“The migrants have no lobby. Only an enlightened, aroused and
perhaps angered public opinion can do anything about the migrants.
The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and
vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation.”
— Edward R. Murrow
They’re the backbone of our food supply.
Their hands sliced the chicken breast we had for lunch. Their sweat brought the fresh tomato to our plates. Their backs bent to pick the lettuce in our salads.
They are America’s undocumented workers. Every single day, virtually all of us rely on their labor. At least six in 10 of our country’s farmworkers are undocumented immigrants — probably many more. On farms across America, they help produce billions of dollars worth of grapes, tomatoes, strawberries, melons, beans and other grocery store staples.
Despite their contribution to our economy, these immigrants live at the margins of U.S. society — subsisting on poverty wages, enduring humiliation and exploitation in the workplace, and living in constant fear that their families will be shattered if they are detected.
Because of their status, they remain in the shadows, their voices silent. They are unable to speak out about the indignities they suffer and the crimes committed against them. As one 59-year-old Mexican woman says: “No one sees the people in the field. We’re ignored.”
This report is based on extensive interviews conducted with 150 immigrant women from Mexico, Guatemala and other Latin-American countries. They live and work in Florida, California, North Carolina, New York, Iowa, Arkansas and other states. All have worked in the fields or in the factories that produce our food. They are among the 4 million undocumented women living in the U.S.
They are the linchpin of the immigrant family. And they are surely the most vulnerable of all workers in America — seen by their employers as easily exploitable and, at the end of the day, disposable.
Their stories are remarkably similar. Virtually all say they came to the United States to escape devastating poverty and to try, like waves of immigrants before them, to lay a foundation for their children’s future. They tell harrowing stories of survival in the desert they crossed to get here. They tell of being cheated out of hard-earned wages by unscrupulous employers. They tell of working in dangerous conditions without adequate safety precautions. And they tell of enduring near-constant sexual harassment in the fields and factories.
The laws that protect these workers are grossly inadequate. More importantly, the workers’ ability to enforce what protections they do have is generally nonexistent.
When the debate over immigration policy once again reaches Congress — the only venue where it can be resolved — it’s important to understand the motivation that drives these women across our borders, their role in our economy and our communities, and the exploitation they face.
They are economic refugees — pushed from their home countries by abject poverty, hunger and desperation. They’re pulled north by the alluring images in their heads of a bountiful country overflowing with opportunity — a meritocracy where one need only work hard to have enough food to eat and to provide decent clothes and shelter. They don’t come here expecting a handout.
Some find their American dream is little more than a mirage. Others, finding a modicum of success, are able to put their children on an upward path and help sustain their relatives back home. Many come to the U.S. for what they believe will be a temporary stay but find their plans to return home complicated by community ties, their desire to give their children the opportunity the U.S. offers and tighter border controls.
These women live at the bottom of a world where titans of finance send capital across borders at the speed of light and transnational corporations move factories — and jobs — around the globe like a chess match to take advantage of the lowest labor costs. It’s a world where trade and foreign policies established in Washington and other faraway places can mean a job or no job to people who have no say in the matter. Though the world’s economy has never before been so interwoven, it’s still a world where people, the workers who run the factories and whose labor helps enrich those at the top, are supposed to stay within the lines.
America is now at war with the immigrant hands that feed us. Communities and states across the country are enacting a patchwork of highly restrictive laws that will only drive undocumented immigrants further underground and make them even more exploitable by the businesses that employ them and the criminals who prey on them. Immigrant women face the additional danger of sexual assault and rape, crimes they often are afraid to report to police because it could lead to deportation.
Not only is this war costing taxpayers many billions, it is eroding wage and workplace protections for U.S. workers as well, especially for low-skilled workers, as businesses find they can exploit immigrant labor with virtual impunity.
U.S. immigration policy has not kept pace with these challenges. Border security has been greatly enhanced. But the reality is that about 11 million people are now living and working in the U.S. without documentation. Millions of them are raising U.S.-born children. Deporting all of these immigrants, according to one recent study, would leave a $2.6 trillion hole in the U.S. economy over the next decade. That does not include the billions of dollars that would be required to enforce such a policy. And it does not take into account the massive human rights violations that would inevitably occur.
Fifty years ago this Thanksgiving, CBS broadcast “Harvest of Shame,” an Edward R. Murrow documentary that chronicled the plight of migrant farmworkers. Murrow closed the program with this commentary: “The migrants have no lobby. Only an enlightened, aroused and perhaps angered public opinion can do anything about the migrants. The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation.”
Not much has changed.
Congress must address this crisis in a comprehensive way — a way that recognizes the contributions of these immigrants to our country and our fundamental values of fairness and dignity. Our recommendations for doing so appear at the conclusion of this report.