As we sat on my cousin's screen porch at night and listened to frogs and night birds, our conversation wasn't so terribly different from wintry conversations over coffee with some of Wisconsin's larger dairy farmers. Inevitably, it turned to immigration and agriculture's conflicted history regarding migrant workers.
My grandparents homesteaded in Homestead, Fla., and my cousin Medora continues to raise avocados and mangoes. There's nothing I like better than a Florida avocado, which I buy all winter from my Asian grocery store in downtown Madison. But avocados that are not picked are not eaten. And like most fruits and vegetables grown commercially in the U.S., every avocado I enjoy was picked by migrant workers.
I'm proud of many aspects of my family's agricultural heritage in South Florida, but I'm particularly proud of my uncle's and now my cousin's engagement with a rural migrant group that provides safe and quality child care and early education for children of migrant workers. There are many migrant worker groups in Florida, all brought into existence, one way or another, by the deplorable living and working circumstances visited upon migrant workers by the nation's changing but always oppressive immigration laws.
Last month, federal prosecutors brought charges against six people accused of slavery -- forcing workers to work against their will -- in tomato fields in central Wisconsin. It shocked the nation, but it's actually the seventh such documented case in a decade. The stories of workers having to escape from such forced working conditions by breaking the sides of trucks in which they are kept should not have surprised those who have watched the tomato industry and fast food industry's opposition to any wage gains for the tomato workers.
In 1980, workers were paid 40 cents a bucket for a 32-pound bucket of tomatoes. Today, 28 years later, workers are paid just 45 cents for the same-sized bucket. Workers toil 10 to 12 hours a day, are exposed to dangerous chemicals without knowing what they are, and are sometimes charged such exorbitant prices for their minimal meals that they fall deeply in debt to the "company store."
Last year, Taco Bell agreed to better prices and labor practices for all of its brands. The fight for fair wages now goes to Burger King, which is aggressively fighting similar efforts.
But the origin of most abuses lies in the immigration laws, which give the upper hand to employers. If workers complain about abusive pay, exposure to pesticides, unsafe housing, inhumane hours, or any of the other many forms that farm worker exploitation often takes, employers can simply threaten to have workers deported. Yet the employers depend on having workers; some simply take advantage of the seemingly endless supply of people whose desperate circumstances elsewhere force them to accept inhumane working conditions here.
This year's presidential campaign has featured little compassion for those who pick our fruits and vegetables, milk our cows, or butcher our meats. The dialogue got off to a nasty start by xenophobes like Congressman Tom Tancredo from Colorado, but it didn't stop there. Aggressive partisans forced candidate after candidate into positions designed to build a higher and longer border fence, require ridiculously long waiting periods before existing illegal immigrants might receive amnesty, and aggressively enforce existing laws. Moderate candidates were vilified for being unfair to the millions of patient would-be immigrants if they showed too much compassion for existing immigrants.
I hope the tone of the debate will change. Sen. Barack Obama's father was an immigrant, and Sen. John McCain represents a state where the current corrosive debate shows the hypocrisy and willingness to exploit others in as stark a form as in the tomato fields of Florida.
I'm proud of Wisconsin farmers who defend their workers' interests, just as I'm proud of my own family's work with migrant workers in Florida. But solutions to the injustices inflicted on migrant workers ultimately will depend on changes to immigration policy that recognize an essential truth. Our nation needs immigrants just as much as immigrants need employment. In a situation of such co-dependence, to allow one party to use the legal system to abuse the other party is insupportable.
Margaret Krome is a Madison resident who writes this column every other week.
© 2008 The Capital Times