I just read an item that states the Obama Administration’s Department of Homeland Security initiated deportations of nearly 400,000 people over the last fiscal year, the largest number in history. I suspect many people across the country will read that information with a sense that something positive is finally being done to address the issue of the 11 million estimated undocumented people living in the United States. They will think that the deported people are serious criminals who deserve at the least deportation or maybe even worse treatment.
I would urge people to consider the fact that in the world of agricultural work, nothing could be farther from the truth. Here are some facts and impressions that may give a fuller picture of what is being done by our government in our name.
First, it is estimated that a strong majority of the people who perform farm work for a living in the United States are undocumented. In general, this million+ group has come here because they were so desperately poor in their country of origin (usually, Mexico or a Central American country) that they risked their small savings and their health and safety to illegally cross the southern border into the United States. Once here, they began to work in the only job easily open to them: the preparation and harvesting of crops, the same food we eat every day.
The work they do is incredibly hard and hazardous. Agriculture is consistently ranked by the U.S. Department of Labor as one of the three most dangerous industries in America, along with mining and construction. Farmworkers are contingent workers, that is, they work as they are needed. They seldom have employment contracts or guarantees; as soon as the crop is prepared or harvested they are let go. They only are paid for the time they work: when the weather doesn’t permit them to work, they do not get paid. There is virtually no such thing as sick or vacation days in most situations (union workers excepted).They have no federal guarantee of unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, or extra pay for overtime.
For their work, they are often paid at the minimum wage. At times they may be compensated at a much higher rate, but usually only for the short duration of the harvest, and then they experience periods of unemployment. Frequently, they must travel long distances to get to the next harvest. Working from dawn to dusk, often in incredibly hot weather, they stoop over picking produce, hauling heavy buckets, performing all the back-breaking work necessary to feed America. Because of the scant income they earn, their living conditions are among the worst of any rural population and they frequently can’t afford to buy the fruits and vegetables they’ve worked to pick.
Given these facts, is it surprising that few American-born people choose to work regularly in the fields? Is it surprising that more than half of our country’s agricultural workers are undocumented? No, but it is surprising that they are receiving the brunt of this country’s anger at the results of our broken immigration policies.
I have met many undocumented farmworkers. Most those I have met have lived and worked here for many years. Some came over with their families as very young children. Now they have children of their own, most of whom were born in America and are citizens of this country.
Want to know the biggest fear these hardworking people have? That they will be picked up by the Department of Homeland Security and taken to detention while their children are in school or Head Start centers and their children will be in state custody by the end of the day. Not because they were abused, neglected, or abandoned, but because their parents are considered a big enough threat to social peace that they must be immediately removed. In fact, these folks are among the most law-abiding people of this country, if for no other reason than they fear being arrested. Even the most minor offense can result in deportation proceedings.
Recently, the Obama Administration announced it would prioritize deportations so that scarce resources are devoted to those undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes. However, they made no commitment to reducing deportations or halting the detention of farmworkers and other immigrant workers. In fact, reports on the ground indicate no let-up of the harassment and targeting of rural Latino farmworkers. According to a report that was issued yesterday, 93% of those deported are Latino, yet they make up a much smaller percentage of the undocumented.
I don’t know about you, but I cannot imagine waking up every day not knowing if I will see my children at the end of the day, or ever again. All I can think of when I hear these parents describe their fears is, “Wait a minute! This is the United States of America. We nurture families; we don’t separate them unless the children are in danger from their own parents.”
Do we really want to continue to terrorize the people who are living and working here, doing the hard work that helps us get our fresh food, at a pay rate that no American native-born will accept?
I don’t think we do, and I certainly don’t want this going on in my name.