The Palm Beach Post, December 14, 2003

 

 

End America's denial of farm labor reality

Palm Beach Post Editorial

 

It is politically fashionable to describe America's migrant farmworkers as an invisible

population. But Floridians know better.

 

We find them everywhere -- strolling along our streets, shopping in our supermarkets,

attending our churches, taking their children to schools. We look at them daily as they

ride in sagging vans or old, bright-colored school buses lumbering to the fields.

 

Migrants really aren't living invisible lives. Floridians just prefer that they would.

We want their labor, but we don't want to hear their stories. We turn away to avoid

knowing too much. For all the changes the state has gone through during the past

half-century, the denial about migrant workers has remained remarkably constant --

as have the abuses they endure to meet our needs.

 

For three days last week, The Palm Beach Post offered readers an extraordinary look

at the lives of migrants with the "Modern-Day Slavery" series. It was a rare and unsettling

examination of invisible people in plain sight.

 

Florida's $62 billion agriculture industry relies on more than 122,000 migrant workers

to work the fields each year. Hypocrisy is a bumper crop when it comes to the nation's

dependence on foreign labor and immigration. American workers won't take the backbreaking

jobs that pay an average of $7,500 a year, so imported farmworkers are essential.

 

Yet the government provides no legal way for them to come. About 90 percent of migrants are

Mexicans, and many risked perilous border crossings only to be stigmatized on arriving.

 

On one hand, the nation welcomes them for their work; on the other, it considers them lawbreakers.

As shameful as any injustice in the fields is the government's incoherent, immoral immigration

policy that has left thousands dead in the Arizona desert on their way to jobs we wanted them to fill.

 

An evolving U.S. work force that grows ever more educated and sophisticated will continue

to demand foreigners to fill menial positions. Consider that in 1950, only 6.2 percent of all adult

Americans had four-year college degrees. By 2000, that number had risen to 25 percent.

The percentage of U.S. high school graduates who immediately go on to college rose to

63.3 percent in 2000, up from 49 percent 30 years ago. Parents do not send their children

to college so they can prepare for a career picking tomatoes.

 

It is a well-circulated misconception that migrant workers pay no taxes and live on handouts.

While they place added burdens on schools and social services, migrants pay most of the

same taxes as U.S. citizens, yet don't collect benefits from those taxes. Many work with

fake or stolen Social Security numbers and pay each week into a fund from which they

never will draw returns. Taxes collected on $375 billion in wages for workers with mismatched

Social Security numbers languish in the federal Treasury. Only 6.6 percent of migrants used

food stamps in 2000, compared with 18 percent in 1993. Migrant workers pay their landlords'

property taxes.

 

They pay sales taxes and gasoline taxes. Federal earned income credits for the working poor

go unclaimed. The National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based think tank, reports that

the typical immigrant pays $80,000 more in taxes over a lifetime than he receives

in government benefits.

 

Twenty-two federal and state agencies are charged with regulating farm practices in Florida,

but the state ranks among the worst for abuse of workers, The Post report found. Five cases

of slavery have been uncovered and prosecuted in the state during the past six years. In

St. Lucie, DeSoto and Collier counties, labor contractors held workers in involuntary

servitude and threatened them with beatings if they resisted. Authorities have broken

prostitution rings of teenage migrant girls held against their will.

 

Growers insulate themselves from responsibility by using the subcontractors. Liability for accidents

and injuries never gets past the middlemen, a decades-old scheme of deferred accountability.

Growers wash their hands of abuses and point fingers at the usual suspects, the fall guys for hire.

 

The Legislature's response has been just as disgraceful. Even modest reforms -- such as a

bill that would prevent employers from forcing workers to rent shovels, bags and gloves --

had to overcome opposition from the agriculture lobby. This year, legislation that would

inform workers about pesticide use never got out of committee. An anti-slavery bill didn't

even get that far. How can a bill prohibiting slavery meet such resistance? A good question

for the House Agriculture Committee, half of whose 14 members are farmers.

 

Abuses are embedded so deeply in so many layers of Florida life that it becomes too tempting

to regard reform efforts as futile. The state certainly needs help from a federal government

whose inability to work with Mexico on border issues fosters this irrational, deadly system.

The nation needs a guest-worker program that allows migrants to come here legally and safely,

work the season, then return home. But Americans first must overcome the 9/11 paranoia that

too often confuses all foreigners with terrorists.

 

Technological advances make it more possible than ever to identify migrants and track them.

The right guest-worker program actually would enhance security.

 

At the local level, governments should enforce housing codes and authorities should prosecute

crimes against migrant workers as if they were crimes against U.S. citizens. Progressive growers,

such as Jay Taylor and A. Duda & Sons, have taken it upon themselves to change for the right

reasons. They provide benefits, safe transportation and housing for workers. The Coalition of

Immokalee Workers is waging a national campaign to persuade Taco Bell to pay one penny more

for each pound of tomatoes and let the penny pass to pickers. That tiny change would double

their earnings and give them a living wage.

 

But the greatest challenge for Floridians is to look beyond stereotypical encounters and see

migrants as they are. When the state can replace denial with honest acknowledgment of the

lives they live and the contributions they make, the Harvest of Shame will end -- at last.