Posts Tagged ‘Midwest’

Roundup-Ready Grapes of Wrath

August 1, 2009

“The tractors came over the roads and into the fields, great crawlers moving like insects, having the incredible strength of insects…Snub-nosed monsters, raising the dust and sticking their snouts into it, straight down the country, across the country, through fences, through dooryards, in and out of gullies in straight lines. They did not run on the ground, but on their own roadbeds. They ignored hills and gulches, water courses, fences, houses.

That man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was a part of the monster, a robot in the seat…The driver could not control it – straight across country it went, cutting through a dozen farms and straight back. A twitch at the controls could swerve the ‘cat, but the driver’s hands could not twitch because the monster that built the tractor, the monster that sent the tractor out, had somehow gotten into the driver’s hands, into his brain and muscle, had goggled him and muzzled him – goggled his mind, muzzled his speech, goggled his perception, muzzled his protest. He could not see the land as it was, he could not smell the land as it smelled; his feet did not stamp the clods or feel the warmth and power of the earth. He sat in an iron seat and stepped on iron pedals. He could not cheer or beat or curse or encourage the extension of his power, and because of this he could not cheer or whip or curse or encourage himself. He did not know or own or trust or beseech the land. If a seed dropped did not germinate, it was no skin off his ass. If the young thrusting plant withered in drought or drowned in a flood of rain, it was no more to the driver than to the tractor.

He loved the land no more than the bank loved the land. He could admire the tractor – its machined surfaces, its surge of power, the roar of its detonating cylinders; but it was not his tractor. Behind the tractor rolled the shining disks, cutting the earth with blades – not plowing but surgery…The driver sat in his iron seat and he was proud of the straight lines he did not will, proud of the tractor he did not own or love, proud of the power he could not control. And when that crop grew, and was harvested, no man had crumbled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips. No man had touched the seed, or lusted for the growth. Men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had no prayers or curses.” (Steinbeck, John. Grapes of Wrath, 35-36)

In the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, it is only fitting that I am reading Steinbeck’s great novel while working with migrant farmworkers in southeastern Minnesota this summer.  In that book, as in that time, farmers and families were displaced by the dust storms, drought, banks, and mechanization.  The Okies migrated to California and Washington, seeking a decent day’s wage to feed their roving families.  The poignant scene above describes what replaced the tenant-farming Okies from the Great Plains – tractors, mass production, industrial-sized operations.

This summer, we have seen 2/3 less migrant farmworkers in southeastern Minnesota than usual. This is not because they have found alternate work in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, but rather because the economy is so bad that the farmers and canning companies in Minnesota recruited very little this year.  For pea-pack and corn-pack (when the canning companies pack the various vegetables into tin cans), the numbers of migrant families driving to Minnesota in their overloaded trucks fueled with tax-return dollars has dwindled.  Some came without contracts, hoping beyond hope that somehow there would be jobs for them here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, jobs that didn’t exist in the 115 degree drought of southern Texas.  (Benning, Tom. Wall Street Journal) Some found odd jobs; others made the long lonely trip back to Texas, poorer than when they arrived.

Because budgets are tight in 2009, farmers are hiring fewer workers and trying to mechanize as much as possible, to cut costs and widen any sort of profit margin.  Years ago, migrant farmworkers from Texas picked rocks during the month of May; now, farmers have machines that do almost as good a job and for cheaper.  Many vegetables that were once hand-picked through back-breaking manual labor now are harvested with a tractor-pulled reaper.  Farmers also shied away from planting more labor-intensive crops. Additionally, migrant farmworkers in some places are now competing with recently laid-off local workers who were hired months before the migrant season began in May.  In a nation experiencing 9.5% unemployment (the highest since just before I was born in 1983), there is no such thing as plenty, particularly in the margins of society.  (http://www.tradingeconomics.com/Economics/Unemployment-rate.aspx?Symbol=USD)

Weeding, once a mainstay of migrant farmworkers’ summer jobs, has been reduced through modern technology.  Controversial genetically modified crops are cropping up in more and more Midwestern fields.  Rather than using this technology to increase the yield for mainstay crops in third-world countries and combating worldwide famine, GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are predominantly being created to reduce the amount of manual labor per crop in first-world countries.  In Minnesota, for example, “Roundup Ready” beets are planted throughout the state. Rather than being larger, or sweeter, or more nutritious, or better for the land, these beets have only one advantage over regular sugar beets – they do not shrivel up and die when exposed to high levels of herbicides or pesticides.  From 1994 to 2005, the United States saw 15-fold increase in the direct application of glyphosate to our major field crops. (Sourcewatch)  Hundreds and thousands of jobs for migrant farmworkers across the United States have been eliminated through the creation of such GMO crops. Whereas in the past humans weeded the rows and tended the plants, now a single sprayer or a lone airplane can douse an entire field with herbicides, leaving only the hardy genetically-modified food crops behind.

