Thursday, April 29, 2010


Happy Thursday, folks—a day to turn to another of the more serious topics I’ve written about lately.

I’m sure most of our U.S. friends are familiar with the recent Arizona immigration law—if not, you can read about it here on the Huffington Post. Closer to home, at least in terms of blog community, I’d also recommend two recent posts by Citizen K on this topic, which you can read here & here. As is always the case with this redoubtable blogger, K has done his homework on the issue & he provides a great perspective.

I’d like to take a moment to look at the issue from a somewhat different point of view, however, one that's not about party politics & policy, but simply about basic human values. It seems there’s a lot of talk these days about “illegal aliens” & “illegals.” Is it that hard to understand these terms as de-humanizing? These are human beings who are crossing the border—they have families, & they’re looking for work—in fact, migrant workers are subject to probably the worst wage slavery in this country, since not only do they work at very difficult jobs for menial pay, but they’re always subject to arrest & deportation—a chilling grip on any man or woman in the hands of an unscrupulous employer.

As an illustration of the type of work done by migrant farm workers, I’m reminded of a time when I was around 20 years old. I was down on my luck, battling a bad drug/alcohol problem & flat broke. I knew a fellow my age whose family owned an apple orchard in northern Vermont. Besides being tapped out, I was also under the spell of John Steinbeck (without the necessary knowledge to really understand his writing) & decided maybe I’d just chuck it all & become a migrant worker. I remember what my friend told me—he said that sometimes locals applied for work at the orchards but they invariably quit within a couple of days—the work was simply too hard unless you were doing it because everything depended on it. I’ve never forgotten that.

Woody Guthrie recognized this—the tragic humanity of the situation, & the role that these workers were & are playing in a larger (at this point, global) economy. He wrote a song about it—actually, a set of lyrics that were found in his papers after his death. The music was added later by Marty Hoffman. If you’d like to read more about Guthrie’s “Deportees,” I’d refer you to Citizen K’s other blog project, Just a Song. But in the meantime, please take a couple of minutes to listen to Arlo Guthrie sing his father’s words, & ponder their deep meaning. This song's full of the kind of truth that’s so simple & obvious it ought to smack us in the face, but how often we choose to neglect it!


  1. You're so right, John, to talk about how dehumanizing the discussion of "illegal aliens" tends to be. I noticed that the President used the phrase "undocumented workers" when he spoke out against what is happening in Arizona this week. There's way too much talk of us versus them in all of this, as if the lines were bright and clear and based on appearances. Thanks for your powerful words!

  2. Great post. This hits home. Both my parents are immigrants to the US (although have been citizens for decades at this point) and both my parents worked really hard to make a life for themselves and for me here. I like what you said about working the orchards and the only people who would stick were the ones that worked hard because everything depended on it. It's so true. It's the only reason we can continue with this wage slavery. These immigrants are working really hard to provide food, clothing and shelter and a good life for their families. It's all or nothing and nothing isn't an option.

    You are so right about "dehumanizing" too. It's so easy to make illegal immigrants the "other" and separating them from ourselves. It makes us able to treat them callously and to not have sympathy for their plight.

    It's such a complicated issue. If the US really wants to control the immigration problem, maybe they should start at the source instead of at the tail end.

  3. Good job on this post. The words to Guthrie's "Deportees" are haunting. I can understand the concern & deep worry about the drug cartel; that is a real problem, but I don't see members of the cartel standing on street corners looking for menial work. I'm afraid that in time the extreme lawlessness in Mexico will spill over into the U.S. especially if we ever manage to crack down on the influx of drugs into our country from Mexico. Saying that I don't think this absurd law in Arizona will stem the flow of drugs into our country nor stop the cartel. It will just harass individuals who are trying to make a better life for themselves & their families through honest labor.
    What is to happen to children of illegal immigrants who are born in this country? Will they be deported also or will families be separated? I wonder how far the Arizona legislature thought or even if they considered legal children.
    I'll not be visiting AZ, but it seems the mayor of Phoenix is filing suit against its own state in regard to this law. Good for him.

  4. Hi Audrey, Raquelle & Lizzy

    Audrey: Thank you! I think your writing on the Ms Blog has spurred more political writing here. & sorry to be so out of touch--will send an email soon!

    Raquelle: Thanks so much--also for tagging this on FB. & also thanks for sharing your family history--just another way of humanizing the immigration situation. My paternal great grandparents were Irish immigrants & my maternal grandfather was a Canadian immigrant--other than Native Americans, we're all from somewhere else originally.

    Lizzy: Thanks--I agree with you that the drug cartel is a problem & I also agree that this law & any future similar laws (should they be adopted) will do next to nothing to address that. I believe I saw--maybe on the HuffPo--that a high percentage of Arizona police organizations actually oppose the law.

