America's Forgotten Heroes:  The Immigrants Who "Take Our Jobs:"

December 5, 2018

 "Days often begin in the middle of the night — say, 3 a.m. — to leave enough time to get to a pickup point (a parking lot or vacant lot), be picked up (or not — the labor contractors who collect workers and deliver them to farms generally don’t take all of them), and get trucked to the worksite. Each crop is different; you’re stooping to pick (fruits like strawberries) or cut (vegetables like broccoli) essentially nonstop, usually with pressure to keep up with a truck that’s collecting the harvested produce. If you fall behind, you could get kicked out and lose both a day’s wages and a ride home. Conditions vary, of course, but there are often very limited breaks.

"'It’s not just the physical stress,” says [Ricardo] Salvador, [Director of the food and environment program for the Union of Concerned Scientists]. “It’s the psychological stress. You have to keep up, you can’t afford to lose this job.'”

"And the pay? Between $10 and $12 an hour, generally. Sometimes a bit more, sometimes less. But, because there isn’t year-round work, according to Salvador, “these families are earning $10,000 a year.”"1 


Such is the lifestyle of many of the "lazy" undocumented immigrants who simultaneously "take our jobs" and "lie around watching TV and drinking beer while collecting Welfare." The people who, for starvation-level seasonal wages, without secure employment, without benefits, and without legal rights, pick our strawberries and broccoli and celery and radishes...The people who through their backbreaking work in scorching sun and drenching rain, brutal cold and blistering heat, put food on our tables at prices we can afford.  Work that good, solid unemployed Americans wouldn't touch.  And that's not just me saying that.  There are solid statistics to prove it.  


Department of Labor statistics estimate that out of a total of approximately 1.5 million farm workers, about half are undocumented.  And that's a conservative statistic. Many estimates are much higher.


So there is the hateful, racially-motivated political rhetoric.  And then there's reality.  Let's take those famous Trumpisms one by one.


Nasty political rhetoric: "Immigrants are taking our jobs."


Truth:  Trust me you don't want 'em!  


In 2011, a study conducted by the Partnership for a New American Economy, found that at a time when 489,000 people were unemployed statewide, the North Carolina Growers Association posted 6,500 available jobs, but just 268 North Carolinians applied.  Out of that small handful, only 163 showed up for work, and only seven finished the season. 


The same year, the Governor of Georgia had the inspired idea to put people on probation to work in the fields. Most of them walked off the job immediately. 2


Nasty political rhetoric: "Undocumented workers hurt our economy"


Truth:  A shortage of immigrant workers is devastating to our economy, and no one seems to know what to do about it.  


Attempts by states to enforce immigration laws have been devastating to the states' economies, as explained by USA Today: 


"Farmers across the country saw exactly what would happen if the government took an enforcement-only approach after Arizona passed an anti-immigration bill in 2010, leading a half-dozen states to follow suit. The laws, which included the requirement that all businesses use the E-Verify system, sent undocumented immigrants out of those states in droves.


"Alabama's immigration law pushed up to 80,000 workers out of the state, according to a study conducted by the University of Alabama. 


"Georgia's immigration law led to more than $140 million in unharvested crops in 2011 because so many workers fled the state, according to a report commissioned by the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.


"The fleeing workers in Arizona resulted in an average 2 percent drop in the state's gross domestic product every year through 2015, according to an analysis conducted by The Wall Street Journal." 3


Overtly encouraging illegal immigration is obviously not a viable long-term  solution, either for our country or for the immigrants themselves.  But there doesn't seem to be any political will to institute the obvious solution--broadening and liberalizing the temporary guest worker immigration status.  


Nasty political rhetoric:  "Undocumented aliens sit around all day and collect Welfare."


Truth:  Undocumented immigrants are prohibited from receiving all but the most minimal and emergency forms of public assistance.


Undocumented immigrants are prohibited from receiving:


  • Children’s Health Insurance (CHIP)

  • Disability, aka Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

  • Food stamps, aka The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

  • Health insurance, aka insurance via the Affordable Care Act (ACA)

  • Medicaid

  • Medicare

  • Social Security

  • Welfare


They may be eligible for:

  • Emergency medical care, including ER visits and Emergency Medicaid

  • Schooling

  • Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). 4 


The only benefits they are entitled to are ones that are fundamental to a humane society.  Do you really want anyone illegal or not, to be turned away from a hospital to die, or be denied basic education?


Truth #2:  Undocumented immigrants pay taxes.  A lot of taxes.  


On the issue of taxes, an article in the Huffington Post explains, "According to a 2010 report by the American Immigration Council, undocumented immigrants pay as much as $90 billion in taxes but receive just $5 billion in benefits. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) estimated that in 2010 undocumented immigrants paid as much as $10.6 billion in state and local taxes alone."


The article goes on to state that given IRS estimates that some 50-75 percent of undocumented immigrants pay taxes, our government could actually reduce deficits by giving immigrants a means to become legal so that they all would pay taxes.   We actually reduce the amount of taxable income by ensuring undocumented immigrants do not come forward.  5


Nasty political rhetoric:  Undocumented immigrants are violent criminals.


Truth:  Legal residents commit a much higher number of violent crimes than undocumented immigrants.   


Multiple studies have shown that native born Americans commit significantly more crimes than illegal immigrants. 6 Studies have also shown that areas with high levels of illegal immigrants actually have lower levels of violent crime.  Says the Washington Post,"Among other things, they find that the relationship between high levels of illegal immigration and low levels of crime persists even after controlling for various economic and demographic factors such as age, urbanization, labor market conditions and incarceration rates."7


And finally, there's the human factor.  Here's what it's like to see through the eyes of a Mexican farm worker.  


"In San Pedro Muzuputla, the town I’m from, we’re very poor, and I have four children. This is my second time coming to the United States, and I’ve been living in this encampment in San Diego for a year. When I first arrived, I rented an apartment, but I couldn’t make enough money to pay rent, food, transportation, and still have money left to send to Mexico. I figured any spot under a tree would do, so I asked a coworker and he told me about this place. I bought some nylon and a tarp for the roof, and built my shack myself. My main goal is to save money and send it to my family.


"We’re outsiders. If we were natives here, then we’d probably have a home to live in. But we don’t make enough to pay rent. We’re poor and can’t afford to go elsewhere.


"Here in the camp very few speak Spanish. Most just speak their indigenous language. Those from Guerrero speak one language; the people from San Pedro Muzuputla speak another. We speak Amuzceñas. We don’t understand Mixteco or Triqui—it’s very different. That’s why it’s good to speak Spanish.


"When we aren’t working, we’re looking for work. Sometimes Americans stop by, and even though we only communicate by hand signals, they can tell us what job they want done. I was beaten at work five years ago, on a ranch by the freeway in San Diego. The boss asked us why we weren’t working hard. I told him we weren’t animals and we had rights. I still remember everything they did to me afterwards." 8


So this Christmas when you give thanks for the table groaning with delicious food, don't forget to give thanks for the immigrants whose grinding, unrelenting work for such meager pay made your Christmas feast possible.  Consider how many of the dishes crowding for space on the table would be empty without their work.


And while you're at it, you might consider having a word with your members of Congress about finding a way to allow these forgotten American heroes, at long last, to have a fair chance to stay in this country as legal workers and enjoy the basic rights and protections their essential economic contributions richly deserve.  








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