A Former Farmworker on American Hypocrisy

In the pandemic, “illegal” workers are now deemed “essential” by the federal government.

The other day, armed with a face mask, I was rushing through the aisles of an organic supermarket, sizing up the produce, squeezing the oranges and tomatoes, when a memory hit me.

Me — age 6 — stooping to pick these same fruits and vegetables in California’s San Joaquin Valley. I spent the spring weekends and scorching summers of my childhood in those fields, under the watchful eye of my parents. Once I was a teenager, I worked alongside them, my brothers and cousins, too, essential links in a supply chain that kept America fed, but always a step away from derision, detention and deportation.

Today, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Mexico and Central America are doing that work. By the Department of Agriculture’s estimates, about half the country’s field hands — more than a million workers — are undocumented. Growers and labor contractors estimate that the real proportion is closer to 75 percent.

Suddenly, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, these “illegal” workers have been deemed “essential” by the federal government.

Tino, an undocumented worker from Oaxaca, Mexico, is hoeing asparagus on the same farm where my family once worked. He picks tomatoes in the summer and melons in the fall. He told me his employer has given him a letter — tucked inside his wallet, next to a picture of his family — assuring any who ask that he is “critical to the food supply chain.” The letter was sanctioned by the Department of Homeland Security, the same agency that has spent 17 years trying to deport him.

“I don’t feel this letter will stop la migra from deporting me,” Tino told me. “But it makes me feel I may have a chance in this country, even though Americans may change their minds tomorrow.”

True to form, America still wants it both ways. It wants to be fed. And it wants to demonize the undocumented immigrants who make that happen.

Recently, President Trump tweeted that he would “temporarily suspend immigration into the United States” — a threat consistent with the hit-the-immigrant-like-a-piñata policy he spearheaded in his 2016 campaign. Less than 24 hours later, the president backed down in the face of business groups fearful of losing access to foreign labor, announcing that he’d keep the guest worker program.

In the past, the United States has rewarded immigrant soldiers who fought our wars with a path to citizenship. Today, the fields — along with the meatpacking plants, the delivery trucks and the grocery store shelves — are our front lines, and border security can’t be disconnected from food security.

It’s time to offer all essential workers a path to legalization.

It might seem hard to imagine this happening during the “Build the wall” presidency, when Congress can barely agree on emergency stimulus measures. Many Republicans no longer support even DACA, the program that protected Dreamers who grew up here and that could be revoked by the Supreme Court this week. But the pandemic scrambles our normal politics.

“We have started talking about essential workers as a category of superheroes,” said Andrew Selee, the president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute and author of “Vanishing Frontiers.” If the pandemic continues for a year or two, he said, we should think “in a bold way about how do we deal with essential workers who have put their life on the line for all of us but who don’t have legal documents.”

Maybe, he said, “they should be in the pipeline for fast-track regularization, just like those with DACA” are, for now.

Of course, America has always been a fickle country. I learned that lesson as a crop-picking boy, when my aunt Esperanza, who ran the team of farmhands that included my mom, brothers and cousins, would yell: “Haganse arco.” Duck!

The workers without documents would stop hoeing and scramble. Run — if not for their lives, then almost certainly for their livelihoods. We’d watch as the vans of the Border Patrol came to a screeching halt, dust settling. The unlucky workers would make a beeline for the nearest ditch or canal. Some would simply drop to the ground, hoping for refuge amid the rows of sugar beets, tomatoes or cotton. Sometimes the agents gave chase. We’d always root for the prey.

On more than one occasion, agents took my mom and my aunt Teresa, locking them in the cages in the back of the van, because they didn’t have their green cards on them. We’d race home and fetch the cards and make a mad dash to the immigration offices in Fresno some 60 miles away from our farm camp in Oro Loma, praying we’d make it before they could be deported.

We were desperate to prove they had every right to be out in those desolate fields, as if they were taking a dream job away from somebody else.

One time, Aunt Teresa looked genuinely disappointed at the sight of our smiling faces. She was ticked off she hadn’t been deported.

“I miss Mexico,” she said.

Sometimes, the night after such raids, a puzzling thing would take place. A labor contractor or farmer would drive up as we’d gather for dinner of beef, green chile and potato caldillowashed down with tortillas. He’d compliment us for the hard work we had put in that day. And then he’d ask: Did we know anyone who might want to come and work alongside us?

He meant more Mexicans.

The instructions were simple: Get the word out, spread the farmer’s plea back in our towns in Mexico because plenty of rain had fallen that winter and now it was summer and everything around us was ripe, aching for that human touch. The season looked promising. Plenty of crops to pick.

Today not much has changed. The vulnerable — Dreamers working in health care; hotel maids; dairy and poultry plant workers; waiters, cooks and busboys in the $900 billion restaurant industry — still work to feed their families while feeling disposable, deportable by an ungrateful nation.

Tino, the farmworker in the San Joaquin Valley, is worried about the coronavirus. He wonders whether it’s best, after 17 years of hiding from immigration authorities, to return to Oaxaca, “where I’d rather die.”

But Tino’s dreams outweigh his fears. He wants the best for his family, including a son born in the United States, who’s looking at colleges in California. So, he continues in his $13.50-an-hour job.

