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Supporting our farm workers is NOT political


My readers have asked me to kindly refrain from politics here at, and I generally do, reserving that kind of stuff for my Facebook page (where we frequently get pretty fierce!). But an article I just read in the Dec. 18 issue of The Economist has got me thinking about the plight of undocumented farm workers (including vineyard workers), and that, combined with the unfortunate refusal of Senate Republicans earlier this month to even consider the Dream Act, has me riled up enough to politicize, just a bit, on my blog.

Actually, I don’t really consider the issue of undocumented farm workers to be a political one, in the sense of partisan politics. I mean, whatever your politics, you have to eat, right? And with at least 40% of all of America’s crop workers being undocumented, mostly Mexicans (with other estimates ranging up to 90%), that means most of what we eat (and drink) has been processed, at some point in some farm, orchard or vineyard, by someone who is sin papeles (without official U.S. papers). (Note: just about all the facts I state here are from The Economist article.)

It has been more or less proven that American citizens will not perform agricultural labor. Only the blindest and most cynical opponents of immigration reform argue to the contrary. Studies show that, of those Americans who are willing to stoop down, bend over, work in unendurable heat and cold, skin their hands to bleeding, break their backs and do other uncomfortable and unhealthy work connected with crops, most of them demand wages and benefits (such as health insurance, pension contributions, paid vacations and so on) that are so high, the price of a head of lettuce would skyrocket to $10, and Two Buck Chuck would cost $8. I think the most disingenuous argument in politics (and there are some pretty disingenuous arguments) is that, if we sent all the undocumented farm workers back to Mexico, their places would be taken by grateful unemployed Americans willing to work for minimum wage. Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.

The Economist article illustrates vividly and compassionately why these people cross the border illegally to come to America. It’s not to “come and dump” babies, as some Republicans have crudely and hatefully stated. Children born on American soil, regardless of their parents’ status, have been considered citizens at least since the 14th Amendment was passed, in 1868; it is true, also, that there are serious rumblings in the Republican Party to undo the 14th Amendment supposedly in the interests of “national security,” but, since “national security” can be used as an excuse for almost anything, you have to wonder why the same people who want to deport all the undocumented workers also want to deny their American-born children citizenship. Can there be other, less respectable motivations going on? Yes, there can.

My main problem with ideologues is that they are so addicted to what they perceive as the correctness of their ideas that they fail to consider the implications of what would actually happen if their ideas were implemented into law. Who exactly is going to tend the fields and pick the crops if the right wing of the Republican Party succeeds in frightening Americans enough to actually legislate some of these wild concepts (not that I believe President Obama would sign them). As for the Dream Act, well, it makes so much common sense, and seems so compassionately the right thing to do, that it was absolutely right for President Obama to vow to continue pushing for its passage in 2011.

As I said earlier, I can’t for the life of me see why this issue of undocumented workers and their children has become politicized to the extent it has. You’d think that a country with the I.Q. of a doorknob would figure out that (a) the undocumented workers aren’t going anywhere, (b) there’s no way to make them leave, (c) most of them just want a better life as do we all and as did our ancestors, (d) our food economy would collapse instantly if they did go back to Mexico (and who would clean our hotels and office buildings?) and (e) if their kids satisfy all the Dream Act’s requirements (brought to the United States before they turned 16, are below the age of 35, have lived here continuously for five years, graduated from a U.S. high school or obtained a GED, have good moral character with no criminal record and attend college or enlist in the military), they’re more likely to be model citizens than a good many kids who were born in this country to legal citizens.

Every time I travel to wine country, I see and meet the workers. The wine industry could not possibly exist without them. I would not presume to ask an owner or winemaker if he or she knows whether all the employees are legal; but I have to assume that some of the workers are not, especially the ones who get hired by the day. The situation as it stands is lousy. These people live with fear and stress of arrest and deportation even as they pick our grapes and radishes and beans. I hope that each one of you, if you agree with me, will contact your Senator and Congressperson, find out where they stand on the Dream Act, and urge them to support it, if they don’t already. And I hope you’ll also find it to your practical advantage, if not in your heart, to support some kind of path to citizenship for the millions of these sin papeles who sweat, bleed and hurt so that we may eat and drink.

