Aug 2, 2010
Editor’s Letter

By Matt Milkovich

Managing Editor

I detected more than a hint of sarcasm in the title: “Take Our Jobs.”

On June 24, Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers, and two other speakers announced the launch of UFW’s “Take Our Jobs” campaign, a challenge to U.S. politicians and citizens to replace immigrant laborers in America’s farm fields.

I sat in on the teleconference that announced the campaign. Ostensibly, UFW seeks to encourage and train unemployed U.S. citizens to fill needed farm jobs (the speakers also pushed the AgJOBS bill). On the campaign’s website, Takeourjobs.org, there’s an application form for those seeking work.
But here’s the unspoken subtext: American workers aren’t going to sign up – at least, not many of them.

Your average U.S. worker these days hasn’t shown much interest in farm work. Plenty of them are unemployed right now, but they haven’t exactly been beating down farmers’ doors, begging for jobs – even though jobs are available.

I don’t blame them. Farm work is tough, especially picking fruit or vegetables for hours a day. It’s hot, dirty, monotonous and sometimes dangerous. It’s hard physical labor under the sun’s glare – for not a lot of money. I did a day of farm work a few years ago, and decided sitting on my rear end all day in an air-conditioned office wasn’t such a bad thing.

Fortunately for me and other American workers, however, there’s a large group of people out there who not only are willing to do the kind of work we don’t want to do, they’re quite good at it. Unfortunately, most of them are here illegally.

“Our current labor force is comprised of professional farm workers who possess essential skills needed to maintain the viability of the agricultural industry,” Rodriguez said. “But our nation’s struggling economy has fueled an increasingly ugly debate on immigration policy and many Americans believe that undocumented farm workers are taking jobs from our citizens and legal residents.”

Rodriguez wants Americans, especially anti-immigrant politicians, to understand that immigrant farm workers aren’t the problem. They’re more valuable than we realize.

“If we deported all undocumented farm workers, it would mean the collapse of the agricultural industry as we know it today.”

Rob Williams, director of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, gave some statistics: More than 2 million people are employed in U.S. agriculture, about a third of them in California. Many of them pick fruit and vegetables. About three-quarters were born outside the United States. At least half are here illegally – but the produce they pick, sort and pack still ends up in the stomachs of American citizens.

“It’s simply the reality,” he said. “We need these workers. There is no replacement work force.”

Immigrant farm workers have a huge economic impact in Kern County, Calif., one of the nation’s largest agricultural counties and a major supplier of its grapes and carrots, according to Michael Rubio, the county supervisor.

“Kern County’s economy is based on agriculture,” he said. “Deporting all immigrants would collapse the economy here.”

The speakers were very curious about what might happen in Arizona this fall, now that the state government has passed a law that will make life harder for illegal immigrants there. Farms in the Yuma area are a major supplier of the nation’s winter vegetables, and if there’s a mass exodus of farm workers from that state, well … we’ll see what happens.

Colbert weighs in

Rodriguez gave an update on the campaign’s progress on the July 8 episode of “The Colbert Report.” By that point, “Take Our Jobs” had found farm work for three American citizens.

“Make that four,” Stephen Colbert said. “I’ll do it.”

I look forward to watching that.

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