Mexican Migrant Workers: Nuisance or Necessity?
Every morning, Luis Arriega wakes before dawn to make the two-and-a-half-hour trek from his small Mexican village to Sinaloa de Leyva, where he works as an auto mechanic. His wife Maria stays home with the children and earns what she can, selling baskets at the local market. Maria and her oldest daughter weave the baskets from twigs that have been collected by the younger children. In addition to their daughter and the two children attending school, the Arriegas have a four-year-old son named Miguel who was born with a cleft palate.One Tuesday at the body shop, a rich-looking man overhears the mechanics speaking of Miguel. He tells Luis how to go about getting documentation that will allow him to work in the U.S. as a farm laborer. The papers will cost him only $500. Luis is guaranteed to earn at least $6,000 if he works through the apple-picking season in a place called “Pen-seal-vahn-ya”. Late into the night, Luis and Maria lie on their mat whispering about the pros and cons of taking the rich man up on his offer. Even as one of the most well-to-do families in their village, the Arriegas boast a combined annual income of just $5,000. It seems that $500 and a few months apart is a small price to pay for more than a year’s wages. Maybe this is the way the Virgin Mary has chosen to answer their prayers about Miguel’s much needed surgery. The following day Luis takes an early lunch break to find the rich man. After three years of saving up, he hands over nearly all the money that had been buried in a hole in the dirt floor under the couple’s bedroll. Two weeks later, the man returns to Luis’ place of work with an envelope containing identifying papers and written instructions on how to go about crossing the border into the United States. He bids farewell to his wife and children that Saturday morning.
Opinions and Realities
Over 40 years later, it is now common knowledge that immigrants entering our nation face resentment from many Americans. In many areas, Mexicans who do not speak fluent English are treated comparably to 1940’s blacks. Why is this? Some believe that they knowingly enter the country illegally, then “make certain to have U.S.-born children almost immediately” (S. Barker, personal communication, July 7, 2009). One Pennsylvania woman considers them to be “leaches to our society… [who] suck away valuable tax dollars that our country desperately needs” (J. Lindsey, personal communication, July 6, 2009). Many Americans agree with this notion of the parasitic nature of an “illegal” Mexican, asserting that they have no right to put their children in our schools or receive any sort of governmental benefits such as medical care.
While it is true that over half of the Mexican migrating to the United States are unauthorized (Pew Hispanic Center 2009), we must take into account the overall impact they have on the economy. In 2006, farms in Adams County, Pennsylvania sold close to 330 million pounds of apples and over 18 million pounds of peaches. Nearly 100% of the workers harvesting these crops are Mexican immigrants, whose hard work yields between $45 and $50 million annually (R. Runyan, personal communications, June-July 2009). A television series entitled The Border touches on the important role these men and women have played in our nation’s history:
The Mexican work force was critical in developing the economy and prosperity of the United States. The Mexican workers in numerous accounts were regarded as strong and efficient. As well, they were willing to work for low wages, in working conditions that were questionably humane. (Espinosa Productions, 2009).
They make up about one-fifth of our nation’s civilian labor force (Diaspora News, 2008) and have greatly contributed to growth in the workforce over many years (Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, 2003).
As a teenager, Hannah Huettner feared the tan-skinned men she passed in Biglerville, PA. Their silent stares made her feel “like a meal ticket into the country.” But now that she works at farm where many of these men are employed, Hannah knows them to be “very hard workers, and great at what they do” (H. Huettner, personal communication, July 7, 2009). Hard workers, indeed, the average farmworker puts in at least five and-a-half days of 10 to 12 hours each, according to Roddy Runyan. Runyan is the director of Fruitbelt Farmworker Christian Ministry, a nonprofit organization that caters to the needs of seasonal farmworkers in the Adams, Cumberland and Franklin counties in Pennsylvania by providing items such as blankets and sweatshirts to those who arrive in the area unprepared for the weather. He elaborates on the men’s resolve, saying, “The work is tedious and tiring and usually requires much climbing up and down ladders.” While picking, workers carry the fruit in a sack that weighs in at around 80 pounds when full. Runyan has heard it said that these immigrants are here to pilfer jobs, but he has yet to meet an American who can last in the same position for more than six months. “The grower’s children often work in the orchards for a short time, but they quickly take over the easier jobs, such as driving tractors” (R. Runyan, personal communication, June-July 2009).
