Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Whistling past the bean field

      The 2004 film "Day Without a Mexican" conjured a moment when a mystery fog spirited away all of California's Latinos, and then imagined how the state would fare without that industrious labor force.

      Assessment: not well.

      Not so fast, asserted Megan Clyne in National Review, a publication whose mission is to comfort America's most comfortable.

      Though the movie focused on all Latinos, not just the undocumented kind, Clyne focused on the latter, of course. She asserted, for instance, that an illegal workforce prevents many producers of fruits and vegetables from modernizing and mechanizing, obviating the need for dirty brown hands.

       It's true that innovations continue to relieve producers of the need for labor. But crops that easily bruise, and the list is long — apples, asparagus, beans, blueberries, melons, grapes, oranges, sugar beets, tomatoes and more — need hands.

        This brings us to what Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert said before an ashen-faced congressional subcommittee last week. Basically, he said that one would have to be especially — even insanely — motivated to do what U.S. farm workers do.

         As for him, when he picked beans and corn for a brief spin as part of the United Farm Workers' "Take Our Jobs"  campaign, Colbert discovered to his consternation that "most soil is ground level," with the requisite stooping.

         What the UFW is seeking, and what Republicans on Capitol Hill are blocking, is passage of the AgJobs bill, which would grant temporary legal status to illegal immigrants working as farm hands, the status becoming permanent if they continue to work on farms for a specific period of time.

        The National Review crowd may cover its ears and hum real loud, but the truth is that an illegal workforce largely is the difference between fruits and vegetables getting to our plates and rotting in the ground.

         It also is, as Colbert pointed out, one thing that keeps production here that otherwise would move south of the border. Ah, but considering how amenable certain free-market types are to outsourcing jobs overseas, maybe this is not a concern.

         Americans will do these jobs, they say. Maybe. Then again, how many Americans do the producers need?

         An Associated Press analysis showed that in the first six months of this year, California farmers posted ads in unemployment offices for 1,160 farm worker positions exclusive to U.S. citizens and legal residents. So, how'd that go?

          Of 233 who inquired, only 36 ended up getting hired, or deigned to take the offer.

           It was unfortunate to see the blank faces when Colbert appeared with, in-character act aside, a very important and valid message. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, went on Fox News, naturally, to call it an "insult to the intelligence of the American people." Maybe he hasn't seen any of Glenn Beck's work lately.

           President Obama has been pushing for a sane and comprehensive immigration reform package that provides for a flexible approach to the nation's labor needs and makes it possible for more such industrious, productive individuals to find ways to reach citizenship.

         On a related front, Republicans are vowing to mount an effort to amend the Constitution to prevent citizenship for the children of illegal aliens. They want us to believe that this is an inducement that brings swarms of people from across our borders.

         You think? Princeton University demographer Douglas Massey disagrees vehemently. He told Associated Press that in 30 years studying Mexican immigration, he's never interviewed an immigrant who said he or she came to the United States to obtain citizenship for children-to-be.

         No, they come here to work: an odd reason to be demonized.

         Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:



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