According to FarmWorkers.org, in 1965, America imported 177,000 temporary Mexican workers known as “braceros” to help bring in the crops. These were terrible jobs under terrible conditions, politically invisible at the time, and paid almost nothing, because most states passed laws to avoid paying even the incredibly low farm wages at the time, and passed more laws to relieve them of the legal consequences of hiring illegal workers.
Then the Hart-Celler Immigration Bill got passed and in 1966, America imported 150,000 fewer braceros. So I became one. I unwittingly became part of the reason millions of illegal immigrants crossed the borders and came in by boats and trains and trucks over the next forty years. I was doing a job nobody could do, because almost all the people who could do it were still in Mexico. Furthermore it was a job few Americans even knew existed.
My high school, along with my father, a football coach at another high school, got a request from some government agency for help with the canteloupe crop in Yuma, Arizona. We’re talking white bread here, folks. Simple middle class white kids who, because they played football, were pitched this amazing workout routine, and a way to make some great money during the summer! Wow!
So about a hundred of us “atheletes” got on a bus and headed down to a rasty farm camp in Yuma; the Bruce Church operation. We were pointed toward a bunkhouse with rolled-up mattresses on wooden pallets, and after we got settled in we went to the mess hall for chow. We had no idea what we were eating, but our “macho” made us grind on, grinning and posing like maniacs, having no idea what awaited us in the morning.
Sacks. Long, gray, canvas sacks with a loop hook at the bottom. A sling over the shoulder. Now wake up at 4:30. Most of us had never done this, maybe sneaking in at that time, but never deliberately getting up then. It’s already 95 degrees, and there ain’t no shade.
Two crews. One to pick and set, the next to sack. Pickers/setters walked through ahead of us, finding the correct canteloupe ripeness and setting them two by two on the side of the row. Sackers followed and reached down a thousand or so times and picked up the two melons and dropped them (carefully) into the sack. When full, we’re talking about 125 pounds. Drag sack to to the edge of the field, empty into wagon. Repeat.
By noon it’s 120 degrees, and us white bread motherfuckers are sucking wind badly. Lunch was rumored to be chicken tacos, and at about ten we got them. Chicken wing in a taco shell, bones and all.
About 1:30 it’s even hotter, and we go back to the barracks to start complaining.
We’re repeatedly told about the “Bonus” to tamp down the complaining. Each crate of canteloupes earns us some cents. We’re told that through the summer, the bonus could equal several hundred dollars. In 1966, that was a fortune. So although our ranks started thinning almost immediately, we began to do the math and some of us decided to stick it out. My father was one of the field bosses. I had no fucking choice. I would have never lived it down. Roughly 20 of the hundred kids made it to the end of the season, which we quickly learned ran uninterrupted; Mother Nature didn’t get weekends off.
So I spent the summers of 1966 and 1967 picking canteloupes and grapes, even experiencing (at a distance) a few of the labor problems and strikes and violence arising from the Chavez organizing efforts. My dad and I were all for them. The guys that paid us weren’t. So we were soon out of a job, but not before my father told one of the owners to take the shotgun he was offered (job description change from field boss to armed security guard) and stick it up his ass and pull the trigger.
I remembered this experience looking around for information to continue this post. Part of it comes from Molly Ivins, and it’s exactly what I told the TechnoBabe the first time we had a conversation about the immigration issue:
…should you actually want to stop Mexicans and OTMs (other than Mexicans) from coming to the United States, here is how to do it: Find an illegal worker at a large corporation. This is not difficult–brooms and mops are big tipoffs. Then put the CEO of that corporation in prison for two or more years for violating the law against hiring illegal workers.
Got it? You can also imprison the corporate official who actually hired the illegal and, just to make sure, put some Betty Sue Billups–housewife, preferably one with blond hair in a flip–in the joint for a two-year stretch for hiring a Mexican gardener. Thus Americans are reminded that the law says it is illegal to hire illegal workers and that anyone who hires one is responsible for verifying whether or not his or her papers are in order. If you get fooled and one slips by you, too bad, you go to jail anyway. When there are no jobs for illegal workers, they do not come. Got it?
A fence is a stupid idea. Finding tens of millions of people without any paper trail so we can physically deport them is even more stupid.
But here, as I have blogged before, is the biggest problem, and I have no idea how to solve it, nor do I think anyone else does:
Twelve Billion Dollars.
That’s the amount sent back to Mexico every year from Mexicans working here, who may be payroll taxed, but are never able to file a claim. That money is the second-largest financial stream in the Mexican economy. If the people who sent the money were sent home instead, and the people who wanted to replace them were prevented from entering, here’s what would happen:
The Mexican economy would collapse.
Now you’d have a thousand times more people trying to get across the border. A human tsunami, all headed north.
So the only concept I can possibly get behind is to arrest and imprison the corporate motherfuckers who killed the unions with illegals, and do the same to anyone who hires an illegal.
The people who come across the border are not criminals.
The people who hire them are.
I close with this article from Thom Hartman in TruthOut:
The corporatist Republicans (“amnesty!”) are fighting with the racist Republicans (“fence!”), and it provides an opportunity for progressives to step forward with a clear solution to the immigration problem facing America.
Both the corporatists and the racists are fond of the mantra, “There are some jobs Americans won’t do.” It’s a lie.
Americans will do virtually any job if they’re paid a decent wage. This isn’t about immigration – it’s about economics. Industry and agriculture won’t collapse without illegal labor, but the middle class is being crushed by it.
The reason why thirty years ago United Farm Workers’ Union (UFW) founder Cesar Chavez fought against illegal immigration, and the UFW turned in illegals during his tenure as president, was because Chavez, like progressives since the 1870s, understood the simple reality that labor rises and falls in price as a function of availability.
The rest of the article describes the history of corporate fuckery with regard to labor and unions, and how they’re using the illegal issue to keep the status quo operative.