Let­ters from

The New York Review of Books - - News -

Lou de Hol­czer, Bill McKibben, An­drew Ratzkin, Ar­lie Russell Hochschild, Al­bion M. Ur­dank, Christo­pher R. Brown­ing, and Mark Ha­worth-Booth

The shrine told the story of Ru­fina’s par­ents’ lives: flow­ers, a can of Ari­zona iced tea, a pink vase, a cross af­fixed with a statue of Guadalupe, a bot­tle of hot sauce, an old au­to­mo­bile head­light, a pot of black soil, a can of Te­cate beer. Ru­fina pointed out a vo­tive can­dle that some­one had placed there since her last visit. It seemed to com­fort her. She be­lieved in the in­vis­i­ble pres­ence of the dead. She told me that eggshells scat­tered on the ground were dropped there by people wor­ried that “what hap­pened to my par­ents will hap­pen to them.” In a stern voice, as if to make sure there were no mis­un­der­stand­ings, she added, “They said it was my par­ents’ fault be­cause they got scared and drove away. But it wasn’t their fault, they were just go­ing to work.” An ICE spokesman blamed the deaths on Cal­i­for­nia’s sanc­tu­ary laws, which “have pushed ICE out of jails [and] force our of­fi­cers to con­duct enforcement in the com­mu­nity—which posed in­creased risks for law enforcement and the pub­lic. It also in­creases the like­li­hood that ICE will en­counter other il­le­gal aliens who pre­vi­ously weren’t on our radar.”


ICE crack­down is only one as­pect of a plan to de­port all un­doc­u­mented Mex­i­cans who oc­cupy the low­est rungs of the la­bor mar­ket and to elim­i­nate com­pletely new im­mi­gra­tion from south of the bor­der. A move­ment is un­der­way in Congress to re­place these la­bor­ers with a vast new “guest worker” pro­gram. Un­der the cur­rent guest-worker law, which is in­tended to ad­dress emer­gency la­bor short­ages, guest work­ers are ex­pen­sive: em­ploy­ers must pay for their travel from and back to their coun­try of ori­gin and pro­vide hous­ing dur­ing the term of their con­tract, which can­not ex­ceed one year. The law is de­signed to dis­cour­age busi­nesses from en­gi­neer­ing a la­bor sur­plus by im­port­ing un­lim­ited num­bers of Mex­i­cans and un­der­cut­ting work­ers who al­ready live in the US, as grow­ers did un­der the Bracero Pro­gram (whose name comes from the Span­ish word for man­ual la­borer) from 1942 to 1964, in re­sponse to the agri­cul­tural la­bor short­age dur­ing World War II.

A bill spon­sored by Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Bob Good­latte of Vir­ginia seeks to weaken—and in some in­stances abol­ish—em­ployer re­quire­ments, such as manda­tory hous­ing and trans­porta­tion, in order to cre­ate a vast pool of two mil­lion or more reg­u­lated guest work­ers. Pas­sage of the bill, its spon­sors be­lieve, will make it eco­nom­i­cally fea­si­ble to do away with hir­ing un­doc­u­mented work­ers from Mex­ico and to de­port vir­tu­ally ev­ery one of them al­ready liv­ing in the US.

Un­der the Good­latte bill, guest work­ers could be hired for up to three years and would be paid the min­i­mum wage in the state they are brought to— $7.25 in Texas, $8.25 in Florida, $10 in Ari­zona, $11 in Cal­i­for­nia, all states that use a sub­stan­tial num­ber of farm­work­ers. Cru­cially, they would not be al­lowed to bring their spouses or chil­dren. And they could only work for the con­trac­tor who hired them. If they experienced wage theft or mal­treat­ment on the job, they would have no re­course to seek jus­tice or find work else­where. If fired, they would be im­me­di­ately de­ported, at their own ex­pense. If they fled, they would be hunted as out­laws. At least 10 per­cent of their wages would be with­held un­til the con­tract ex­pired, to make sure that they left the coun­try. I asked Ar­turo Ro­driguez (since retired as UFW pres­i­dent) if such con­di­tions would at­tract sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of work­ers. He as­sured me that they would: “Farm­work­ers in the south of Mex­ico make the equiv­a­lent of be­tween $10 and $13 dol­lars a day, so it’s worth it to them to come here, even with the re­stric­tions. As it is, they have to bribe re­cruiters in order to be cho­sen for guest work.”

The Good­latte bill was de­feated in Congress ear­lier this year. But a re­vised ver­sion has the sup­port of 203 Congress mem­bers, only fif­teen votes short of the num­ber needed for pas­sage. Speaker Paul Ryan and House Ma­jor­ity Leader Kevin McCarthy, who rep­re­sents part of the San Joaquin Val­ley, have in­di­cated their de­sire to bring it to a vote again be­fore the new Congress is sworn in in January. Na­tion­wide, two hun­dred agri­cul­tural groups back the bill, in­clud­ing the Amer­i­can Farm Bu­reau Fed­er­a­tion. Cal­i­for­nia grow­ers op­pose it be­cause it in­cludes a re­quire­ment that em­ploy­ers ver­ify the le­gal im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus of their work­ers. The re­quire­ment, said thirty Cal­i­for­nia agri­cul­tural groups, would “dev­as­tate” them. The grow­ers I talked to want a timely and suf­fi­cient sup­ply of cheap la­bor to har­vest their crops that they can eas­ily con­trol. The cur­rent sys­tem has served them well for a cen­tury. Un­til the Good­latte bill or any other pro­gram guar­an­tees them cheap la­bor, they will con­tinue to co­op­er­ate with Cal­i­for­nia’s pol­icy of bar­ring ICE from work­place raids and roundups. As things stand, there is a la­bor short­age the mag­ni­tude of which hasn’t been seen in at least ninety years. It has prompted grow­ers to rip out la­bor­in­ten­sive fruits like ta­ble grapes and plant al­mond trees, which re­quire rel­a­tively few work­ers. Hous­ing costs, es­pe­cially in the Coastal Val­ley, have made it even harder to at­tract and keep work­ers. In re­cent years, mil­lions of dol­lars’ of un­picked crops have been plowed un­der or left to rot in the fields. “We’re all com­pet­ing for the same worker,” said John D’Ar­rigo, pres­i­dent of D’Ar­rigo Brothers, the largest let­tuce and broc­coli grower in the Sali­nas Val­ley, with 38,000 acres un­der cul­ti­va­tion. D’Ar­rigo’s an­ti­la­bor prac­tices were the rea­son for an ac­ri­mo­nious let­tuce boy­cott in the 1970s, led by Chavez and the UFW. Last summer, the com­pany signed a con­tract with the UFW, for the sole pur­pose of en­sur­ing it­self a steady work­force. Fif­teen hun­dred let­tuce pick­ers will get $13.35 an hour and full med­i­cal cov­er­age from the union health plan paid for by D’Ar­rigo dur­ing the months that they work. In ex­change, the UFW will use its ra­dio net­work to put out the word that D’Ar­rigo is a good em­ployer and make sure that when D’Ar­rigo needs them, pick­ers will be in the fields.

—This is the first of two ar­ti­cles on Cal­i­for­nia.

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