Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Be our guest

    Few of us, if asked to prioritize the problems facing agricultural states, would come up with the answer that they have too few “illegal aliens.”
    Instead, Americans seem to be warned constantly about too many outsiders who, if given the opportunity to become citizens and vote, will go on welfare, refuse to pay taxes and choose not to become like us. Now, however, there is growing evidence of changes that may contradict that perception and that may be difficult for some people to believe.
    The Journal of Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy reports that Mexican farms are now competing with U.S. farms for a dwindling supply of agricultural laborers. It has become harder to staff the so-called “guest worker” agribusiness-friendly programs that bring labor into the U.S. to cultivate and harvest our crops.
    Since the days of the federal immigration Bracero (meaning laborer) Program, in place from 1942-1964, American harvests too often were really harvests of shame. Employment contracts, written in English and controlled by independent farmer associations and the Farm Bureaus, left braceros to sign those contracts without understanding the terms of their employment or the rights they were giving away.

    U.S. guest worker programs have traditionally emphasized the “worker” part of the equation that meets the interests of farmers and consumers while largely ignoring issues of justice, fairness and worker rights.
    Recently, Sean Cockerman of McClatchy Newspapers found Idaho farmers who were quite open regarding their need for Mexican workers, whom one characterized as “border jumpers.” Foreign workers are critical to their business, they said, because Americans are lazy and don’t want to put in the time or do the type of work required. American consumers benefit from the labor of foreign workers, though few realize it. Our food is cheap and plentiful and we like it that way. We are not driven to question why nor are we likely to inquire about who benefits and who pays in our agricultural system.
    A real person puts in the time and does brutally hard farm work, and none of us is excited about paying higher food prices, but farmers are warning us that unless they have an abundant supply of farm laborers who will work for what the grower can pay, our agricultural system is in jeopardy.
    Instead of comments slurring lazy Americans or Mexican farm workers, we should recognize that America’s agriculture could not have succeeded without the help of non-American laborers and appreciate what they have done for us.
    Unless we begin to see them truly as guest workers, we may look up and find that no one will be there to do what most of us are unwilling to do.

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