He works for, among others, Joe L. Del Bosque of Del Bosque Farms, one of the largest organic melon growers in the country. Mr. Del Bosque employs about 300 people on hundreds of acres, and his fruits and vegetables are sold in just about every other organic supermarket across the country, including the place where I now shop in El Paso.

“Sadly, it’s taken a pandemic for Americans to realize that the food in their grocery stores, on their tables, is courtesy of mostly Mexican workers, the majority of them without documents,” Mr. Del Bosque told me. “They’re the most vulnerable of workers. They’re not hiding behind the pandemic waiting for a stimulus check.”

Along with other farmers, he has been pleading with Congress for the past few years to legalize farmworkers, if not as part of comprehensive immigration reform, then as a bill focused on farmworkers, because “you need these workers today, tomorrow and for a long time.”

“With or without Covid,” he added, “we need to constantly replenish our work force to ensure food supplies.”

Some Democratic lawmakers, including Representative Veronica Escobar of El Paso, are pushing to include legalization in any updated coronavirus relief package. “The hypocrisy within America is that we want the fruits of their undocumented labor, but we want to give them nothing in return,” she said.

Even with unemployment projected to be 15 percent or higher, Mr. Del Bosque told me he doubts he’ll ever see a line of job-seeking Americans flocking to his fields. The rare few who have shown up at 5:30 a.m. don’t come back. Some, he said, give up the backbreaking work before their first lunch break.

He fears looming labor shortages. That’s not because of raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement resuming or a wall keeping workers out. He worries about a potential coronavirus outbreak, yes, but his most immediate concern is that his farmworkers are aging. Their average age is 40. My old school, Oro Loma Elementary School, which was once filled with Mexican children, closed down in 2010.

The fields are simply running out of Mexicans as fewer men and women migrate each year, either because they’re finding better jobs in Mexico or because of demographics. The Mexican birthrate is down from 7.3 children per woman in the 1960s to 2.1 in 2018. Those who do come want higher-paying jobs in other industries.

The best way to guarantee food security in the future is to legalize the current workers in order to keep them here, and to offer a pathway to legalization as an incentive for new agricultural workers to come. These people will be drawn not just from Mexico, but increasingly from Central and South America.

Del Bosque Farms have been dependent on Mexican workers since Mr. Del Bosque’s parents, also immigrants from Mexico, started hiring them in the 1950s under the Bracero Program, which began during World War II. The program issued some five million contracts to Mexicans, inviting them to come to the United States as guest workers to help fill labor shortages so Americans could fight overseas.

Hundreds of the workers who’ve toiled at Del Bosque Farms over the years have become legal residents, many more citizens, including my father, Juan Pablo.

For many years my father spent the springs and summers working in the United States, but every November he’d high-tail it back to his village in Mexico, where he played in a band called the Birds with his five brothers. He didn’t trust his American bosses to raise his pay, and always worried about the possibility of suddenly being deported, so he wouldn’t commit to them. The Texans especially, he thought, were prejudiced against Mexicans.

The boys from Mexico worked so hard, Texas ranchers argued during one of America’s cyclical anti-immigrant periods, that the hiring of Mexicans should not be considered a felony. Thus, the Texas Proviso was adopted in 1952, stating that employing unauthorized workers would not constitute “harboring or concealing” them. This helps explain why Americans call immigrants “illegal” but not the businesses that hire them.

When the Bracero Program ended in 1964, amid accusations of mistreatment against Mexicans, my father thought he had enough of plowing rows on a tractor and digging ditches. He dreamed of running a grocery store in Mexico, raising his kids out where mountains embraced us. But he was such a hard worker that his boss couldn’t fathom the idea of losing him. So he helped my father get a green card for every member of his family, including me. Later he began working for the Del Bosques.

Without legalization, he would have left and probably never come back.

As a 6-year-old immigrant, I’d cry at night under the California stars, homesick for Mexico, for my friends and cousins. Then one night, as my mother tucked me into bed, she caressed my face. “Shhhh,” she whispered, “they’re all here now.” And she was right.

Today my siblings include a lawyer, an accountant, a truck driver, a delivery manager, a security guard, an educational fund-raiser and a prosthetics specialist. Cousins went off to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or to help run medical centers and corporations, including Walmart in Arkansas. Others still grind away in the fields of California and meatpacking plants of Colorado, work in nursing homes or clean the houses of the rich. Many of us make an annual pilgrimage to our home village in the Mexican desert. But we’re firmly planted here.

Without being thanked for it, we’re replenishing America.

Supreme Court Blocks Citizenship Question From 2020 Census for Now

Trump administration’s official explanation for adding the question ‘seems to have been contrived,’ according to the majority opinion

WASHINGTON—A divided Supreme Court on Thursday prevented the Trump administration, for now, from asking U.S. residents on the 2020 census whether they are citizens, a considerable setback for the White House.

The court, in an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, didn’t issue a definitive decision finding the citizenship question unlawful, but it raised concerns about the Trump administration’s stated reason for adding the question to the census.

