Flashbacks April 2006

Tales From the Borderlands

Articles by Eric Schlosser, William Langewiesche, and Jack Miles shed a human light on the debate over the Mexican border

Castaneda's argument is a powerful one, Miles conceded, and has many merits, but allowing illegal residents to vote, he argued, would be antithetical to American ideals: "if California were to accept his proposal," he wrote, "the state would be saying, in effect, that on so crucial a matter as the prerogatives of citizenship its relationship to Mexico counts for more than its relationship to the United States."

Perhaps more important than figuring out what to do about illegals once they have arrived, he suggested, is figuring out how to seal the border more effectively. Immigration advocates, he noted, rely on the assumption that the border simply cannot be sealed and then argue that the many aliens living in America's midst deserve citizenship and rights. But a mass amnesty for illegals like that enacted in 1986 will never happen, Miles posited, unless Americans feel they have regained some control over their borders.

Until Americans have some assurance that a new mass legalization will not function as an incentive, they will never vote for it... What is required is ... that control be so firmly and clearly re-established that decisions on admittance to the country—and admittance to the voting booth—will be at the discretion of the American host and not of the foreign guest.

A more intimate portrait of Mexican migrant workers can be found in Eric Schlosser’s award-winning 1995 article about strawberry workers in the fields of Southern California. He described both the hardships the workers face and the strength of their will to overcome those hardships—aspects of their story that are sometimes overlooked in political discussions.

Schlosser also outlined some of the cold, hard facts. Agriculture, he observed, is the largest industry in California. And its most profitable sector is what are referred to as “high-value” farm crops: those obtained through cheap labor made possible by the covert exploitation of millions of illegal immigrants. After visiting some of the farms and speaking with owners, managers, and migrant workers, Schlosser expressed serious concern about the implications:

Driving back to my motel, I thought about the people of Orange County, one of the richest counties in the nation—big on family values, now bankrupt from financial speculation, unwilling to raise taxes to pay for their own children's education, unwilling to pay off their debts, whining about the injustice of it, and blaming all their problems on illegal immigrants. And I thought about Francisco [a migrant worker], working ten hours a day at one of the hardest jobs imaginable, honest work, and sleeping on the ground every night for months so that he could save money and send it home to his parents.

We have been told for more than a decade to bow down before "the market." We have placed our faith in the laws of supply and demand. What has been forgotten, or ignored, is that the market rewards only efficiency. Every other human value gets in its way. The market will drive wages down like water, until they reach the lowest possible level. Today that level is being set not in Washington or New York or Sacramento but in the fields of Baja California.

Jonathan Perez

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Jonathan Perez is an intern for The Atlantic Online.

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