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The Illegals

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The Immigrant Farm Labor Issue

By James Donahue

I grew up in a Michigan agricultural area where many farmers depended on the migrant farm workers to help tend their fields and harvest their crops. It was a common sight to see the workers busy hoeing through fields of beans, sugar beets or harvesting fields of strawberries or cucumbers headed for the local pickle plants or picking apples in the various commercial orchards.

The migrants traveled through the state, following the seasons, knowing there was work to be done. They arrived in cars and vans with Mexican license plates. While in the area they lived in primitive little shanties provided by the growers.

Once I began working as a news reporter I had occasion to visit with these workers and view their life styles close up. I learned that this was a life style for entire families that spent their summers traveling across the United States, following the harvest. They traveled in late-model vans and trucks. While few of them spoke English, they appeared to be a happy lot, living a gypsy life style, and gladly filling a need among American crop farmers for temporary mass labor when it came time to harvest the melons, berries, apples, cucumbers and the many other crops that were too delicate for machines to capture.

While working at the Kalamazoo Gazette one summer, a reporting team from the
Detroit Free Press slipped into our reading area and shocked the state with an expose on the harsh living standards provided for the migrant workers. The story appeared with another story by a state legislator who was introducing a bill that would force farmers to provide housing with hot and cold running water, working cook stoves, screens on all of the windows and comfortable beds and furniture. The news story made it appear as if the migrant workers were being treated like slave labor and working for very low wages.

We were scooped by a big story by alleged events occurring right under our noses. My editors sent me out to get the story. Being the rebel I am, however, I used the age-old formula of getting both sides of the story. Not only did I talk to the migrant workers in the field, but I talked to the farmers and even talked to representatives of a migrant ministry working in the area. I returned with a much different story than the one that appeared in the Detroit papers.

I learned that the migrant families liked their life style and were concerned that the proposed legislation was putting their jobs in jeopardy. They showed where entire families were leaving their homes in Mexico and coming to Michigan to pick fruit because they were earning much more than they could possibly earn in Mexico. One man, who operated a television repair shop in Mexico, said his family could bring In about $300 a day picking melons on the farm I visited. This was in the 1960s when that kind of money was considered very good income.

The farmers showed me the modest cabins the workers occupied during the few days of the year when they came to pick the fruit. They were functional, but like the Detroit papers reported, lacked hot and cold running water and screens on the windows. But they were not dirty rat traps. Water was available at nearby well pumps, and wood burning stoves were available for cooking. The migrant families were satisfied. They only used these buildings a few days out of the year and regarded the experience as camping out with the family.

The farmers said they could not afford providing the housing that the proposed state legislation was threatening to force on them. They said machine harvesters were available that could shake the blueberries from the bushes, apples from the trees and slice the asparagus from the fields. The cost of this equipment was prohibiting them from switching from hired migrant labor. But if the bill became law, they would be forced into switching.

The migrants didn’t want this. The farmers didn’t want this.

I wrote my story and took a lot of heat from the bleeding hearts in our area for "slanting" my story in favor of the farmers. My editor was so angry at the controversy I stirred up that I was removed from further political reporting and assigned to music and religion for the rest of the years that I remained at that paper.

The legislators passed that law. The farmers followed through and bought their harvesting machines. And the migrant workers no longer made their summer treks into the Michigan fruit belt. It all happened just as my stories said it would.

So now we hear all of the news reports about "illegal immigrants" pouring over the Mexican-American border to do farm work and fill jobs that most Americans refuse to do. It has been a big political rhubarb in Washington. Consequently, the migrating Mexican farm workers are no longer daring to cross the border like they once did. And farmers all over the land are crying for lack of workers to harvest their crops.

The fruit and vegetable growers are asking for relaxed laws that allow Mexican migrant workers to return to the nation’s farms. That labor, which was considered cheap by U. S. standards, helped keep down U.S. food prices.

But a new study by researchers from U. C. Davis suggests that a return to the old ways may not be possible, even if the immigration issue can be resolved. It seems that Mexico is getting richer, people there are now working for higher wages, many in American owned factories that moved there in search of cheap labor. Now American farmers are faced with the problem of paying higher and higher wages to attract that dwindling pool of available Mexican farm workers.