LOS ANGELES — In late March, American agricultural employers began distributing a curious letter to their field hands. The letter, published by the Department of Homeland Security on March 19, identified agricultural workers as “essential” to the food supply chain and affirmed their “special responsibility” during the COVID19 crisis. Indeed, field workers cultivate and harvest fruits, nuts, and vegetables all throughout this vast country, sustaining the agricultural sector and stocking markets and bodegas from East to West.
Despite their shiny new label, however, the dystopian reality hidden in the letter is that half of all agricultural workers in the U.S. are undocumented. Each resides in this country without any political rights, working to exhaustion sun up and sun down, vulnerable to detention and deportation at any given moment. Once this is grasped, the publication of the letter, which some believed would offer some sense of safety to the undocumented against detention, only seeks to prevent the collapse of this nation’s productivity, an understandable position but one which places the undocumented at center stage.
Indeed, while the letter might offer some relief to the undocumented, it is completely devoid of any serious protections. Those of us with intimate knowledge of field work and those with family in the sector can’t help be angry, frustrated, even furious with this letter. Why did it take so long to see field workers, who for decades have toiled to feed America, as essential? Why did it take a health crisis to acknowledge their work, their labor, their contribution, even their existence?
Beyond frustrating, the letter is irritatingly puzzling. The undocumented, who just yesterday were rapists and murders and criminals have been transformed, quite literally overnight, into heroes. But wonder —just wonder for a minute— what must pass through the minds of the undocumented upon learning of their new status. Despised yesterday and treasured today. There isn’t an undocumented individual in this country who has not been scarred in some way by this nation’s schizophrenic policies, often from a very young age. What will their label be tomorrow? Will they revert back to animals? Deported by the hundreds of thousands again? Will they continue to be imprisoned and separated from their children?
The anger and bewilderment also stem from the obvious reality that the undocumented have always been essential, from their circular migration in the early past century to the formal Bracero and H-2 programs to the present. The undocumented have always been needed. And it’s not just those laboring in vast fields. Undocumented workers reside and work in every corner of this land; in canneries and in construction, as cleaners and cooks, as nannies and landscapers and caretakers, and in many, many other sectors.
Each is here because this economy needs them, because they truly are essential—all 11 million of them. Employers who benefit from their cheap labor know this more than anyone. They know of their dedication, of their hard work, of their reliability. Unfortunately, they also know that the undocumented would not dare complain or protest or even speak up for the simple reason that the risk is too high. The unbearable lightness of being undocumented means that individuals must live in the shadows, always obedient for fear of dismissal, detention, even deportation to countries where they truly are strangers.
But once this crisis is over, Americans must not forget the service and sacrifice of fieldworkers, now and in decades past. We must not forget that they fed us and risked their lives as COVID19 ravaged this country. And not only this. We must recognize and repair the cruel conditions they are often forced to endure—unethically long hours, low wages, no benefits, abusive employers. We must reject their ephemeral importance and welcome them as integral and permanent members of this great Western house.
In doing so, we must recognize that the only crime of the undocumented is the search for a better life, a life free of violence and hunger and abuse. We must acknowledge that the undocumented are some of the strongest individuals on this planet. It is an exceptional individual who walks thousands of miles, who risks death, who leaves behind a family they may never see again, all to enter the gates of this nation. Grasping this will reveal that every single detention center which stains this country needs to be shut. Instead of abusing and separating families and driving individuals to suicide, this nation must recognize our common humanity and allow all migrants to pursue their happiness.
We must also learn to see the undocumented in a different light. We must revise our understanding of what ‘unskilled labor’ entails and what it means to be a laborer or cook or caretaker or any profession that keeps this nation running. The term “unskilled” is used to legitimize low pay and maltreatment and expandability. But the fact is that few of us could work 12 straight hours with our backs hunched over the blistering sun. And even fewer of us could do so day after day. The fact is that agricultural work requires tremendous skill, possessed by few of us.
In these trying times, Americans must see themselves and they must see the undocumented and they must decide what they will do. Inaction and business as usual are not an option. COVID19 has revealed how dysfunctional this nation can be but it has also reveled how intimately connected each of us is and how much we depend on and require from our most marginalized members. In understanding our deep connections, we must develop a humane path to move forward. We must recognize that we are all human, that we depend on one another, and that we all belong in this land.
Dr. Juve J. Cortés attended UC Berkeley and USC. He is associate professor of Diplomacy & World Affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles. His work involves the study of migration, identity, and transnationalism.