  1. I don’t know who told you not to be political here, but I for one enjoy it (go figure, right?) and encourage it.

    Steve, your blog (and many others, including mine I think) are a bit like op-ed pieces, and I come here specifically to get your opinion, thoughts, and spin. If that means politics bleeds into things and mixes with the wine, then what the hell, let’s drink it anyway!

  2. I am all for documented workers. As for ‘undocumented workers’ I do not like the term. People who want to work in the US and live across the border can get legalized can’t they? The issue or problem is not just with picking seasonal crops. The issues around illegal immigration go much further. In some cities some minorities are not happy that jobs that used to go to them are/have been going to the so called ‘undocumented workers’ or illegal immigrants. The focus on illegals is mostly on folks from Mexico but in fact there are folks coming from other countries as well.

  3. Thanks for writing this Steve. We seem to live in an era when critical thinking is at an all time low, and the population is easily manipulated to act against its own interests by demagogues who manipulate emotions and fears to set up an “other” in order to feather their own beds through fear mongering. Some of them provide us with entertainment when their hypocrisy is exposed as their personnel lives collide with their professed values. The success of the wine industry is heavily dependent on the hispanic population whose work ethic and family values exceed any other group I have encountered. It is great to see local families like the Ceja’s and Robledo’s using these traits to achieve their own success.

  4. It’s important to separate Ag work from other types of work. We’ve had “undocumented” folks coming up and working our fields, groves and vineyards for decades. Once the harvest was over, they’d go home for the winter and then show up once spring begins again. Now, guys don’t leave because they can’t come back (without risking their lives) and work due to laws and current political climate. They called it “migratory seasonal work” and it worked for years. There have been many experiments with owners of farms trying to hire students on summer vacation and attempts to hire Americans to pick veggies, etc but to to avail. They’d work for 4 hours and quit or they’d show up hours late or not at all. It’s very tough work to bend over and pick strawberries for 8, 9 and 10 hours per day for 6 days/week. Working the vineyards for 10 hours per day is also challenging because one must stand the entire time.

    The problem I have is with real middle class jobs… Like carpentry or other construction positions. When I see a construction site with predominately latios (most likely undocs), it pisses me off. These are real middle class jobs that used to be done by guys like my Dad and Grandpa but because the general on the site wants to raise his/her bottom line another 10-20%, they’ll skip the paths of typical hiring and employ them at a fraction of the price. This is where the government should do it damn job!

    The fact is there are jobs being given to people here with out permits which used to be done by North Americans and there are jobs that were never serviced by us. I think it’s important to separate ag employment from other jobs. If one doesn’t like “undocumented” aliens, they’d do good in keeping their blinders on and purchase their wine at a supermarket where they remain blind to the facts. How d you think Wine Country looks as beautiful as it does when you drive your European luxury car up the 101? What, because of white people? I think not. I for one as humbled by their contributions to America.

  5. Thanks for such a great thought-provoking post. Here’s what I fear will happen and is already starting…. The focus will shift from targeting illegal individuals to the hiring companies. Some might say that’s a good thing. But here in Napa, you’ve just got to cross your fingers that the documentation the field worker gave you is really legit because you need his sorry rearend to help bring more $150 Cabernet into the hands of the folks who say they don’t want him here. When vineyard management companies and wineries start getting fined or jailed for hiring the people they need to do the job, it will be trouble.

    By the way, I’m not for the Dream Act but only for one reason – money. I think we need to put a hiatus on starting any more programs until we figure out how to avoid bankruptcy on a Federal, State, and local level. Everytime a program is implemented, money needs to be spent to figure out HOW, and more government workers are hired. The FDA ruling of a few weeks ago added 2000 inspectors to our public payroll. Who’s going to pay for that???? Wake up America — we’re broke.

    And for all the Glenn Beck followers who listen to his advice to stock up on food because it’s price will soon be skyrocketing — this post is the reason why — not the BS he’s feeding you. When we can no longer use inexpensive labor to pick vegetables, you’re either going to be eating food grown only somewhere else or paying a fortune for stuff grown here. And don’t get me started on the pension plan debacle. God, I wish I had sat at a government desk stamping forms for 30 years – I’d be set for life.

  6. Kathy, my understanding of the Dream Act is that it doesn’t cost anything. In fact, read this commentary (on Fox, no less) on why the Dream Act will actually SAVE taxpayer’s money.

