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Read This Before You Debate Immigration Reform

by: Jill Richardson

Fri Apr 30, 2010 at 20:20:14 PM PDT

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I wish I videotaped the conversation I had two nights ago. And it wasn't so much a conversation as him talking and me listening on the edge of my seat for what felt like a very long time. English is his second language so he spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully. But I learned quickly that if I gave him time and didn't interrupt, he would find the perfect way to express himself, even if his words weren't as succinct as those of a native English speaker.

He grew up in Mexico, growing corn, peppers, onions, and other crops on his family's land. But after NAFTA passed, the corn in the grocery store became cheap. So cheap that it was cheaper than the corn his family produced. He couldn't sell his corn anymore, unless he sold it at a loss. Without a way to support his family, he had to come to America to work.

Others, he said, went to the cities in Mexico to work. But there, in the factories and sweatshops (often owned by foreign corporations), they still couldn't make enough to support their families. So they came to the United States too. None of them wanted to. They didn't want to leave their families, their friends, their culture, their way of life, and everything they knew. They had no choice.

Jill Richardson :: Read This Before You Debate Immigration Reform
Now, he lives in Immokalee, FL along with countless other farmworkers. Some are undocumented but many are here legally. This can happen to anyone, he said. Even slavery can happen to anyone - not just undocumented workers. In Immokalee, there have been several cases of modern day slavery in which farmworkers were threatened at gunpoint and held in captivity, forced to work in the fields. But even those who aren't slaves live in harsh conditions in Immokalee.

The workers all live within a 9 square block radius, surrounding a parking lot where they look for work before dawn each day. They live close to the parking lot because they can't afford any form of transportation besides walking or perhaps a bike. And because all of the workers need to live within these 9 square blocks, housing prices are high even though the housing conditions are horrific. One worker will share a rundown trailer with 7 to 14 others.

I've heard their description of their daily lives before, so he didn't repeat it. They wake up at 4am to go to the parking lot, where buses arrive representing each of the farms that employ farmworkers. The farmers aren't given regular jobs, so they don't know if they will have work ever day. The reason why they don't have regular jobs, he thinks, is so the employers can make the workers compete in a race to the bottom. The worker who is willing to work in the most degrading conditions for the least pay will be selected to work.

The buses choose their workers for the day, and then drive up to 2 hours away to the fields. There, the workers wait for the dew to dry (although they are not paid for their time as they do this) and then get to work picking tomatoes. They are paid according to the number of 35 lb buckets they fill with tomatoes. A worker must pick 2 tons of tomatoes to make $50 in a day. Real wages for this work have not risen in years. However, the number of employers has gone down as the farms consolidated, and I believe he told me that the price the farmers are paid for the tomatoes (out of which they pay their workers) has gone down.

I asked if the workers work on crops other than tomatoes. Oh yes, he said. Onions, watermelons, lettuce, citrus, potatoes, all kinds of crops. "And are the workers exposed to pesticides?" I asked. "Do they get sick?" Oh yes, he said. But it doesn't do them any good to run a campaign against the pesticides. Even if the pesticides were gone, the overall system of exploitation would still be in place.

At the end of the day, the workers have spent 14 hours working for little money and only to go home (lousy and crowded though their housing may be) and prepare to do it all again. On holidays, he told me, everyone leaves Immokalee to visit family but the farmworkers stay. He said it's as if everyone understands that the farmworkers don't have a right to go be with their families for holidays. And yet the abundance on everyone's family table at Thanksgiving is due to the work of the farmworkers. How ironic is it that the very people who produce our food can't afford food themselves?

On Thanksgiving, the farmworkers go to a nearby park and line up to receive turkeys donated by people from a nearby wealthy Florida city. The farmworkers are all joyous and grateful to receive their turkeys. This is a beautiful act of generosity, he said, but why don't the people who give the turkeys each year work so that we no longer need to line up for free turkeys? Why don't they change the system?