One has to wonder what good this is doing. While these plants can survive herbicides and insecticides, few long-term studies have been conducted to see if humans can withstand them.  Additionally, the thousands of migrant families that depended on weeding work are now jobless.  And farmers still need to spend a good deal to purchase the premium Roundup Ready seeds and the gallons and gallons of chemicals to keep their fields tidy. When these vegetables finally make it to the plate of the average American, has any positive change taken place?

Family farms are now a thing of the past.  John Steinbeck, in his beautiful novel assigned to most 9th-graders throughout the US, details the dawn of a new age where mass production, tractors, and cash crops replaced family tenants, horse-drawn plows, and subsistence farming.  In 2009, a new book could be penned about the coming age of Roundup-Ready plants, genetically modified crops, and roaming jobless migrant farmworkers.

As my wife and I roved through the Olmsted County Fair last night, we were mesmerized by the draft horses.  Morgans, Blondies, Clydesdales – these beautiful beasts gracefully pawed the dust and pulled carts in synchronized canter.  I was reminded of a writer at the turn of the 19th century who, upon seeing one of the first automobiles driving through an American city, quipped that these machines would replace horses and make urban living quieter (without the hoof beats) and cleaner (without the manure on streets).  While a laughable prophecy in the 20th century, it seems like writers today could tell a similar story about the wonders of modern agriculture in the Breadbasket of the World.  Seeing those beautiful beasts in Rochester, I had to think we’d sold our birthright for a bowl of porridge.  And we’re doing so again.

Migrant Families Make their Way to Midwest Once More

May 30, 2009

Every year for decades, migrant families have boarded up their houses, told friends to check their mail, taken final exams a few weeks early, packed up their cars, and headed north to weed, tend, harvest, and process the foods we buy in the produce section of our local grocery stores.  Many families pay for the journey with their income tax return, arriving with scant assets and little more than a hope of a good growing season.  Migrant workers fall into one of three categories.  Some are recruited by a corporate employer, such as a processing or canning company.  They receive written contracts, sometimes are granted free housing in a labor camp, and are guaranteed work.  Others have a longstanding relationship with a particular farmer.  While the agreement might not be oral, some of these relationships extend back to a handshake between grandfathers.  This form of migrant work is more tenuous, however, than the corporate employer, as it hinges on good weather – if a drought or infestation should occur, the migrants could be 2000 miles from home with no money and no work.  Finally, some migrant families head North with only a hope of work – no contract, no contact, no housing, no plan other than to find a farm and pitch their services.

Migrant farmworkers are not immigrants; instead, they are either legal visitors with temporary work permits, legal permanent residents or citizens migrating internally within the United States.

This summer looks to be a difficult one for migrant families. Fargo remains inundated after the Red River flooding, and is months behind its agricultural calendar.  Other areas of the country are struggling with drought or other natural difficulties.  More importantly, however, is the economic depression. Farmers that once employed workers are either hiring less or none at all, in hopes of saving even just a few dollars.  Some farmers are using more pesticides or herbicides this year, in order to save money on paying migrant workers to weed or tend the rows.  Other farms have filed bankruptcy. Many farmers that have hired migrant workers for decades have called to tell them they will not be needing their services this year.

While the migrant families working for corporate employers or specific farmers will surely find this year a difficult one, the workers who just leave their hometowns in the Rio Grand Valley for the possibility of work in the Midwest could face a devastating summer.  Unable to find work and with little resources to return home, they will be easy prey for less-than-ethical employers. (Druley, Laurel. “Life on the Bottom Rung: No Place for Migrants”)

This summer, I will be working with the Migrant Farmworkers unit of Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, Inc. Under my supervisor Ana Maria Gomez-Gomez, I will primarily be working in Rochester, Owatonna, Plainview, and Elysian, though I will be covering cases in Dakota, Steele, Olmsted, Le Seur, and Waseca counties.  My work will focus on assisting migrant farmworkers with their adjustment to life in Minnesota, with any housing claims, employment wage claims, immigration questions, and any other legal questions that come up in the course of the summer.