  7. Randy, I agree that maybe the solution is to impose “papers please” on certain forms of skilled labor (carpentry, construction) where there may be legitimate competition with U.S. workers, while finding real solutions to non-skilled labor (such as janitors and ag workers) where there clearly is no competition, because U.S. citizens don’t want those jobs.

  8. Bill Dyer, let’s call it the Meg Whitman Hat Trick. Bash “illegal aliens” in order to win conservative votes, then be embarrassed when your own maid turns out to be undocumented! That was the howler of the campaign and the main reason Queen Meg lost in a landslide — her complete and total hypocrisy was exposed.

  9. Steve – they always say it doesn’t cost anything and will save taxpayers money. Maybe I’ve just become cynical in my old age. I think every word is “spun” for public consumption – hell, I do that every day for the wineries I represent so it’s not like the concept is beyond the realm of thinking.

  10. lori narlock says:

    Steve, Bravo for writing such a thoughtful piece on such an important issue. I think this system is screwed up and that anyone who wants to come and do this work should be able to, but they should receive the benefits you state Americans would demand. Everyone needs to eat, everyone needs to work, and everyone deserves the best life they can have. Farm workers like the other workers so critical to everyday life are undervalued. There has to be a solution to change this. I wish I knew what it was. BTW, have you considered a life in politics?

  11. Steve has hit the nail on the head here. I certainly agree with his points and wish that common sense would show up on our elected officials door steps who oppose this.

  12. Lori, my secret ambition is to be a United States Senator when I grow up.

  13. Bravo for being ‘political’ – this is a social issue and the Dream Act is being held political hostage. The Dream Act is the right thing to do. Keep up these juicy discussions.

  14. Kathy, maybe everything is spun, but some things have to be true and other things have to be false. I can’t see why the Dream Act would cost anything. There’s no government subsidies, no payouts or bailouts, no loans. It’s just a set of conditions (and very good conditions) for a few million younger immigrants to become legal if they play by the rules. Maybe there would be some administrative costs but wouldn’t they be more than made up for by having these people become productive, tax paying citizens? And by the way, the xenophobic rightwing that wants to deport everybody never talks about the BILLIONS AND BILLIONS of dollars that fiasco would cost.

  15. Great article!

    Regarding Kathy’s concern about the government coming after the businesses that employ undoc. workers: as long as the employer is taking out taxes and paying the payroll tax, I would assume these businesses would be fine. If you want to be very thorough, and quell any anxiety employers can call the SSA and verify a worker’s SSN. Kathy is right, we are broke, and I see no problem with ensuring that all taxes are being paid, its only fair. Employers who pay under the table are to blame just as much as the government for not making work visas more easily obtainable. If the dream act were to cost anything it would pay for itself by steering otherwise lost causes through to the corporate world or even military. They’ll pay tuition, take student loans, and eventually pay taxes.

  16. So, as I understand the argument, we are paying lower prices for food because we can exploit labor that is foreign labor to work in our farms and fields for low wages. Paying a fair wage, ie a wage that “Americans” would be willing to do is just simply out of the question.

    Companies in the US send their manufacturing abroad, rather than pay higher wages to “Americans”. When it comes to farm labor, food service, construction, on other jobs which can’t be sent overseas because they have to be done here—we just get that cheap foreign labor to come here to undercut the “American” woirker.

    Oh, that’s right, per Steve—they aren’t “documented.” No, actually, Steve, they are here in the country illegally—ie, they have no legal right to be here, but decided to just ignore our immigration laws and charge right in. Now, somehow, we are supposed to be reward the children of people who ignore our laws and come into this country with a shortcut to citizenship, over all those millions in the world who likewise would like to come to this country but don’t live next door–and thus have to play by the rules to get here?

    Brilliant, Steve. You posit with a straight face and argument for continued exploitation of farm labor, and then chastise everybody else for not wanting to reward the children of the exploited with benefits.

  17. Beautiful Discussion. Mass Media hype distracts and pulls on individual/groups “values” to disunite us from being critically thoughtful people. Instead tune in to your surroundings and beyond, talk, listen and learn. Peace be upon you.