And so, on Thanksgiving, American families sit down to tables filled with foods grown and harvested by farmworkers, while the farmworkers themselves are grateful to have donated turkey as they dine alone, far from their families. He said that Americans have no idea that the food on their table is provided by exploited farmworkers, and yet, if they knew, it wasn't pity they would feel for the farmworkers but scorn. Instead of gratitude for providing cheap food for the nation, the farmworkers are told "Go back to Mexico" and they are called "cockroaches." Their very humanity is denied by those who benefit from their work. And he feels that the hatred of illegal immigrants is merely an excuse to justify hatred of them all, for very many of the farmworkers are here legally.

In the parking lot in Immokalee, where the farmworkers go each morning to seek work, he described a number of charitable organizations. As you turn around in the center of the parking lot you see a homeless shelter, a church that gives out free meals, the park where the workers line up for free turkeys, a place that gives away free clothes to the poor, and more. And yet, he says, he does not want to need these things. He works 14 hours a day every day he can get work. Why should he need each and every one of these charitable services (as he does)? He wants to pay for his housing and his food and he wants to support his family. But under the current system, even if he works 14 hours a day, he cannot.

After listening to all he had to say, I am sad, angry, and ashamed to live in a country and participate in a system where this happens. Even my food comes from Mexican farmworkers who had to leave their families. I've met them and I have worked in the fields alongside them. I choose to buy my food from a farmer who treats his workers fairly. And a few years ago, I asked to volunteer on the farm so I could see what farm work was like. The farmer respects his workers. I'm glad that he does, and I would not buy food from him if he did not. However, even his workers have families (and children) in Mexico and they were forced to leave their countries to make a living. I can't fix that just by changing where I buy my food. We need to change our trade policies so that Mexicans are not forced to leave their country just to survive. And we need to change our labor laws so that agricultural workers have the same protections that other workers have. We also need to enforce antitrust laws to inject fair competition into the market. Without those, we won't have true immigration reform.

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Thanks Jill! (4.00 / 4)
And that is a perfect title. I wish I had read this earlier and attached it to my Drinking Liberally email, where I wrote:

"Where are the boycotts, and protests, and pickets directed at the businesses that hire/exploit immigrant labor, and the big ag companies that receive government subsidies that put Mexican farms out of business? All blame and hostility seems to be directed at the poor, destitute people that merely seek opportunities to work themselves to the bone in order to minimally sustain their families; you know, the least advantaged - the ones that Christians especially are suppose to be looking out for (or so I thought)."

We are on the same page on this one. I'm going to link this article every time I make a blog comment on this subject. Keep up the good fight.

BTW, I ran into your friends Rick & Susan last night at a Norman Goldman event to support I-1068 to legalize pot in Washington State.

Take care,


very cool (4.00 / 3)
Rick & Susie are great!

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Well said and all true (4.00 / 5)
I got into a minor debate with a fellow over at Blue Oregon over wheather or not some farm work was subject to the minimum wage laws in Oregon. When I finally posted a link to the specific exemptions, he had to admit that I was right.

What goes on in the farm worker industry would be criminal if it wasn't allowed by the labor laws. 14 hours for $50 is $3.57/hour. Would any of us work for that?

When I hear people say that these people are doing jobs that Americans won't do, I correct them. These people are doing jobs that Americans won't do for slave wages.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

EXACTLY (4.00 / 4)
slave wages and sometimes in actual slavery. I heard of one American guy in Florida who was working in the tomato fields now. It's rare for this to happen and it's only because the economy's so bad. He is a construction worker who said he's getting out of the farm job ASAP as soon as he can.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Up here there has been a shortage of farm labor (4.00 / 3)
because a lot of the people who were working in the fields found out that construction pays way better than working in an orchard, or other type of ag work, and the hours are a lot shorter. The wage/bennifit package for a journeyman tile setter is $35/hour. Which would you work, a $35/hour job 8 hours/day or a $3.57/hour job for 14 hours/day?

