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When Mexican Migrants Picked Our Fruit

By James Donahue

The Mexican migrant issue was never always a problem. There was a day, not too many years ago, when entire migrant families freely drove across the border into farmlands all over the United States to help harvest fruit and vegetables. After the harvest, they drove back to their homes in Mexico, their pockets jingling with more cash than they could ever have earned in their home towns.

It was a good deal for the migrant families, who came and went in shiny late-model trucks. And it was a good deal for fruit and vegetable farmers because they migrants offered low-cost and efficient labor to both hoe the fields and harvest the tons of cucumbers, strawberries, cabbage, blueberries, melons, apples, pears and plums growing in abundance across the landscape.

Late in the 1960s, while I was working at the Kalamazoo Gazette, in Southwestern Michigan the Detroit Free Press published a front page expose on what the newspaper claimed was the ill treatment of Mexican migrant farm workers on fruit and vegetable farms operating in our part of the state. The Free Press had sent a reporter out to live with the migrant families on a few selected farms, and he produced an exaggerated account of how these people were forced to slave in the hot sun for minimum wages, and sleep in shanties with no plumbing, no screens on the doors and windows, and lie on old smelly mattresses.

A side-bar to the story was a report that one of the state legislators was introducing a bill in Lansing that would make it mandatory for farmers hiring migrant labor to provide improved living conditions, including indoor plumbing and lighting, and install windows and screens on the openings.

It was a story generated in the Gazette’s back yard and my editors went a little crazy to think that we had been “scooped” on a story that big. Because I had previously worked at Benton Harbor and was familiar with the area, I was assigned to go out into the field and come back with our own version of the same story