People are not Illegal
Farm workers have long been an important and enduring fixture of the American experience. Yet far too many Americans, unsympathetic to the damage words can have I suspect, will refer to the 48 percent of those who farm work in the United States in violation of our immigration law as “illegals”. We’re better than that, aren’t we?
Today, the impolite label is ubiquitous – it’s in newspapers and magazines, it’s used by pundits on political talk shows, it spews from the mouths of babes, and uttered by the office water cooler whenever the issue of immigration reform comes up.
My guess is that some of us use the term out of obliviousness - we hear the label so often from others it simply becomes an apt moniker. We do it to others too. Devout Christians, particularly people who express faith publicly like Tim Tebow and George Bush, are deemed fair game for similar “acceptable” disparagement by the public.
Or, some unconsciously opt for the moniker because it subtly dehumanizes and renders them as lesser than ourselves, as if to spare us from having to consider that their dreams and aspirations are equal to ours. You see, if they were, equal that is, it would make all the difference.
Currently, there are two million farm workers – the majority of which hail from Mexico - and despite the disparaging treatment they receive, they nevertheless quietly continue to make personal sacrifices and vital contributions to the America economy. These sacrifices range from separation from their countries of origin, families, and cultural ties to working the most challenging and rigorous jobs, under the most difficult conditions, and for the least reward.
I myself was raised playing under the shadows of orchard trees and in the long rows of sugar beets on days there was no school until I was old enough to labor alongside the family – at 14 years of age. While working the fields, I probably witnessed U.S. Border Patrol Agents make sweeps for unauthorized laborers about a dozen times. Men in dark green uniforms and gold badges would pour out of a convoy of government vans and trucks just before alarming screams of “la migra!” would permeate under the canopy of fruit trees – chaos would immediately ensue.
Desperate men and women, some gripping their children in a tight hold, would scramble and scurry every direction to evade capture – and subsequent deportation. We would stand by our ladders, in stillness, waiting patiently for my father to explain to the first agent that approached “It’s okay, we are U.S. citizens” (to their credit, they always believed him).
All at once, I was struck by feelings of resentment, confusion and helplessness. My instincts were to intervene, to object or obstruct. But one, especially one so young, resigns to the way things are because, well, that’s the way things are. That is, constant evasion, anonymity, and invisibility is a way of life for those “living in the shadows”– the implied price one pays for a shot at opportunity.
It is a way of life that takes its toll.
I recall on one occasion a fellow worker walked over to dad, said he decided he would be moving back to Mexico after five years of hard living in the United States. Overworked, poorly paid, unappreciated, and tired of living in the shadows, he said he had had enough. My dad placed his hand on his shoulder, held it there for some time, and wished him well. He was gone by the end of that week never to be seen again.
In the fall of 1987 dad himself determined to leave the fields for good and open a business. After thirty years of being paid the prevailing wage, he had no retirement, no health plan, no vacation or sick leave days accrued, and no retirement party. Quietly, without fanfare, we got in our car one day after filling the last bin of apples and moved on.
Although the world didn’t stop to mark the milestone, it was a great day for our family. Days of arduous farm work were now be behind us, and soon to be added to the middle class rolls, our family was better off for it.
There are scores of incidents and other memories I hold that speak to the adversities faced by farm workers which give me reason to be grateful, every day of my life, to those who continue to slog, toil, and sweat under the elements - day in and day out - mostly sight unseen.
What is more, few concede the Nation’s need for agricultural labor is indispensable. Listening to those who call for mass deportation, you would think fruits, vegetables, and meats magically appear on store shelves, and at cheap prices - and always will. You would also think there is a long line of aggrieved Americans, upset their farm jobs were taken from them. Neither assumption is true.
Ignoring that seeds must be planted; fields must be cultivated, saplings must be irrigated, fruit trees must be pruned, and blossoms must be thinned; that fruits and vegetables must be fumigated, kept warm from the cold, picked, sorted, packed, stacked and transported by hundreds of thousands of people; some would deport the very people that do these things tomorrow if it was feasible without fully grasping the economic consequences of such an act.
And there are other menial jobs they do such as roofing, mowing lawns, dishwashing, milking, cleaning horse stables, and adult senior care to name a few that do not get as much as a nation’s thanks. They do them anyway. Even as we scapegoat them when the economy goes bad, when job numbers dip, and federal spending skyrockets.
Yes, I know, twelve million are estimated to be in violation of our immigration law, and I agree it is an undesirable condition. It’s not an excuse; the term “Illegals”, when used to label otherwise good, decent, hardworking people criminalizes the person, not the illicit action he or she committed. As has been said by others; humans are not illegal, what they do is illegal.
Rather, with astonishing ease and comfort many refer to them as “illegals” while their children stand listening close by. Actually, I cannot think of another group of American children exposed to more cruel disdain of their parents - and we call them “anchor babies” to boot. Have we not felt the sting of being a walking, living target of someone’s contempt?
Americans have expressed ongoing disagreements over immigration since the nation’s founding, and there is little doubt the debate will continue long after we’re gone. This piece is not an attempt to persuade you to advocate for or against immigration reform, it is solely a call for a respectful dialogue.
I know Americans to be the kindest, most compassionate people on earth. The stain of slavery –which had existed for thousands of years- was obliterated by us. When totalitarianism threatened to take over the world, we stopped it. And I’m convinced we have the moral fiber to solve the ethical challenges of our time.
By all means, voice your convictions regarding immigration reform, it is, of course, your right. But regardless of where you stand on the issue, my hope is that as Americans, we examine empirically and collaboratively what is socially, economically and politically most advantageous for our country without reverting to condescending pejoratives. It adds no value.
Immigrants to America have always shown a strong work ethic, a deeply rooted commitment to provide for their families, and have always been ardent defenders and valuable contributors to our free market system. These are virtues the vast majority of us share as Americans, and more importantly, as fellow humans.