Of course if things were better in Mexico we wouldn't have this problem. I think that was one of the things that Bush was trying to remidy when he engineered the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) which would have turned the USA, Canada and Mexico into the north american equivalent of the EU. God, was there a big hoo ha over that. It would have opened everyone's borders I think to both laborers and businesses, which would have been an extraordinarily bad idea. The three country leaders sighned the agreement, but I don't think our congress ratified it so I don't know where it stands now.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

[ Parent ]
SPP (4.00 / 2)
My impression was, regardless of specific provisions, the point of SPP was to turn the entire field of North American trade over to the control of corporations, no government interference. It went into effect, not necessary for Congress to ratify it, not sure why not. Obama cancelled it in August 2009 at the Guadalajara meeting.

[ Parent ]
Thanks for the update on that (4.00 / 2)
I wasn't aware that it had been cancelled. Your assesment I believe is correct. It would have been like NAFTA on steroids.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

[ Parent ]
Who is "You"? (4.00 / 4)
If "You" is Congress, I think Joe Lieberman, Blanche Lincoln, Barbara Boxer, Barbara Mikulski, Charles Shumer, Chuck Grassley, Mitch McConnell - these and many more know this story. Some care, others do not. Some are sad, angry, and ashamed, and some are not. An argument often made in Congress is that adopting any of the measures advocated in this diary would detract from efforts to provide Americans with the cheapest possible food, and this argument sometimes seems to trump every other one.

Of all the political battles that will be fought in Obama's two terms, the fight for immigration reform could be the most acrimonious, ferocious one. I wish I could think of someone with the stature necessary to see it through to a successful conclusion, but I can't. Janet Napolitano has always impressed me as being very pragmatic and non-ideological and she's a good politician, but of course she isn't in Congress.

Ah well, step by step and day by day. You're right, Jill, now is the time to begin spreading this news.

terrific essay Jill (4.00 / 5)

"If God were to appear to starving people, he would not dare to appear in any other form than food." - Mahatma Gandhi

kick ass piece Jill (4.00 / 4)
I just printed off a bunch of copies and taking it with me to our fundraiser this morning.

also sent 2 daughter who works with mushroom workers in Kennett Square. Speaking of daughter here's a great story how a few people can make a difference.I want to believe like the  kids below,  we can change things.

Above daughter goes to Swarthmore College. Yes its a very expensive,top tier school. But it's also a school with a real commitment to giving kids w/no money (like my daughter) a top tier ed AND that includes students whose parents are undocumented. Anyway almost every student there is involved in progressive causes. Including labor groups The college has been wanting to build an inn where visiting people and parents can stay. And the "sticky" issue has been whether it will use union labor. Well the "kids" read the Swarthmore town charter and found out that if you get a thousand signatures, you can make the town DRY and that would include the Inn! So the college won't go ahead with plans that don't include union labor because they figure no one wants to stay at an Inn where you can't drink AND they know the "kids" could easily get a 1,000 signatures.

crreative thinking (4.00 / 3)
Talk about creative thinking! I've never heard of that tactic before.

[ Parent ]
Excellent (4.00 / 4)
I will do my best to spread this around Jill.  

Reagan signed the 1986 immigration law (Simpson-Mazzoli) (4.00 / 4)
As I watch the beginning of the immigration reform war, I am reminded that President Reagan -- Saint Ronald to a huge portion of the Republican party, the man who could do no wrong (at least in their porous memories that forget that he raised taxes many times as pres. or gov.) -- signed the last big immigration reform act in 1986.  That law granted amnesty to undocumented immigrants if they could meet a number of requirements (medical tests, no criminal record, etc.). So I've been wondering, if Saint Ronald signed a bill granting a qualified amnesty, surely the GOP might consider it as a valid approach.  I'll probably be proven wrong -- how silly to expect some pragmatism from the modern GOP.

