Real immigration reform means ending our love affair with cheap lettuce

23 Jul 2009 11:38 pm
Posted by: Donna

Something sticks in my craw when I hear a lot of pro-immigration rhetoric. Admittedly, immigration is a topic that I’m not as succinct about as I’d like to be in discussing but one that’s on my mind a lot. I feel like I must always start by making it clear that I fully understand that the people who have come here from all over the world, mostly Latin America, are seeking work and an escape from the crushing poverty brought about by global plutocratic shenanigans. That is without dispute. That they deserve compassion, dignity, and a path to legalization (if they choose it) is matter that is not even open to debate to me.

The discomfort often crops up in places where the issue is not even being debated or defended. It happened today when I was reading William Finnegan’s much-discussed article in The New Yorker about Sheriff Joe Arpaio. It’s an understated evisceration of that megalomaniacal little publicity whore. You can register to to read it online or buy a copy, and you should because it’s very well done. Much as I love to join in the Arpaio hate-a-thon on this blog, it’s not what this post is about.

Mid-way through the article, Finnegan makes this observation about immigration:

More self-evident is the appeal of cheap labor to employers. Whether the Arizona economy could survive without undocumented immigrants picking lettuce and cleaning hotel rooms is an open question.

Yeah, it’s an open question, but it’s not the only one. You could also ask why so many people, including those who advocate for the rights of immigrants, unquestioningly accept the premise that the unskilled labor needed to make an economy survive must be cheap. Why is that? You could ask why the job of picking produce on a typical American factory farm is so bad that Americans won’t do it for $50 an hour but certain people from other regions will do it for much, much less. Truly, the entitlement a lot of American progressives feel to cheap lettuce* and tomatoes for their sandwiches runs so deep that they will say things like this (from the comments section of the alternet post I linked) without a trace of irony or self-awareness:

To the people saying that illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from American citizens, how many of YOU are willing to work hard manual labor 10 to 12 hours a day, for $10,000 a year?! America can’t have the cheap produce it wants in the grocery stores without having the “cheap” labor provided by the people it doesn’t want to see shopping in those same stores.

He’s right. We can’t have cheap, genetically modified produce without sacrificing real human beings to the near slavery of migrant farm work. We can’t have a lot of cheap goods and services we like to have without other groups of largely unseen people paying a high cost for them. What astounds me is how many affluent white liberals repeat comforting tales about how a desperate, impoverished, politically-neutered workforce does this shitty work for them because they just looooove to do it and not because they really don’t have any other options. What’s even better is how often the defense of cheap lettuce and hotel rooms will be accompanied by some platitude about the innately superior work ethic of X ethnic group. As if we’d forgotten that all racial and ethnic stereotypes are ultimately demeaning and dehumanizing, even the so-called “positive” ones. How is social justice advanced when cheap labor becomes synonymous with brown people from Mexico and other Latin American countries the way it has? Am I the only person who is more than a little disturbed to realize that a generation of mostly Anglo middle and upper class young people in Arizona have grown up assuming that brown skinned men are supposed to cut the grass and a lady with brown skin is supposed to clean your house? Add in the fact that most of these domestic workers are descendants of indigenous peoples and Phoenix starts to eerily resemble India or Africa under British colonial rule.

Realism and the global economic climate dictate that there may be little that can be done about the racial apartheid that exists in the U.S. workforce right now. But there’s no excuse for the crass exploitation. Look, if you’re admitting that most Americans wouldn’t do a certain job at any wage, then what you are admitting is that the job sucks bad enough that probably no one should be doing it in its current form. Or you’re admitting that while the job isn’t so bad, the pay is well below what it should be. Once you’ve gotten to that point, you’re kind of hard-pressed to continue to call yourself a progressive when you keep coming up with ever-more contorted justifications for that cruel and cynical status-quo. Let me remind everyone that there are two definitions of nativism. One is the belief that immigrant cultures are a threat to yours. The other is the belief that native inhabitants should be favored over immigrants. The Minutemen and their ilk subscribe to both of them. A lot of well-meaning but elitist liberals subscribe to the latter. They might blanch at the characterization but it’s hard to conclude anything else when they speak of “jobs that Americans won’t do” and worry about the cost of lettuce if the farms can’t get their slaves workers.

The concept of comprehensive immigration reform has become so ubiquitous and devoid of meaning that it rolls off the tongues of everyone from civil rights activists to religious leaders to Walmart executives and local fast food chain presidents. What does progressive pro-immigrant comprehensive immigration reform look like? Note that I said pro-immigrant, not pro-immigration. Lots of people are pro-immigration, but they’re not necessarily looking out for the best interests of the immigrant workers. Does the comprehensive part include a fair wage and safe and decent conditions for immigrant workers? Does it mean their employers should provide them with benefits, and/or pay higher taxes to help fund the government services they and their families should be entitled to because they are legitimate members of the American workforce? Will it mean they will be free to join unions, move to a better job, or complain about poor treatment by their employers? Does it mean 40 hours a week, with overtime if its longer? Doesn’t all that mean (horror of horrors!) paying a bit more for lettuce?

While we’re at it, can someone tell me what the HELL is meant by a “guest worker program”? I don’t know about y’all, but when I invite guests over, I don’t make them work. I detect the unmistakable odor of Jim Crow and separate-but-equal every time I hear that fluffy little Orwellian-ism. “All Workers Are Equal But Some Workers Are More Equal Than Others!” It looks for all the world like the exploiters of undocumented workers want to legalize what they have now. If someone can explain where I’m off-base, I welcome it but I cannot think of any reason why the business community would want a separate category of foreign workers unless they wanted to be able to treat those workers differently.

We are a nation of immigrants. It has been since the 15th century (apologies to indigenous peoples) and will continue to be so, whether Pat Buchanan likes it or not. After a long and bloody fight from the late 19th to the early 20th century, we became a nation that stood for the rights and dignity of workers. The rights of immigrants and the rights of workers are not mutually exclusive and it’s time that more progressives realized that.

*The companies that own the farms insist that without cheap migrant labor, the cost of produce would be prohibitive. I’m taking them at face value for the sake of this post, though others argue that shipping and marketing is a bigger factor in the cost of food.


  1. Comment by Eli Blake on July 24, 2009 3:03 pm

    Honestly though if we made it so immigrants were legal then they would be under the umbrella of the labor laws, minimum wage laws, etc. Why we dont’ do this is beyond me.

    I also support (despite the fact that I have a very unhealthy diet and like to joke that my favorite flavor is cholesterol) taxing sugar, fatty foods and other foods that raise health care costs. What this would do would be to allow you to raise the price of produce without having it lose out to more fatty red meat dripping with choloesterol. While I would prefer that the tax go to fund heatlh insurance reform, I could see some producers making a case for subsidies, and if it were a good enough case I might support them.

  2. Comment by Donna on July 26, 2009 12:22 pm

    Oh yeah, people shouldn’t kid themselves. Maintaining the status quo of not legalizing undocumented workers benefits their employers most of all.

    The problem I have with taxing fast food and junk food is that it punishes the poor. I would like to see improved access to fresh fruit and vegetables in low income communities before any tax increase on the food that is currently the most available to the people that live there.

  3. Comment by Eli_Blake on July 27, 2009 5:18 pm

    As I said, you could make a case for subsidies.

    If carrots, celery and parsely sprigs were a nickel or a dime a pound then you could raise the tax on candy and people without a lot of money could still feed their children.

    Anyway, I added you to my blog links.

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