I so look forward to working with migrant families from the Rio Grande Valley as they make their temporary homes here in southeastern Minnesota.  Having made that same journey myself, from Brownsville, TX, to Rochester, MN, I hope to be able to offer them some meaningful support and aid.  I wonder if any of the students to whom I gave early exams will be coming up with their families this season… Regardless, I hope to be able to help them get at least a minimum wage, secure decent housing, receive their security deposits at the end of the summer (something I have yet to ever receive myself), work in safe conditions, receive any public benefits to which they are entitled and require, renew or apply for new immigration status, and generally become adjusted to a new community.  It’s going to be a busy summer, but certainly one filled with meaning.

My work with SMRLS this summer comes at a dynamic time in immigration law, with Obama pledging to make progress towards comprehensive immigration reform in his first year of presidency. It comes less than a month after the first anniversary of the first large-scale ICE raid in Postville, IA, just a few hours south of here.  The work begins in a time when local law enforcement officers through 287(g) are attempting to enforce federal immigration laws in many of our nation’s cities and towns, resulting in racial profiling, arbitrary searches and arrests, and a terrified immigrant community unwilling to cooperate with the law enforcement they need and that needs them. (Moffett, Dan. “Cops aren’t Border Patrol”).  My role as Summer Advocate with SMRLS also comes at a time when Ms. Sonia Sotomayor, a Latina woman from the Bronx, has been put forth as Obama’s candidate to replace Justice Souter on the Supreme Court.  It also comes at a time that xenophobic individuals are seeking to place the blame of Wall Street on immigrants who don’t even own a bank account, when states and municipalities are balancing their budgets by cutting public welfare and other services to the indigent (in New York state, for example, elderly, disabled and blind legal residents will now get half of what they had previously received after the ruling in Khrapunskiy v. Robert Doar). But, my summer advocate role also coincides with bipartisan legislation like AgJobs, a bill supported by both the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Farmworker Justice which seeks to relieve labor shortages while securing rights for migrant workers and discouraging agriculture’s exploitation of unauthorized workers (purportedly some 75% of the workforce by some estimates). (“Farms and Immigrants.” New York Times).

As I scan the cucumbers, corn, sugar, beets, potatoes, onions, asparagus, garlic, peppers, and tomatoes, I think of the migrant families making the drive to Minnesota and other states in the Midwest right now.  I look forward to learning from them and advocating for them, starting next week.

Arizona: Land of Snowbirds & Coyotes

December 16, 2008

At this time of year when many Midwesterners head down to the balmier climes of Arizona (like my own grandparents-in-law), it is important to think about this state which has the harshest immigration laws in the U.S.

While immigration enforcement has traditionally always been under the sole control of the federal government (and, in fact, is likely Constitutionally exclusive to the Federal Branch under the Dormant Commerce Clause of Article 1), Arizona has done its best to “help” the Department of Homeland Security. Joe Arpaio, self-proclaimed “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” man who makes his inmates wear pink underwear and sleep outside in tents year-round just to make their incarceration more retributive, is first and foremost a man who hates unauthorized immigrants. Contrary to state and national practice, Arpaio has arrested more than 7,000 extralegal immigrants a year because every single person the police question is asked their social security number and citizenship status. The Maricopa County police force partners with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), though they are only supposed to ask the citizenship status of prisoners arrested on other charges. While the ACLU reminds immigrants in border towns like Brownsville, Texas, that it is their civil right to refuse to answer such questions without their attorney, Arpaio has taken advantage of these immigrants’ lack of legal expertise, often using his technique to incarcerate passengers of speeding cars and jaywalking pedestrians. (Robbins, Ted. NPR)


Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas has also seized on Sheriff Arpaio’s xenophobia. The Arizona state law, passed in 2005, made it a federal crime to be involved in human smuggling. While the statute was intended to protect extralegal immigrants from the dangers of border-crossing with coyotes, Thomas has used the law to convict some 200 immigrants of “smuggling conspiracy,” turning this law back on the people it was arguably designed to protect. (Kiefer, Michael. The Arizona Republic)

And so, when Governor Janet Napolitano replaces Michael Chertoff and is confirmed as Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security, she will leave Arizona in the hands of men like Joe Arpaio, Andrew Thomas, and the rogue Minutemen taking vigilante justice into their hands on the southern border. Where Napolitano resisted most of Arizona’s more nativist and radical immigration legislation, her successor Jan Brewer is expected to be more deferential to these xenophobic influences (New York Times). Hopefully, Napolitano will be able to work a top-down shift in national immigration enforcement, cutting the 287(g) program that allows such dangerous collaboration with local officials like Arpaio on federal issues of immigration. Here’s hoping!


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