In strong language, the chief justice, joined by the court’s four liberal justices, said the administration’s official explanation “seems to have been contrived.”

The court sent the case back for more proceedings, leaving the 2020 census in a state of uncertainty—though if the deadline for finalizing the form is July 1, as census officials said this week, the question won’t be on it. However in at least one government filing, a census official gave the final date as Oct. 31.

Three different U.S. district judges have ruled that including the question was unlawful, with each finding that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had not provided the public with his real reasons for doing so.

The Supreme Court’s ruling, which comes at a time of deeply divided immigration politics, could have considerable ramifications for the U.S. population count, as well as the drawing of congressional districts and the allocation of more than $600 billion in federal funds that are based on census data.

The census, mandated by the Constitution, counts all U.S. residents, regardless of citizenship or residency status.

A group of 18 states that sued Mr. Ross, as well as some career Census Bureau staffers, said adding a citizenship question would dampen response rates in immigrant-heavy communities, even in households with legal residents. If that happens, those communities could see a smaller piece of the federal pie, both in political representation and government funding.

The Trump administration said Mr. Ross, whose department oversees the Census Bureau, had the legal authority to include the question and determined that the benefits of having the citizenship data outweighed the potential of a lower response rate. It also pointed to earlier census surveys in the nation’s history that had asked about citizenship.

Mr. Ross’s explanations for adding the question have shifted over time. He and other Trump administration officials have said that census citizenship data would help the Justice Department with its efforts to comply with the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voting rights.

Legal challengers in the case have said the administration’s reasons were the opposite—to dilute minority representation—and they said additional evidence has come to light recently that supports their claims. A Maryland federal judge this week said that evidence, which came from the files of a GOP political consultant who died last year, “potentially connects the dots between a discriminatory purpose—diluting Hispanics’ political power—and Secretary Ross’s decision.”

The evidence wasn’t directly before the Supreme Court when it took up the case, though it has received additional legal filings from both sides in recent weeks. New lower court proceedings are pending, though it isn’t clear what impact, if any, those will have after the high court’s ruling.

In April when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the census, President Trump said Americans deserved to know how many citizens were among those residing in their country.

Federal law prohibits the Census Bureau from sharing survey answers with federal immigration authorities, but a survey commissioned by the bureau last year found that asking about citizenship could be a substantial barrier to getting people to participate.

The whole country hasn’t been asked about citizenship on the decennial survey since 1950, but the government in recent years has asked a smaller sample of U.S. residents about their status.

The citizenship question touches on the broader immigration agenda that has been a central focus of the Trump presidency. Mr. Trump has barred travel by people from certain Muslim-majority countriesa ban the Supreme Court upheld last year. Mr. Trump’s administration also has attempted to limit immigrant claims for asylum; tried to cancel Obama-era benefits for illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children; and sought to build new barriers on the southern border. All of those efforts remain tied up in the courts.

Making Sense of the New American Right

Keeping track of the Jacksonians, Reformicons, Paleos, and Post-liberals.

I like to start my classes on conservative intellectual history by distinguishing between three groups. There is the Republican party, with its millions of adherents and spectrum of opinion from very conservative, somewhat conservative, moderate, and yes, liberal. There is the conservative movement, the constellation of single-issue nonprofits that sprung up in the 1970s

  • gun rights,
  • pro-life,
  • taxpayer,
  • right to work

— and continue to influence elected officials. Finally, there is the conservative intellectual movement: writers, scholars, and wonks whose journalistic and political work deals mainly with ideas and, if we’re lucky, their translation into public policy.

Evangelical Fear Elected Trump

The history of evangelicalism in America is shot through with fear—but it also contains an alternative.

White conservative evangelicals in America are anxious people. I know because I am one.

Our sense of fear, perhaps more than any other factor, explains why evangelicals voted in such large numbers for Donald Trump in 2016 and continue to support his presidency.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson once wrote, “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” The great poet of the Jersey shore, Bruce Springsteen, sings, “Fear’s a dangerous thing, it can turn your heart black, you can trust. It’ll take your God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust.”

Robinson and Springsteen echo verses in nearly every book of the Bible, the sacred text that serves as the source of spiritual authority in evangelical life. Moses told the Israelites to “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today.” The Hebrew God told Job: “At the destruction and famine you shall laugh, and shall not fear the beasts of the earth.” The Psalmist wrote: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”

The Gospel of John teaches Christians that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” St. Luke writes: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Despite all these scriptural passages, it is still possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of a people failing miserably at overcoming fear with hope, trust, and faith in their God. But it is also possible to find evangelicals, drawing deeply from Christian theological resources, who sought to forge an alternative history.

A history of evangelical fear might begin with the 17th-century Puritans in Salem, Massachusetts, who feared that there were witches in their midst threatening their “city upon a hill” and their status as God’s new Israel. They responded to this fear by hanging 19 people.

But other evangelical options were available. As Puritans began to lose control over Massachusetts Bay, they might have turned to their sovereign God for guidance and trusted in his protection to lead them through a new phase in the history of the colony. Or they could have heeded the warnings put forth by those—such as Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, or the growing number of Baptists in the colony—who saw potential problems with such a close relationship between church and state.