  5. In full agreement with the spirit of the post.

    One of my local friends I'm pretty sure was undocumented when she first came over; same deal with more than half the concrete crew I worked on closer to the border awhile back. If I were a Mexican who couldn't otherwise take care of his family, I'd probably come over too.

    These people really get hosed all the way round. Their country is failing so it's hard to make a living. They have to hire two-legged predators to get them over the border. And then when they get here, the wage situation.

    As bad as the AZ law is, it's hard for me to see what they could do differently. Arizona is having horrible trouble with a violent crime wave at the border having to do with the traffickers. I think it's a political stunt to get the Feds to secure the border, which does have to happen. It's a safety issue for both sides.

    I wish they would make it easier to be a guest worker here, and then a citizen -- or at least streamline it. If we did that, we'd 1) know who was here and 2) be able to protect them from exploitation. One reason I believe employers treat them as wage slaves is because they're here illegally, and the businesses can get away with it. What are they going to do? Tell?

    Red tape sucks. We have a friend in Baja whose wife is living in West Virginia, and has been waiting forever for his legal papers. We tell him it'd be easier if he just, you know, came over and worried about the papers later.

  6. Hi Soul: Thanks for weighing in--your thoughtful persepctive is always appreciated around these parts! I don't agree that AZ has no choice in the matter than to pass this specific law, however. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who is very conservative, said of the law:

    "I'm concerned about the whole idea of carrying papers and always having to be able to prove your citizenship. That brings up some shades of some other regimes that weren't necessarily helpful to democracy."

    Also, as I mentioned in my comment to Lizzy, a number of AZ police organizations oppose the law. As far as the drug cartel goes--& those are very bad folks, I think we can all agree on that--I've long supported legalization of drugs (in a set-up similar to states with state liquor stores) both to cut the criminal element out of the drug economy & to free up police resources. The same thing happened during prohibition--but at this point there's certainly no criminal activity involved in the distribution of alcohol products. I know people feel that legalization is some sort of unworthy surrender, but frankly, the "drug war" is never going to be "won" any other way--just as the war against the prohibition bootleggers wouldn't have been won any other way.

  7. Oh, & p.s. @Soul: really looking forward to seeing you & Michelle this evening!

  8. This is a very powerful, evocative post. There is a complete lack of human value and worth inherent in this policy. And, oh the irony! The righteousness!

    I read yesterday that a congressional candidate named Pat Bertroche said that the government should put microchips in illegal immigrants. "Just like we do with dogs at the pound." On her show, Rachel Maddow asked Governor Jan Brewer what an illegal immigrant looks like, and her reaction was priceless ... "Ummmm, ahhhh".

    There is a tragic sickness of heart and soul at play here; a lack of connection to the face of humanity. Tenderness and compassion is what truly builds strength and wholeness ... and thus a thriving nation. The dehumanization of anyone devalues us all.

  9. Thanks for the props!

    Deportee is great song that no one has ever screwed up (not that they could).

    I've reacted very personally to this law because I grew up so close to the border. The thought of my mother-law and old friends being interrogated makes my blood boil. You are right: It is inhuman. The complete lack of Hispanic support for this even among their own ranks (Marco Rubio had the temerity to question it) ought to say something to the right, but of course it doesn't.

  10. Hi Nana Jo & K

    Nana Jo: Thanks so much! You are so right about dehumanization. & thanks muchly for following here.

    K: I don't know--I might be able to screw up "Deportees!" But point well taken--it's a great song. You deserve the props--the political writing on your blog is first rate.

  11. A further p.s. @Soul: In case you subscribed to this feed--I do think the federal government has an important role, tho I don't believe sending troops is it. I do think (other than the marijuana--at least--legalization question) the government could address the massive problems that government subsidized agri-biz has created for small farmers both in this country & globally, as well as addressing the effects of NAFTA. I believe--not to put words in her mouth--this is the sort of thing Raquelle meant when she talked about starting "at the source."

  12. Excellent post, John. I love your kind and gentle take on the issue. Did I expect anything less?

  13. I left a comment and it disappeared. I'll check back later to see if it miraculously posts, and if not, I'll recreate it! Ugh!

  14. Hi Willow & Jen:

    Willow: Thanks--I try to look at these things from as "human" a perspective as I can--I believe that kind of perspective is our best hope.

    Jen: The comment doesn't seem to have showed up--would love to hear what you have to say!

  15. We are all immigrants. But now I can't come into my own country from Canada or Mexico without a passport. What happened???

  16. Hi LD: Other than Native Americans (& ironically, a number of the Hispanic workers are actually Native Americans by heritage) we all are from somewhere else. I never thought the passport law with Mexico & especially Canad would ever happen.


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