I did a little bit of digging at the NYT for pieces about the 1986 law and found a few re-caps from 2006 and 2007, during periods when GW Bush proposed reform. One of the unexpected -- and unwanted, for the country's xenophobes -- consequences is that by increasing border enforcement, i.e., making it much harder to cross over, it becomes more likely that immigrants will stay in the U.S. instead of going back and forth.  I hope to be able to find some commentary from 1986 to see what people were thinking back then.

I haven't had time to fully formulate my own position on how reform should look, but I know that what we have right now is not working at all.

Here are three articles on the 1986 law worth reading:
Failed Amnesty Legislation of 1986 Haunts the Current Immigration Bills in Congress, May 23, 2006

An Amnesty by Any Other Name ... an Op Ed by Edwin Meese III on May 24, 2006 (Meese was one of Reagan's Attorneys General and in this piece he is opposed to the 1986 approach of conditional amnesty, saying that "The fair and sound policy is to give those who are here illegally the opportunity to correct their status by returning to their country of origin and getting in line with everyone else.")

'86 Law Looms Over Immigration Fight, June 12, 2007

What it should look like (4.00 / 2)
Whatever they do, I hope Congress doesn't try to pass a bogus bill. During the last round, a La Raza spokesperson told me that the touchback provision was very important to them. They knew from the beginning it never had a chance to work, but they thought getting the provision into the bill was important propaganda. Senators knew it was phony - not one Senator who voted on that bill envisioned millions of people traipsing back to the home country and going through that rigamarole.

My only advice to Congress is, make it an honest bill. A dishonest bill will deserve failure. Therefore, I think failure is pretty much guaranteed.

[ Parent ]
"He does not want to need". (4.00 / 2)
Fucking perfect.

Great stuff Jill, thanks...

Vote three times a day (4.00 / 2)
I can't fix that just by changing where I buy my food.

Actually, you can! Okay, so maybe not fix, but certainly put it well on the path to mending. When you buy your corn from local farmers, you are buying the unsubsidized, non-corporate corn. (Double-bonus for buying organic corn from local farmers, because it's non-GMO as well.) Imagine if everybody did this.

Ultimately, we need to end corporate farm subsidies. If US corn were not so cheap, he could have continued to work in Mexico and feed his family. I'm all for containing costs, but there is a huge price to pay for things that are artificially cheap.

Corporate policies and influence are at the root of nearly every immigration issue. The movie, Fast Food Nation, exposed the inside of this dirty little secret.

Sounds great in theory... (4.00 / 1)
...but unfortunately, reality requires much more.

I've 'voted with my fork' three times a day for as long as I can remember, and I will continue to do so for as long as I draw breath on this planet.  But that's not enough, and frankly we're only deluding ourselves when we continue to believe that so-called "consumers" (can we stop calling ourselves that, btw?) can ultimately make much of a meaningful difference in our food system.

Even here in my "organic-sustainable-locavore-insert-every-other-current-buzzword-here" DFH neighborhood in inner SE Portland, upwards of 90% of my neighbors still get all, or at least 90-plus percent, of their food from the Safeway or the Fred Meyer down the block.

Jill's correct -

I can't fix that just by changing where I buy my food.

I'll grant the fact that not everyone is a far-left leaning borderline socialist* like me, but I don't think that even the most free-marketeering-free-marketer can deny that 'individual choice' will never be enough to bring about the change we really need in our food system, as well as in "trade" in general.  Food is only the beginning.  After that we have to consider all of the other cheap toxic crap coming into our country, "Made in Taiwan" or Malaysia or wherever, by people in the same (or worse) conditions, and etc etc...

*or at least, that's what some would call me - I consider myself a traditional, good ole' fashioned American FDR-style liberal, but the Overton Window of American politics in general have moved so far to the right over the past few decades that even Richard Nixon would be considered a radical liberal today.

