Nelda Holder’s recent article on immigrant labor (“Two Boys, Two Worlds,” Aug. 22 Xpress) was touching and well-written, but it only scratches the surface. As a Western North Carolina physician whose patients include migrant workers, I see examples every day of both children and adults who are exploited by employers.
Every morning, various area residents drive up to the local Exxon station to hire day laborers. But sometimes, after cleaning up the yard or completing some other nasty job, those workers return without having been paid a penny. And the employer knows full well that the worker is unlikely to report this theft of wages, because the fear of attracting the attention of immigration authorities outweighs any likelihood of recovering the money.
I was recently involved in trying to get a worker’s paycheck cashed. In the process, I learned that his boss, a local business owner, routinely writes worthless checks to employees who, after going without income for weeks while enriching their deadbeat boss, are forced to quit so they can try to find an actual paying job. At that point, the employer threatens to make it impossible for them to find work in the county if they report him to the authorities.
One of my patients is paid $5 an hour by a local dry-cleaning business; her daughter, a minor, works alongside her for $4 an hour. Many others work for similar wages.
I see local construction companies and farmers who pay “labor contractors” to provide workers, not knowing (and sometimes not caring) how little of what they pay the contractors actually finds its way into the workers’ hands.
I often see farm laborers who are made to work 60 hours a week without overtime pay—and then cheated out of much of the meager amount they expect to be paid, as money is deducted for numerous “expenses” that further line the boss’s pockets. Meanwhile, these people work under dangerous conditions such as illegal pesticide exposure without the legally mandated protective equipment or sanitary facilities. They’re housed in crowded, unsanitary conditions that most U.S. citizens would consider unfit for their pets. And as a result, the boss becomes rich—all the while smugly telling his fellow community and congregation members what a great favor he’s doing “his Mexicans” by providing them with conditions he deems “better than they had it in Mexico.”
Small children are apparently more efficient at some jobs, like picking chilies and those little cherry tomatoes. I’ve seen bosses illegally hire them to work under the same miserable conditions, with no apparent regard for their well-being. Ironically, employers justify this by asserting that the family needs these little ones’ paltry income—when the reason they’re so poor is that the adults aren’t paid a living wage! And in fact, the parents would rather have their children in school but are unable to navigate a school system that clearly prefers not to be bothered with them. So it doesn’t surprise me if corporations as large as Centex are building multimillion-dollar homes while showing little concern for the age, immigration status and safety of their underpaid workers.
What is more surprising, and perhaps even more disturbing, is many Americans’ reaction when they hear about the unfair and degrading treatment of their fellow human beings: justifying this shameless exploitation with the idiotic mantra, “They’re illegal—so they shouldn’t expect any better.” This simplistic and cynical statement enables any fool, xenophobe, politician or bigot to self-righteously affirm that we share no responsibility for this situation. But in our orgy of consumerism, we and the corporations at whose altars we worship are creating the market for cheap, exploitable, illegal labor. And that’s what lures desperate workers to come here, where they’re exploited so we can live more comfortably and cheaply.
There’s an obvious double standard here. It’s fine for “illegals” to work here, and it’s fine for citizens to hire them illegally, but because of their “illegality,” they shouldn’t expect to be treated like “legal” workers—or even like human beings. Meanwhile the equally “illegal” employers get no less than full effort from the workers—while expecting and receiving the community’s respect.
The immigrant workers I’ve met haven’t come here to invade our country, steal our jobs or subvert the government. They haven’t come to rape or pillage, or to take advantage of a welfare state. They’ve come to do what you or I would surely try to do in their situation—better their families’ lives through hard work and sacrifice. Risking their dignity, their freedom and their lives, they’ve left a country they love to come to one where they’re often despised.
Our immigration situation is the result of complex international forces and corporate greed. The federal government is feverishly crafting policies designed to serve the wealthiest corporations while allaying xenophobic fears. There are no simple answers, but clearly, these problems cannot be resolved or improved by exploiting and ill-treating those who suffer most from the situation.
So, right here in Western North Carolina, we can choose to do one of two things. We can continue blaming the victims for their plight and criminalizing them for their attempts to improve it, even as we exploit and profit from it; or we can demonstrate our better nature by treating all our neighbors the way we want to be treated. Neither approach will solve the “immigration problem,” but only the latter can improve our own lives and those of our fellow human beings.
[Family physician Mark W. Heffington has been in private practice in Cashiers, N.C., for more than 25 years. He’s the medical director and staff physician of the Vecinos Farmworker Health Program and the Community Care Clinic of Highlands-Cashiers.]