workers in other meatpacking districts such as Columbus Junction, southeast Iowa, West Liberty, and Washington.
Their efforts are not always met with success. Some towns are just not cooperative. In the documentary, Columbus Junction’s Mayor, T. Mark Huston, says that they will probably send the check back if the federal government ever sent one for relief money.
Other times, however, they can reach compromise. For instance, the city of West Liberty refused to give direct checks but agreed to help migrant workers with the payment of utility bills.
“The immigrant workers themselves … went to city council meetings and pounded the pavement for a year to win that $150,000” in utility relief in West Liberty, Goodner told the Courier Newsroom publication.
As the cost of living increases, workers continue to come to the Catholic Worker House in Iowa City, where Campos helps them through obtaining relief payments. The place has volunteer translators that help the workers, who speak French, Swahili, and Spanish, through the application process.
One woman speaking to the Courier Newsroom publication, on the condition of anonymity, said that she started volunteering at Campos’ organization. She too works in meatpacking and recently brought a fellow worker and her parents to the organization. “I know the struggle here in Iowa,” she said. “I let people know. I spread the word.”
Catholic Charities have received $9 million in federal relief, of which $1.3 million will be disbursed to Escucha Mi Voz. The organization will disburse this money further into checks worth $600. To qualify, the workers have to only show a W-2 or a pay stub which serves as evidence that they work in meatpacking.
“We know that inflation is up to 15%, and that’s a lot for people,” Campos told Iowa Starting Line, a Courier Newsroom publication. “It’s very possible that this check isn’t going to solve all the economic problems that someone has, but we do know that $600 will help each family to get ahead.”
Campos looks forward to becoming a bastion of hope for the community of migrant workers that includes people from Latin and African countries.