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.”
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