  18. Bill McIver says:

    Blathering about what is essentially a major geopolitical issue of our day is a waste of time. In the first place both the US & Mexico benefit too much for the problem to be solved by domestic politics. History, geography, economics — forces of nature — are driving the issue. Our partisan political opinions are irrelevant. May I suggest a geopolitical discussion of the matter instead of the tired, insipid liberal vs conservative partisan debate.

    August 3, 2010
    Arizona, Borderlands and U.S.-Mexican Relations
    August 3, 2010

    By George Friedman
    Arizona’s new law on illegal immigration went into effect last week, albeit severely limited by a federal court ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court undoubtedly will settle the matter, which may also trigger federal regulations. However that turns out, the entire issue cannot simply be seen as an internal American legal matter. More broadly, it forms part of the relations between the United States and Mexico, two sovereign nation-states whose internal dynamics and interests are leading them into an era of increasing tension. Arizona and the entire immigration issue have to be viewed in this broader context.
    Until the Mexican-American War, it was not clear whether the dominant power in North America would have its capital in Washington or Mexico City. Mexico was the older society with a substantially larger military. The United States, having been founded east of the Appalachian Mountains, had been a weak and vulnerable country. At its founding, it lacked strategic depth and adequate north-south transportation routes. The ability of one colony to support another in the event of war was limited. More important, the United States had the most vulnerable of economies: It was heavily dependent on maritime exports and lacked a navy able to protect its sea-lanes against more powerful European powers like England and Spain. The War of 1812 showed the deep weakness of the United States. By contrast, Mexico had greater strategic depth and less dependence on exports.
    The Centrality of New Orleans
    The American solution to this strategic weakness was to expand the United States west of the Appalachians, first into the Northwest Territory ceded to the United States by the United Kingdom and then into the Louisiana Purchase, which Thomas Jefferson ordered bought from France. These two territories gave the United States both strategic depth and a new economic foundation. The regions could support agriculture that produced more than the farmers could consume. Using the Ohio-Missouri-Mississippi river system, products could be shipped south to New Orleans. New Orleans was the farthest point south to which flat-bottomed barges from the north could go, and the farthest inland that oceangoing ships could travel. New Orleans became the single most strategic point in North America. Whoever controlled it controlled the agricultural system developing between the Appalachians and the Rockies. During the War of 1812, the British tried to seize New Orleans, but forces led by Andrew Jackson defeated them in a battle fought after the war itself was completed.
    Jackson understood the importance of New Orleans to the United States. He also understood that the main threat to New Orleans came from Mexico. The U.S.-Mexican border then stood on the Sabine River, which divides today’s Texas from Louisiana. It was about 200 miles from that border to New Orleans and, at its narrowest point, a little more than 100 miles from the Sabine to the Mississippi.
    Mexico therefore represented a fundamental threat to the United States. In response, Jackson authorized a covert operation under Sam Houston to foment an uprising among American settlers in the Mexican department of Texas with the aim of pushing Mexico farther west. With its larger army, a Mexican thrust to the Mississippi was not impossible — nor something the Mexicans would necessarily avoid, as the rising United States threatened Mexican national security.
    Mexico’s strategic problem was the geography south of the Rio Grande (known in Mexico as the Rio Bravo). This territory consisted of desert and mountains. Settling this area with large populations was impossible. Moving through it was difficult. As a result, Texas was very lightly settled with Mexicans, prompting Mexico initially to encourage Americans to settle there. Once a rising was fomented among the Americans, it took time and enormous effort to send a Mexican army into Texas. When it arrived, it was weary from the journey and short of supplies. The insurgents were defeated at the Alamo and Goliad, but as the Mexicans pushed their line east toward the Mississippi, they were defeated at San Jacinto, near present-day Houston.
    The creation of an independent Texas served American interests, relieving the threat to New Orleans and weakening Mexico. The final blow was delivered under President James K. Polk during the Mexican-American War, which (after the Gadsden Purchase) resulted in the modern U.S.-Mexican border. That war severely weakened both the Mexican army and Mexico City, which spent roughly the rest of the century stabilizing Mexico’s original political order.
    A Temporary Resolution
    The U.S. defeat of Mexico settled the issue of the relative power of Mexico and the United States but did not permanently resolve the region’s status; that remained a matter of national power and will. The United States had the same problem with much of the Southwest (aside from California) that Mexico had: It was a relatively unattractive place economically, given that so much of it was inhospitable. The region experienced chronic labor shortages, relatively minor at first but accelerating over time. The acquisition of relatively low-cost labor became one of the drivers of the region’s economy, and the nearest available labor pool was Mexico. An accelerating population movement out of Mexico and into the territory the United States seized from Mexico paralleled the region’s accelerating economic growth.
    The United States and Mexico both saw this as mutually beneficial. From the American point of view, there was a perpetual shortage of low-cost, low-end labor in the region. From the Mexican point of view, Mexico had a population surplus that the Mexican economy could not readily metabolize. The inclination of the United States to pull labor north was thus matched by the inclination of Mexico to push that labor north.
    The Mexican government built its social policy around the idea of exporting surplus labor — and as important, using remittances from immigrants to stabilize the Mexican economy. The U.S. government, however, wanted an outcome that was illegal under U.S. law. At times, the federal government made exceptions to the law. When it lacked the political ability to change the law, the United States put limits on the resources needed to enforce the law. The rest of the country didn’t notice this process while the former Mexican borderlands benefited from it economically. There were costs to the United States in this immigrant movement, in health care, education and other areas, but business interests saw these as minor costs while Washington saw them as costs to be borne by the states.
