Originally published by The New York Times
EL PASO — The other day, armed with a face mask, I was rushing through the aisles of an organic supermarket, sizing up the produce, squeezing the oranges and tomatoes, when a memory hit me.
Me — age 6 — stooping to pick these same fruits and vegetables in California’s San Joaquin Valley. I spent the spring weekends and scorching summers of my childhood in those fields, under the watchful eye of my parents. Once I was a teenager, I worked alongside them, my brothers and cousins, too, essential links in a supply chain that kept America fed, but always a step away from derision, detention and deportation.
Today, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Mexico and Central America are doing that work. By the Department of Agriculture’s estimates, about half the country’s field hands — more than a million workers — are undocumented. Growers and labor contractors estimate that the real proportion is closer to 75 percent.
Suddenly, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, these “illegal” workers have been deemed “essential” by the federal government.
Tino, an undocumented worker from Oaxaca, Mexico, is hoeing asparagus on the same farm where my family once worked. He picks tomatoes in the summer and melons in the fall. He told me his employer has given him a letter — tucked inside his wallet, next to a picture of his family — assuring any who ask that he is “critical to the food supply chain.” The letter was sanctioned by the Department of Homeland Security, the same agency that has spent 17 years trying to deport him.
“I don’t feel this letter will stop la migra from deporting me,” Tino told me. “But it makes me feel I may have a chance in this country, even though Americans may change their minds tomorrow.”
True to form, America still wants it both ways. It wants to be fed. And it wants to demonize the undocumented immigrants who make that happen.
Recently, President Trump tweeted that he would “temporarily suspend immigration into the United States” — a threat consistent with the hit-the-immigrant-like-a-piñata policy he spearheaded in his 2016 campaign. Less than 24 hours later, the president backed down in the face of business groups fearful of losing access to foreign labor, announcing that he’d keep the guest worker program.
In the past, the United States has rewarded immigrant soldiers who fought our wars with a path to citizenship. Today, the fields — along with the meatpacking plants, the delivery trucks and the grocery store shelves — are our front lines, and border security can’t be disconnected from food security.
It’s time to offer all essential workers a path to legalization.
It might seem hard to imagine this happening during the “Build the wall” presidency, when Congress can barely agree on emergency stimulus measures. Many Republicans no longer support even DACA, the program that protected Dreamers who grew up here and that could be revoked by the Supreme Court this week. But the pandemic scrambles our normal politics.
“We have started talking about essential workers as a category of superheroes,” said Andrew Selee, the president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute and author of “Vanishing Frontiers.” If the pandemic continues for a year or two, he said, we should think “in a bold way about how do we deal with essential workers who have put their life on the line for all of us but who don’t have legal documents.”
Maybe, he said, “they should be in the pipeline for fast-track regularization, just like those with DACA” are, for now.
Of course, America has always been a fickle country. I learned that lesson as a crop-picking boy, when my aunt Esperanza, who ran the team of farmhands that included my mom, brothers and cousins, would yell: “Haganse arco.” Duck!
The workers without documents would stop hoeing and scramble. Run — if not for their lives, then almost certainly for their livelihoods. We’d watch as the vans of the Border Patrol came to a screeching halt, dust settling. The unlucky workers would make a beeline for the nearest ditch or canal. Some would simply drop to the ground, hoping for refuge amid the rows of sugar beets, tomatoes or cotton. Sometimes the agents gave chase. We’d always root for the prey.
On more than one occasion, agents took my mom and my aunt Teresa, locking them in the cages in the back of the van, because they didn’t have their green cards on them. We’d race home and fetch the cards and make a mad dash to the immigration offices in Fresno some 60 miles away from our farm camp in Oro Loma, praying we’d make it before they could be deported.
We were desperate to prove they had every right to be out in those desolate fields, as if they were taking a dream job away from somebody else.
One time, Aunt Teresa looked genuinely disappointed at the sight of our smiling faces. She was ticked off she hadn’t been deported.
“I miss Mexico,” she said.
Sometimes, the night after such raids, a puzzling thing would take place. A labor contractor or farmer would drive up as we’d gather for dinner of beef, green chile and potato caldillowashed down with tortillas. He’d compliment us for the hard work we had put in that day. And then he’d ask: Did we know anyone who might want to come and work alongside us?
He meant more Mexicans.
The instructions were simple: Get the word out, spread the farmer’s plea back in our towns in Mexico because plenty of rain had fallen that winter and now it was summer and everything around us was ripe, achi
ng for that human touch. The season looked promising. Plenty of crops to pick.
Today not much has changed. The vulnerable — Dreamers working in health care; hotel maids; dairy and poultry plant workers; waiters, cooks and busboys in the $900 billion restaurant industry — still work to feed their families while feeling disposable, deportable by an ungrateful nation.
Tino, the farmworker in the San Joaquin Valley, is worried about the coronavirus. He wonders whether it’s best, after 17 years of hiding from immigration authorities, to return to Oaxaca, “where I’d rather die.”
