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Cheap labor’s hidden costs are injustice and harm

Some of us are illegal and some are not wanted
Our work contracts out and we have to move on
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves

We died in your hills, we died in your deserts
We died in your valleys and died on your plains
We died ’neath your trees and we died in your bushes
Both sides of the river, we died just the same

Some things haven’t changed much since the late Woodie Guthrie, the legendary American songwriter, penned the words to the song “Deportee,” about Mexican farm workers of another era.

The Mexican border remains a violent place for immigrants, and that song of decades ago remains eerily relevant. Too many Mexican immigrants die -- more than 1,600 since 1994 -- trying to make it into the states. On Feb. 2, we published a story that told of a vicious cycle of death along the border where immigrants often die of exposure to heat or cold in the desert or mountains while crossing into the United States seeking jobs that few others will do.

Some significant changes could take place, however, if legislative proposals currently making their way through Congress, as well as recent negotiations between Mexico and the United States on migration policy, make any headway.

Mexico’s new president, Vicente Fox, already has met with President George W. Bush and pressed for new policies that would make it easier for Mexican workers to enter the United States and to stay on without fear of deportation. How interested Bush is in reform is unknown, but he has allowed talks to continue.

Legislative proposals that would expand current “guest worker” programs, proposals that would have been unthinkable not too long ago, are being taken seriously. For many reasons, a shift in attitude is underway.

For one thing, as our story indicated, even some Immigration and Naturalization Service employees have tired of trying to square the grisly charade of attempting to seal the borders -- a tactic that never worked and only resulted in increasing deaths of immigrants -- with the reality that Mexican workers are needed and welcomed by U.S. industries.

As Isabel Garcia, a Tucson attorney and border rights advocate, succinctly put it: “There wouldn’t be any border-crosser deaths or a need for border patrol ‘rescues’ if the United States had a fair and equitable immigration policy that actually recognized we [Americans] are dependent on Mexican workers. The construction, hotel, meat packing and agriculture industries wouldn’t be able to keep operating if they were not able to employ cheap Mexican labor.

“So why are we forcing people to run a deadly obstacle course to find employment in U.S. industries which are begging for them?”

The realization that U.S. business depends on foreign labor, the growing ties between Mexico and the United States and the growing repugnance at the deaths of immigrants are among factors that could make change possible.

Change that benefits the workers as well as provide a convenience for business will depend on an acknowledgement of the dignity of foreign workers that we have refused to make in the past.

It is a curious irony that the people without whom we would not have much of our food are among the lowest paid, most easily ignored workers in the country. A recent indication of the kind of regard we have as a culture for those who work in such industries was the Bush administration’s decision to reverse some federal regulations that would have protected workers in the event of injury. Few complained, because those workers have no power or voice.

There is a simple bottom line to the matter: If farm workers and others received just wages, our food and other commodities would be more expensive.

Advocates for migrant workers are wary of the new initiatives to increase the number of seasonal farm workers allowed into the United States as well as initiatives that would extend use of foreign workers to other areas of the economy such as construction, tourism and retail. Unless the regulations are accompanied by requirements for decent wages and living conditions and the right to organize, the United States might be simply making it easier for people to become enslaved.

The movement is in the right direction. People who ultimately are integral to American enterprise should not be subjected to the threat of death on the way to getting their jobs. Eliminating that threat is just part of our responsibility. We must view immigrant workers as more than pieces in an economic machine.

And then maybe we can get out from under the weight of the songwriter’s disturbing questions:

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except deportees?

National Catholic Reporter, April 13, 2001