Sunday, March 30, 2008

"Do you ever think of us?"

This was the haunting, resonating question put to a group of white, educated, affluent Americans by a 19-year-old migrant worker in Orleans County New York on a cold day in late March. He walked over the U.S. Mexican border two years ago and traveled somehow to Rochester New York area to work in agriculture. He came because there is little work in his home state and what work there is does not pay enough to support a family. He could work a 12 hour day and earn 100 pesos--about $10. But he then pointed to a two liter soft drink bottle and told us that it would cost 20 pesos at home, 20 percent of his daily wage.

And so he came to the U.S. to work those same 12 hour days or more but to make at least U.S. minimum wage, the bulk of which he sends back to his family. His living and working conditions are abysmal by any standard. During the growing season from April through November, he can work 12 or more hours a day, seven days a week. There is no such thing as over time pay or regular breaks. Sunday is not a day of rest if work needs to be done. If he is sick or cannot work, he does not get paid. New York State and federal taxes are withheld from his pay check and because he fears the immigration implications of filing an income tax return, he does not receive the refund to which he is entitled. He pays Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes but there no possibility that he will ever receive any benefits. In fact, the money he pays into social security helps support the payments that I and others on social security receive!

He lives in constant fear that he will be apprehended by immigration and deported back to Mexico. As a result he tends to spend his time in the camps even when there is no work. He truly feels like "an alien in a strange land" and thus asks me the question: Do you ever think of us? The sad truth is that mostly I do not think of them, whose cheap labor puts food on my table. To think of them makes me uncomfortable...and guilty. Most of the workers we met were in their late teens or early twenties. (View a photo album of our day.) A few were older and had left their wives and children behind in order to have a chance to provide for them. As a father myself it was difficult t imagine how desperate their situations must have been to lead them to leave.

None of those we spoke with wanted to stay here more than one or two years. They missed their families and their homes. They lead lives on the margin, out of sight, and all too often out of mind. They are the victims of a dysfunctional economic system at home and a misguided political and legal system here. It is difficult and often dangerous for them to raise their voices to demand the human rights that we all should have. Some of them have traveled to Albany with groups advocating for migrant worker rights. I doubt that I would have the courage to do the same were I in their situation.

Imagine how wonderful it would be if they could enter our country legally to do the work on which we rely for food. They could live among us as the proud and talented people they are instead of hiding from us who too often seem to them to be at worst enemies and at best unaware beneficiaries of their work. They could return home freely and just as freely return for the work that awaits them. They could earn reasonable wages and have the same protections that the rest of us enjoy.

Shortly before 9/11 there was pending legislation that would have provided just such an arrangement. But the hysteria generated by that attack wrecked the political coalition among both democrats and republicans that could have passed that legislation. Creating a border that pretends to be impregnable is no solution to this problem. There is no border in the world that divides such poverty on one side and such affluence on the other. We would all benefit from the free movement of such workers. We certainly need to control our borders but our current system forces honest and decent people to become criminals to provide the basic necessities to their families.

I will be doing more research to understand the changes that can be made to normalize this situation. It is clear to me that this should be an issue separate from the status of undocumented immigrant who are living permanently in the U.S.

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