Not only is the work physically burdensome, the living conditions leave much to be desired, as well. State regulations do require the housing to pass a yearly inspection. However, there is no enforcement of those conditions throughout the picking season. Nearly all the local migrants live in camps located smack-dab in the middle of the farm by which they are employed. These camps are most often barracks-style compounds, which typically house four men or an entire family to a room. Others have trailers or even old farm houses. All migrant camps feature a communal kitchen and bath. (R. Runyan, personal communications, June-July 2009).
But at least the compensation is good; after all, that is why they come here instead of working in Mexico - right? According to the National Population Council of Mexico, one in ten families depends on money sent home from the United States as their primary source of income (McGinnis & Palos, 2002). In fact, remittance comes in third, after petroleum and tourism, bringing Mexico’s people six to eight billion dollars per year (McGinnis & Palos, 2002). Still, it would be hard to find a U.S.-born American willing to do what the Mexicans do for the same amount of pay. While Pennsylvania law requires minimum wage, it is usually paid only for short periods of time. Instead of a set income, workers are paid according to how many 25-bushel bins they fill, usually at a rate of around $16 per bin. This is an instance of Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory: the hardest workers thrive, those who cannot or will not do the work go home with their tails between their legs.
A Brief History of Mexico-U.S. Migration
The United States currently receives up to 1.5 million immigrants per year, a drastic increase since 1976, when the annual average was just 600,000, says Jim Ludwick of the Oregonians for Immigration Reform (Diaspora News, 2008). The need for Mexican laborers in the U.S. was realized as early as the 1800s, when they comprised 60% of western railway crews (Marentes, 1997). By the time World War II was in full-swing, a million rural employees had either entered the military or had gone to work in factories to make supplies for the war effort. In 1942, the federal government was forewarned of impending “harvest-time disaster,” due to a lack of workers (The Dallas Morning News, 2002). That same year, The United States and Mexico signed the Bracero Treaty, which recruited Mexican citizens as U.S. laborers. The need was so intense that the U.S. government offered to pay for transportation and moving expenses for any worker willing to relocate temporarily (Messersmith, 1942). The Treaty ended in 1963, and shortly thereafter began the now common distaste for Mexican immigrants.
As we have seen, laws were once set in place to allow Mexican workers to migrate across that border without affect. Over the last two decades, though, things have taken a turn for the worst. In 1994, the Immigration and Naturalization Service set into place Operation Gatekeeper, greatly increasing the amount of border patrol personnel and equipment spanning the line between the United States and Mexico. But regardless of laws and enforcement, local farmers continue to employ Mexicans, and Mexicans try to answer their call. Many sneak through the desert or over mountains, a sad truth that has caused the number of in-migration deaths to increase by over 600% since Operation Gatekeeper began. In the year 2000 alone, 329 people died due to dehydration, heat stroke, drowning, hypothermia, or a rancher’s gun. In 2001, Mexican President Vicente Fox, along with many members of Congress, pushed for a guest worker program similar to the Bracero Treaty (McGinnis & Palos, 2002). Such a bill would grant safe travels to the men, women and children who will inevitably attempt to enter the United States in search of agricultural labor jobs. However, the Bush Administration quickly tossed the issue aside after September 11.
