“Without immigrants, America’s economy would collapse,” reads a recent video posted by “Attn:” on Facebook. So far it has been viewed 3.1 million times. The video urges us to wonder “what would America look like without them?” It claims the food industry would suffer because “America would lose up to 70% of its farm workers…Agricultural production would lose as much as $60 billion.” In addition it claims “in 2010, undocumented workers alone contributed $13 billion” to social security.
In the “Attn:” video immigrants are all stereotyped as Hispanic farm workers. The quiet notion here is to romanticize the need for undocumented, underpaid farm labor that supposedly supports the US economy. It quietly encourages us to re-define “immigrant” as “undocumented workers.” But saying America’s economy would collapse without undocumented workers to do menial, underpaid, exploitative work, is like saying that the American economy would collapse in 1850 if it weren’t for slavery. People probably did make that argument back in 1850 when abolitionists said that we “need” slaves for our economy. “They put cheap food on your table.”
When we are fed statistics claiming that 70% of farm labor relies on undocumented migrants and that some $60 billion in profits are being taken from the backs of their work, we need to ask questions. Why are we romanticizing underpaid work that we wouldn’t want our brothers or sisters, parents or children, to do? Immigrants may indeed be the “backbone of America,” but undocumented workers who are often paid below minimum wage and don’t receive the same rights as American citizens should not be the backbone of America.
My ancestors were immigrants. When they first came to America they were exploited for cheap labor. But they eventually found a path out of that cycle. That’s the model of immigration America should want, not two classes of people, one class of citizens and another class of non-citizen undocumented workers who do the cheap labor for us and make our cheap fruits possible. If it’s true that much of our food industry relies on undocumented migrants who are underpaid its time to demand the same labeling of food that we do other products. Eating a tomato picked by someone who wasn’t paid decent wages is immoral and exploitative. If billion of dollars are being saved by employing undocumented workers low wages, that’s a huge problem, and instead of celebrating it, we should condemn it.
Immigrants are a great boon for America. It is a cliche but also a fact that the US was built by immigrants. Those immigrants became American citizens and often they had an easy route to citizenship. Yet in the last 100 years, since the Immigration Act of 1924, America has been closing its doors to lawful immigrants. In 1913 immigration reached a peak with 1.2 million immigrants to a country whose population was only 100 million. Fifteen percent of Americans were foreign born. According to the Migration Policy Institute 1,051,000 people received permanent residency in 2015 but as a percentage of population that is less than a third of the 1913 numbers.
We should support immigrants but we should do in a way that supports an efficient and easy path to citizenship for them, not a way that romanticizes keeping them as second-class farm laborers so we can have inexpensive asparagus and avocados. There’s nothing romantic in picking fruits and vegetables, anyone who has worked such jobs can tell you that. It is even less romantic to not make a living wage and receive decent health care and two days off a week and live in dignity. It is unconscionable that more than 10 million residents of America have lived for decades as undocumented. It is ridiculous that we have been deporting hundreds of thousands of people a year in a failed policy that creates an endless cycle of suffering and uncertainty.
For decades there was discussion of immigration “reform,” but where is the reform? Where is the path to citizenship? Have we become addicted to underpaid labor? Numerous politicians come under scrutiny for employing maids and child-care workers who are undocumented. But those in the public eye are only the tip of the iceberg. Many people know relatives or friends who have nannies, household “help,” or gardeners who are paid less than minimum wage because they are undocumented. Because we can exploit them. And instead of feeling its immoral and wrong and demanding a path to citizenship, we secretly accept it or even romanticize it. It’s time to change the conversation and stop the exploitative treatment of workers and stop pretending that living in a shadow economy is the “backbone” of America. Slavery is not the backbone. Good wages and equality are the backbone of America and it’s time to say so and demand the government find a way for millions of people to not only receive citizenship but be protected in their jobs as undocumented workers until such time as they do.