[ Parent ]
This change... (4.00 / 1)
After that we have to consider all of the other cheap toxic crap coming into our country, "Made in Taiwan" or Malaysia or wherever, by people in the same (or worse) conditions, and etc etc...

This change also isn't going to come from my current decisions to buy union-made (or fair trade) organic cotton or hemp sneakers and t-shirts and jeans and underwear, either.

The change we need here is going to have to come from the top.

And hey, that reminds me - didn't somebody campaign on "change" just recently?  Ha, why am I not surprised that he turned out to be a hypocritical liar?

[ Parent ]
I couldn't agree more (4.00 / 1)
Indeed, the change needs to come from the top. Our food policies suck. In fact, most of our trade policies suck. Okay, most of our policies suck.

I often wonder how one spouse can go on a campaign against obesity while the other spouse has nothing to say about the government subsidies that make high fructose corn syrup ubiquitous. It seems as though they either aren't talking to each other, don't have the same goals, or are each just acting out a part without paying attention to the meaning of the lines they recite.

[ Parent ]
I did concede... (4.00 / 1)
...that it wasn't a fix but would put us well on the way to mending. You said:

Even here in my "organic-sustainable-locavore-insert-every-other-current-buzzword-here" DFH neighborhood in inner SE Portland, upwards of 90% of my neighbors still get all, or at least 90-plus percent, of their food from the Safeway or the Fred Meyer down the block.

That's the thing...breaking through to the other 90%. Even another 30% would be critical mass. I don't think you have to be a "far left leaning socialist" to be a locavore, though it seems that that's where the "movement" part resides. I see people of many political affiliations at the farm stands I frequent. We literally have common ground here.

I believe that once folks are insisting on local food, it's a natural progression to start looking at where the rest of this stuff is coming from.

It's a process. A long process. I didn't mean to make it sound simple or like a quick fix.  

[ Parent ]
i've started growing my own (4.00 / 1)
and I absolutely buy from local, sustainable farmers who treat their workers well. However, none of that gives Mexicans their farms back in Mexico.  

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Reply (4.00 / 1)
none of that gives Mexicans their farms back in Mexico.

No. It doesn't. What I was getting at was that in the long view, it prevents them from having to be given up in the first place.

[ Parent ]
Annie Leonard (4.00 / 1)
C-SPAN Radio just aired a speech and Q&A by Annie Leonard, from a couple of months ago.

One of her points was, all Americans have a robust, well-developed consumer self, while most Americans have an atrophied citizen self. Changing decisions made by our individual consumer selves has very little influence on decisions made by other individuals such as the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Trade Representative, the top operators of Dupont, Monsanto, and ConAgra, etc. Influencing those decisions requires that we exercise and develop our citizen (political) selves.

[ Parent ]
Food Policy control by the FDA as it unfolds (0.00 / 0)
The discussion is thoughtful.

This is a related brief digression: It may throw a wrench in the carburetor when it comes what food we will be allowed to eat:


There's some interesting farm activity being talked about, although no particular reference to labor, it would of course impact labor just the same at one point of another.

[ Parent ]
An excersize for everyone (4.00 / 2)
Here's my math -

4,000 lbs tomatoes @ $50.00 = $0.0125/lbs for harvest [14 hours labor to harvest] [Need to determine what the growers' costs are less labor to harvest]
4,000 lbs tomatoes @ 14 hours = 275.71 lbs/hr
8 hrs @ $8/hr = $64.00 + (6 hrs @ $12/hr [time and a half] = $72.00) = $136.00
4,000 lbs tomatoes @ $136.00 = $0.294/ lb labor wages to harvest. Double that to cover unemployment comp, workers comp, SS employer's matching, etc. and a bit for the labor contractor's profit which goes to pay his/her wages. So figure 0.60/lb for cost to harvest. I don't see that as an excessive cost to harvest tomatoes.

I think one of the big problems with the tomato industry is the distributors, etc..

Anyone care to double check these numbers? I think they're accurate, but it's late....

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

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