The More Things Change

There’s been series of articles in the press over the last week or so about migrant workers. I think at this point, regardless of one’s political views, it’s evident that our food supply relies on a steady stream of migrant workers. Where migrant workers are, for whatever reasons, restricted food supplies are threatened. Our supply chain of everything from avocados to zucchini are largely dependent, somewhere along the line, on migrant workers – those here via the guest worker program and those here ‘illegally.’ Together, that’s two million ‘essential’ workers.

Who calls them ‘essential?’ President Trump. Over the course of 24 hours, Trump went from tweeting about ‘eliminating all immigration’ to acknowledging how critical migrant workers are to our food supply.

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times today, Alfredo Corchado, the Mexico border correspondent for The Dallas Morning News, wrote about his experiences growing up working with his family picking fruit and vegetables in California. It’s a great read.

Corchado sums up America’s relationship with migrant workers perfectly: “America still wants it both ways. It wants to be fed. And it wants to demonize the undocumented immigrants who make that happen.”

This is nothing new. Our relationship with migrant workers has been complicated – to say the least – since the Depression.

This really hit home recently while channel surfing late one night (say what you will about the coronavirus shutdown, but it does offer amble opportunity to explore movies, shows, and books that you’d normally miss).

I flipped on Turner Classic Movies just as they were airing Border Incident  - a film noir from 1949, directed by Nicholas Ray, the acclaimed director of They Live by Night, a film noir classic. 

You can probably find Border Incident on demand, if you get a chance it’s worth a view. The film claims it is based on a true story, I get the feeling that meant as much in 1949 as it does today (virtually nothing).

That aside, the first thing scene is striking: a conference room filled with federal law enforcement officers from Mexico and the United States. Everyone, by the way, speaks flawless English, there are no caricatures or 1950s stereotypic movie Mexicans in this film. 

The meeting is to discuss the serious problem of illegal migrant immigration. But, here’s the thing, the problem isn’t them entering the U.S., it’s what happens after they cross the border to work the fields. They are preyed on by ‘brokers’ who, in effect, sell them to farms as cheap labor. The farmers think they’re hiring ‘legals’, they pay the brokers who pocket most of the earnings.

Ricardo Montalban stars, (depending on one’s viewpoint he is either famous as Kahn or the owner of Fantasy Island) himself an immigrant to the U.S., born in Mexico City. It’s a good movie, but the shots, especially at night, are spectacular.

Two things that really stand out: the border is defined only by signs on the road and a thin barbed-wire fence through the desert. That’s it. The only bad guys are the people exploiting the Mexicans.

That’s refreshing even while the overall theme is depressing and not all that different in feel from conditions and attitudes today.  

Not much has changed. The vulnerable — Dreamers working in health care; hotel maids; dairy and poultry plant workers; waiters, cooks and busboys - still work to feed their families while feeling anxious and disposable.

Alfredo Corchado sums that up perfectly as well:

Today not much has changed. The vulnerable — Dreamers working in health care; hotel maids; dairy and poultry plant workers; waiters, cooks and busboys in the $900 billion restaurant industry — still work to feed their families while feeling disposable, deportable by an ungrateful nation.

One more thing that hasn’t changed: a viable solution. Migrant workers – legal and illegal – are vital. That has never been clearer, now, at the height of the pandemic. Most of us shelter except for venturing to the grocery store. Grocery stores full of fresh fruits and vegetables.