Life Without Migrant Workers
As the Mexico – U.S. border laws become increasingly difficult to negotiate, employers are contemplating how they might continue to run their businesses without migrant workers. This is an issue which David Mas Masumoto, a Californian farmer who employs Mexican seasonal workers, can identify with all too well:
Last year for one day, no one came to work in my peach orchard. A row of ladders stood empty. This was my day without immigrant labor. Without workers, I cannot farm. If I cannot farm, my organic heirloom peaches and raisins won't reach people's dinner tables.
Without passage of immigration reform, I can't get enough help to harvest my fruits. This work is transient and something most Americans won't do, even with higher wages. Under the current system, which gives so many immigrants illegal status, good workers from south of the border are forced to hide in the shadows, constantly fearful of deportation. (2007).
Imagine walking into the supermarket in hopes of buying a bag of Granny Smith apples to bake a pie. A quick glance through the store reveals that the produce section has been discontinued. This does not sound so far-fetched to a person who fears that immigration law will become even stricter than it already is. Without willing workers, crops cannot be harvested. Growers in Adams County, Pennsylvania “say that there is absolutely no way whatsoever that they could harvest these crops without the Mexican migrant workers” (R. Runyan, personal communication, June-July 2009).
The produce section of our favorite grocery store is evidence that Mexican immigrants come in and out of our nation consistently, many on a yearly basis. Some have achieved legal status, but others have not. In fact, as many growers might anonymously confess, at least half of the seasonal fruit pickers in Adams County, Pennsylvania first enter the United States with falsified papers or no papers at all. Those who strongly support Immigration Reform will boldly declare that these illegal aliens have no right to work here, nor should they be allowed to acquire citizenship after having entered the country by such objectionable means. On the other hand, the residents of the orchard towns in this Adams County will undoubtedly declare the importance of allowing those Mexican men and women to work their seasonal jobs. For without them, the bulk of the crops will perish. But is it fitting to bypass immigration laws for farm workers? Is having fresh produce worth the cost of breaking the rules and opening up our nation’s southern border to Mexican peasants? If these laws were better enforced, would the Mexicans stop trying to migrate north? And if they did, who would pick the apples? Who would harvest the peaches? Would Adams County’s farms survive?
1 in 7 Mexican workers employed in the U.S. (2008, December 6). Diaspora News. Retrieved June 14, 2009 from http://www.despardes.com/Diaspora/2006/20061206-mexicans.htm (no longer available)
Corchado, A. & Sandoval, R. (2002, January 27). Program once seemed like perfect fit but abusive employers, poor conditions, fatal accidents led to its end. The Dallas Morning News. Retrieved from http://nl.newsbank.com/nl-search/we/Archives?p_action=list&p_topdoc=11
Espinosa, P. (Producer). (1999). The Border. (Documentary). San Diego: KPBS TV.
Marentes, C. (1997). Los Braceros. Retrieved June 4, 2009, from http://www.farmworkers.org/benglish.html
Marentes, C. (1997). [Photograph of workers on a truck]. Mexican Migrant Workers. Retrieved June 27, 2009 from http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/migrants-2.htm
Masumoto, D. (2007, May 22). The day without farm workers. Common Dreams.org. Retrieved June 4, 2009, from http://www.commondreams.org/archive/2007/05/22/1364
McGinnis, E. & Palos, A. (2002). Beyond the border – Más allá de la frontera. (Television Series). Washington, DC: Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Orrenius, P. (2003). U.S. immigration and economic growth: putting policy on hold. Southwest Economy, 6. Retrieved June 22, 2009 from http://www.dallasfed.org/research/swe/2003/swe0306a.html
Pew Hispanic Center. (2009, April 15). Mexican immigrants in the United States, 2008. Fact Sheet. Retrieved June 24, 2009 from http://pewhispanic.org/files/factsheets/47.pdf
United States Government. (1942, August 4). Agreement between the United States of America and Mexico respecting the temporary migration of Mexican agricultural workers. Retrieved June 18, 2009 from http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/immigration/bracero-agreement-1942.pdf
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