    Three fault lines emerged in United States on the topic. One was between the business classes, which benefited directly from the flow of immigrants and could shift the cost of immigration to other social sectors, and those who did not enjoy those benefits. The second lay between the federal government, which saw the costs as trivial, and the states, which saw them as intensifying over time. And third, there were tensions between Mexican-American citizens and other American citizens over the question of illegal migrants. This inherently divisive, potentially explosive mix intensified as the process continued.
    Borderlands and the Geopolitics of Immigration
    Underlying this political process was a geopolitical one. Immigration in any country is destabilizing. Immigrants have destabilized the United States ever since the Scots-Irish changed American culture, taking political power and frightening prior settlers. The same immigrants were indispensible to economic growth. Social and cultural instability proved a low price to pay for the acquisition of new labor.
    That equation ultimately also works in the case of Mexican migrants, but there is a fundamental difference. When the Irish or the Poles or the South Asians came to the United States, they were physically isolated from their homelands. The Irish might have wanted Roman Catholic schools, but in the end, they had no choice but to assimilate into the dominant culture. The retention of cultural hangovers did not retard basic cultural assimilation, given that they were far from home and surrounded by other, very different, groups.
    This is the case for Mexican-Americans in Chicago or Alaska, whether citizens, permanent residents or illegal immigrants. In such locales, they form a substantial but ultimately isolated group, surrounded by other, larger groups and generally integrated into the society and economy. Success requires that subsequent generations follow the path of prior immigrants and integrate. This is not the case, however, for Mexicans moving into the borderlands conquered by the United States just as it is not the case in other borderlands around the world. Immigrant populations in this region are not physically separated from their homeland, but rather can be seen as culturally extending their homeland northward — in this case not into alien territory, but into historically Mexican lands.
    This is no different from what takes place in borderlands the world over. The political border moves because of war. Members of an alien population suddenly become citizens of a new country. Sometimes, massive waves of immigrants from the group that originally controlled the territory politically move there, undertaking new citizenship or refusing to do so. The cultural status of the borderland shifts between waves of ethnic cleansing and population movement. Politics and economics mix, sometimes peacefully and sometimes explosively.
    The Mexican-American War established the political boundary between the two countries. Economic forces on both sides of the border have encouraged both legal and illegal immigration north into the borderland — the area occupied by the United States. The cultural character of the borderland is shifting as the economic and demographic process accelerates. The political border stays were it is while the cultural border moves northward.
    The underlying fear of those opposing this process is not economic (although it is frequently expressed that way), but much deeper: It is the fear that the massive population movement will ultimately reverse the military outcome of the 1830s and 1840s, returning the region to Mexico culturally or even politically. Such borderland conflicts rage throughout the world. The fear is that it will rage here.
    The problem is that Mexicans are not seen in the traditional context of immigration to the United States. As I have said, some see them as extending their homeland into the United States, rather than as leaving their homeland and coming to the United States. Moreover, by treating illegal immigration as an acceptable mode of immigration, a sense of helplessness is created, a feeling that the prior order of society was being profoundly and illegally changed. And finally, when those who express these concerns are demonized, they become radicalized. The tension between Washington and Arizona — between those who benefit from the migration and those who don’t — and the tension between Mexican-Americans who are legal residents and citizens of the United States and support illegal immigration and non-Mexicans who oppose illegal immigration creates a potentially explosive situation.
    Centuries ago, Scots moved to Northern Ireland after the English conquered it. The question of Northern Ireland, a borderland, was never quite settled. Similarly, Albanians moved to now-independent Kosovo, where tensions remain high. The world is filled with borderlands where political and cultural borders don’t coincide and where one group wants to change the political border that another group sees as sacred.
    Migration to the United States is a normal process. Migration into the borderlands from Mexico is not. The land was seized from Mexico by force, territory now experiencing a massive national movement — legal and illegal — changing the cultural character of the region. It should come as no surprise that this is destabilizing the region, as instability naturally flows from such forces.
    Jewish migration to modern-day Israel represents a worst-case scenario for borderlands. An absence of stable political agreements undergirding this movement characterized this process. One of the characteristics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is mutual demonization. In the case of Arizona, demonization between the two sides also runs deep. The portrayal of supporters of Arizona’s new law as racist and the characterization of critics of that law as un-American is neither new nor promising. It is the way things would sound in a situation likely to get out of hand.
    Ultimately, this is not about the Arizona question. It is about the relationship between Mexico and the United States on a range of issues, immigration merely being one of them. The problem as I see it is that the immigration issue is being treated as an internal debate among Americans when it is really about reaching an understanding with Mexico. Immigration has been treated as a subnational issue involving individuals. It is in fact a geopolitical issue between two nation-states. Over the past decades, Washington has tried to avoid turning immigration into an international matter, portraying it rather as an American law enforcement issue. In my view, it cannot be contained in that box any longer.
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  19. It seems kind of silly to provide health care and education, even college to non-native children of illegal immigrants then deny them any sort of legal status after making that investment. I know of one such young man who came here as a youth not understanding a word of English, was tutored and given special treatment in small classes for immigrants through elementary, middle, and high school, did a couple years at Napa College and is now studying enology and vit at one of our states universities. Seems like after the investment we have made in his development, we should think about keeping him around and collecting some taxes from him.

