My encounter with migrant labor camps was a memorable event in my life. Mexicans had migrated to my community every summer to work the fields as stoop laborers long before I ever lived there. Two- and three-generation family members traveled in one vehicle, mostly from Texas to sleep in a one-room shack with no running water and no inside toilets. Men, women and children harvested tomatoes, potatoes and beans from early morning until dusk. Before the federal government provided funding, church volunteers developed a day-care program to look after the children.
That is how I met Lupe Pedraza. She and her husband came to our town as migrant laborers and stayed on one year at the end of the harvest.
Lupe’s story was not unusual — impoverished childhood and limited education. Her dreams were big, however. She wanted to be a teacher. I wanted that for her, and encouraged her in every way I could.
She and her husband had split by the time she joined the now federally funded day-care center to cook two meals a day for up to 50 babies, toddlers and preschoolers. I was the chief administrator. That is why I visited a camp to check on absent children whom I found sleeping on pallets on the floor.
This anecdote is not meant to be one of those sorrowful accounts designed to tug at the heartstrings. Stories tend to have multiple sides, to be sure. The hostile farmer who did not want me on his land to check on my absent migrant children certainly had his side, which brings me to my point.
Immigration reform is about people. Immigration as an issue has multiple sides.
One side of the issue dates back to World War II and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s solution for addressing the country’s labor shortage. The program was called bracero, which, according to a Spanish dictionary, means “a man who offers his arm as support.” More than 1 million American farm workers joined the U.S. military or else filled jobs in urban factories that had shifted to wartime production after the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. A severe manpower shortage for farms and railroads threatened economic stability at home in America. The United States signed an agreement with Mexico in 1942 allowing Mexican workers to fill those jobs. The U.S. government picked up the tab. The farm labor bracero program lasted until the end of 1964. Meanwhile braceros in railroad jobs were sent back to Mexico when the war ended.
Bringing the past to the present shows another side to the immigration issue — a brand new business opportunity connected to owning and operating detention centers or private prisons. Prison expansion in Texas reportedly is tied to housing immigrant detainees primarily at the South Texas border. President Bush’s 2007 proposed budget includes a $452 million increase in funding for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), previously the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
Given that globalization — the gradual integration of economies and societies driven by new technologies — plays out on the stage of agriculture in large measure, immigration reform is a critical issue. No segment of American business is more challenged by immigration and its impact on available labor than the animal protein industry. Although using technology to gain production efficiencies is increasing, humans still play a critical role in the business of food production.
It is hard to find fault with a government policy with good intentions built in, but exploiting human beings without regard for their humanity is despicable.
About Lupe Pedraza, I left town and lost touch. I can only hope she realized her dream of becoming a teacher in America.