But Tino’s dreams outweigh his fears. He wants the best for his family, including a son born in the United States, who’s looking at colleges in California. So, he continues in his $13.50-an-hour job.
He works for, among others, Joe L. Del Bosque of Del Bosque Farms, one of the largest organic melon growers in the country. Mr. Del Bosque employs about 300 people on hundreds of acres, and his fruits and vegetables are sold in just about every other organic supermarket across the country, including the place where I now shop in El Paso.
“Sadly, it’s taken a pandemic for Americans to realize that the food in their grocery stores, on their tables, is courtesy of mostly Mexican workers, the majority of them without documents,” Mr. Del Bosque told me. “They’re the most vulnerable of workers. They’re not hiding behind the pandemic waiting for a stimulus check.”
Along with other farmers, he has been pleading with Congress for the past few years to legalize farmworkers, if not as part of comprehensive immigration reform, then as a bill focused on farmworkers, because “you need these workers today, tomorrow and for a long time.”
“With or without Covid,” he added, “we need to constantly replenish our work force to ensure food supplies.”
Some Democratic lawmakers, including Representative Veronica Escobar of El Paso, are pushing to include legalization in any updated coronavirus relief package. “The hypocrisy within America is that we want the fruits of their undocumented labor, but we want to give them nothing in return,” she said.
Even with unemployment projected to be 15 percent or higher, Mr. Del Bosque told me he doubts he’ll ever see a line of job-seeking Americans flocking to his fields. The rare few who have shown up at 5:30 a.m. don’t come back. Some, he said, give up the backbreaking work before their first lunch break.
He fears looming labor shortages. That’s not because of raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement resuming or a wall keeping workers out. He worries about a potential coronavirus outbreak, yes, but his most immediate concern is that his farmworkers are aging. Their average age is 40. My old school, Oro Loma Elementary School, which was once filled with Mexican children, closed down in 2010.
The fields are simply running out of Mexicans as fewer men and women migrate each year, either because they’re finding better jobs in Mexico or because of demographics. The Mexican birthrate is down from 7.3 children per woman in the 1960s to 2.1 in 2018. Those who do come want higher-paying jobs in other industries.
The best way to guarantee food security in the future is to legalize the current workers in order to keep them here, and to offer a pathway to legalization as an incentive for new agricultural workers to come. These people will be drawn not just from Mexico, but increasingly from Central and South America.
Del Bosque Farms have been dependent on Mexican workers since Mr. Del Bosque’s parents, also immigrants from Mexico, started hiring them in the 1950s under the Bracero Program, which began during World War II. The program issued some five million contracts to Mexicans, inviting them to come to the United States as guest workers to help fill labor shortages so Americans could fight overseas.
Hundreds of the workers who’ve toiled at Del Bosque Farms over the years have become legal residents, many more citizens, including my father, Juan Pablo.
For many years my father spent the springs and summers working in the United States, but every November he’d high-tail it back to his village in Mexico, where he played in a band called the Birds with his five brothers. He didn’t trust his American bosses to raise his pay, and always worried about the possibility of suddenly being deported, so he wouldn’t commit to them. The Texans especially, he thought, were prejudiced against Mexicans.
The boys from Mexico worked so hard, Texas ranchers argued during one of America’s cyclical anti-immigrant periods, that the hiring of Mexicans should not be considered a felony. Thus, the Texas Proviso was adopted in 1952, stating that employing unauthorized workers would not constitute “harboring or concealing” them. This helps explain why Americans call immigrants “illegal” but not the businesses that hire them.
When the Bracero Program ended in 1964, amid accusations of mistreatment against Mexicans, my father thought he had enough of plowing rows on a tractor and digging ditches. He dreamed of running a grocery store in Mexico, raising his kids out where mountains embraced us. But he was such a hard worker that his boss couldn’t fathom the idea of losing him. So he helped my father get a green card for every member of his family, including me. Later he began working for the Del Bosques.
Without legalization, he would have left and probably never come back.
As a 6-year-old immigrant, I’d cry at night under the California stars, homesick for Mexico, for my friends and cousins. Then one night, as my mother tucked me into bed, she caressed my face. “Shhhh,” she whispered, “they’re all here now.” And she was right.
Today my siblings include a lawyer, an accountant, two truck drivers, a security guard, an educator and a prosthetics specialist. Cousins went off to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or to help run medical centers and corporations, including Walmart in Arkansas. Others still grind away in the fields of California and meatpacking plants of Colorado, work in nursing homes or clean the houses of the rich. Many of us make an annual pilgrimage to our home village in the Mexican desert. But we’re firmly planted here.
Without being thanked for it, we’re replenishing America.
Alfredo Corchado is the Mexico border correspondent for The Dallas Morning News and the author of “Midnight in Mexico" and “Homelands: Four Friends, Two Countries and the Fate of the