Harvest of Shame

by Ed O’Rourke


David Shipler’s book,  The Working Poor: Invisible in America, describes the lives of people who have full time jobs in the United States and are still poor.  How can this be?  The federal government lasted raised the minimum wage to $5.15 in 1996.  Most low-income jobs have no health benefits.  With lax enforcement of labor laws, many employers cheat employees by making them work “off the clock” and other illegal practices.

Chapter 4, Harvest of Shame, portrays the plight of foreign agricultural workers who are the most exploited.  Illegal aliens must pay coyotes (smugglers) to transport them across the U.S. – Mexico border to obtain agricultural work.  Since they are here illegally, they can scarcely argue over pay and conditions.  If they make themselves too visible or too noisy, their employer or anyone else can call the Immigration and Naturalization Service to deport them.

Agricultural workers are victims of chemical spray that farmers use carelessly, and then, send workers into the field too soon after application and provide inadequate showers, sinks and laundries.  The chemical may be responsible for higher incidence of birth defects for farm workers, estimated at three to fourteen times the rates among the general U.S. population.

Workers obtain fake social security cars that enable the employer to show that appearance of obeying the law.  The employer knows that they are fake.  Illegal migrants cannot obtain a valid social security card limiting them from doing a lot of things that we take for granted, opening a bank accountant.  With a bank accountant, remittances are cheaper.  Currently, Western Union, banks and pharmacies absorb 10 to 25 percent of money remitted for fee and an exchange rate favorable to institutions.

Migrants may be eligible for an income tax refund but do not file fearing that the Internal Revenue Service may tip off the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

A simple remedy would be to issue 3,000,000 one-year work visas to Mexican and Central American citizens for agricultural work. Migrants could then obtain valid social security cards, open bank accounts, become union members, file income tax returns and have legal standing in wage and conditions disputes.  There is a limited H2A visa program with too much red tape.  Simplify the visa process.  Make the visas renewable.

A long-term solution is a second Marshall Plan for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean Basin.  Those who are concerned about the effects of illegal immigration should have a hard look at this.  Since the greatest per capita income difference between nations is at the U.S. – Mexico border, our prosperity will continue to draw desperate people like a magnet attracts iron filings.  People with decent jobs would not risk death in illegal border crossings and exploitation by coyotes, employers and police.

If the immigration laws were suddenly and effectively enforced, the agricultural trade, restaurants and construction firms in many parts of the United States would shut down.

Our nation stands as a beacon to the world for human rights.  It is time to end the suffering within our borders that our current laws and enforcement perpetuate.