An Oregon boy’s experiences working alongside migrant farm workers

By Madronna Holden

Sixty per cent of US citizens, according to a recent poll, support the controversial Arizona immigrant law. They want consistent law enforcement on the immigration issue.

But this law is not likely to get it for them. A sticking point is the law’s requiring police to check registration status of “suspected” immigrants– but just exactly how does an immigrant in a nation of immigrants look suspicious?   The Arizona Republic ran a page full of pictures—and asked its readers how they would pick out the “immigrants”.

Impossible to do without racial profiling.

There are others issues here:  low cost migrant labor is a mainstay of US agriculture.  If one really stopped all illegal immigrants from reaching or staying in the US, this sector of our economy would likely collapse.

There is the issue of justice involved when multi-national corporations in which US parties have substantial interest buy up lands in Mexico—ousting the residents from traditional subsistence farms. There are also market shifts created by our rush to produce ethanol, which has inflated the price of corn for mainstays like tortillas in the Mexican diet beyond the reach of the average family budget.

But for all such legitimate analysis,  the one perspective often missing in this debate is the story not of dollars or images or abstract legal standards, but human lives.  This is the story shared  by my student, Ohdran McGonagall, who relates his childhood experience working alongside migrant workers:

I worked on the hot summer farms as a kid for years. I did back-breaking work the way my dad and grand-dad did harvesting vegetables by bending over and picking them with my two hands. It was hard and dirty, it was everyday, all summer long. We hired high school kids who wanted summer jobs for a few years until they stopped showing up and started spending their summers indoors playing video games. Most kids didn’t want those kinds of jobs, so we had to replace them with people who did. People need food, farmers grow it, harvesters get it to the stores and canneries. Farmers are nothing without the work of the people harvesting.

On the farm, our new employees needed money and we gladly paid them. We drove around Salem in a van and picked them up from their meager homes, and they got up damn early (4am most days) to make sure they had jobs every day and that someone else didn’t take those jobs from them. We had the best crew around, and other farmers hired us to bring our crew to harvest their farms after they put in a whole day on ours. None of them ever said they were too tired. They asked for more work. They worked twice as long and sometimes four times as long in the fields as I could when I was half their age. Some of these people were seventy years old, yes, seventy!

I learned some of their language and discovered that not all of these people were just Mexican citizens, but indigenous people with their own language in addition to Spanish. They brought their traditional food to work and shared it with me, and they taught me a lot about family and sticking together. Many of them were saving up to buy a house for one family and then when one family was situated, they would do this for the next family and so on until they were all living in better homes.

My family even learned some farming tricks from them which they gladly shared without demanding anything for their expertise. We paid them better wages than other farmers did because they were good at their jobs and our success was theirs and we knew they all had families south of the border. Imagine being a couple thousand miles away from your family just so you can provide for them.

Were they illegal immigrants? Who knows? I never cared to ask. They were as much from America as I was. Were they friends? Absolutely. Were they busting their backs to feed people in my home town who in turn discriminated against them and wanted to send them home? Every day.

I always thought if we turned over the entire agricultural process we have today to those folks, we would be healthier. Of course we would as a nation need to drop the NIMBY approach. I doubt we would need to chemically “enhance” our fruits and vegetables thereby putting toxins in our bodies. I doubt we would allow large strawberry corporations to undermine true farming of indigenous peoples. We would be culturally enriched by just dropping the idea of putting up a wall, and by having our co-American neighbors here where we could work and learn new things together. And of course, they would find jobs and opportunities they aren’t currently finding south of lands we stole, lands that were formerly THEIR best.

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for this excellent article. I personally concur that the Arizona law has fatal flaws in it, particularly in the idea that a policeman will have the option to use judgment when asking for identification from a person they deem to be a possible illegal alien. I can’t believe that law enforcement even wants to be put into that position.

    The one thing that I do think is a problem though is the idea of human trafficking or the idea that certain foreigners are being taken advantage of by predators that take advantage of the undocumented worker by taking a portion of their wages for transportation and their silence.

    This is the main reason that I would be encouraging all workers from south of the border to go the legal route, which we should be making readily available, to become a documented worker in the US.

    It would seem to be in our interest to have workers come into the country that are productive and that would actually add to our tax base. In my opinion, we should not be making this a difficult or painful process, rather we should be welcoming these mostly hard working individuals into our communities and be appreciative for the work that they perform.

    • Hi Mark, thanks so much for your comment. I think you are certainly right that we ought to be able to work out this situation such that workers are safe from predators (the link to human trafficking on this site indicates how shameful it is) AND we have employees we need.
      I appreciate your compassion and thought here.

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