  20. Paul, thanks for your comment. First of all, there are always going to be low paid jobs, like agriculture. It’s difficult to imagine paying a farm worker as much as, say, a nurse or schoolteacher. Maybe that’s not fair, but it’s the way it is. Secondly, it is evident that the Mexicans are willing to do what American citizens are not. Third, even if agriculture was able to afford what you call “a fair wage,” it would send this nation on a spiral of inflation that would probably bring on a revolution. So, given that the present situation is, at the very least, working — if not perfectly — all I (and most of my readers) are asking for is to give these workers some kind of path toward citizenship, rather than threaten them with deportation which does nothing except rattle nerves and make people angry. Finally, regarding the children of the undocumented, I see no contradiction at all between my position re: the workers, and my support of the Dream Act. The Dream Act does not “reward” anyone, it recognizes a fact, and takes intelligent, thoughtful steps toward making things better for everyone.

  21. I have worked in the vineyards picking grapes, and I lived off the wages, and even paid cash to go to college. As far as I can tell, agriculture work is fairly paid, and it is possible to survive and even better oneself while doing it. After lots of hard work and study, I managed one of the vineyards I picked grapes at, and now I am even the winemaker. By the way, I was born in California, making me an American, but I guess the enigma is how did I do a job that an American will not do? Did I forfeit my citizen ship while picking grapes, pruning, and mowing lawns, and digging ditches, and breaking my back in the hot sun? I guess the one difference was that I was never given anything, and had to work for everything I have. Maybe the policy should be don’t give people anything, and let them feel hunger and pain. One winter I spent a little too much money one month (on school books), and could not heat my house. There was frost on the inside. I put on more layers of clothes and got under the covers. Now I make enough money so that will never happen again. I still have the books. Pain and suffering are good things. Making things better for yourself by yourself is how we make things better for everybody. If everyone followed my example the country and world would be a better place.

  22. PS. Thanks Steve for the great blog, I read it almost everyday. Please keep up the good work. Sorry I forgot this in the original post.

  23. Dear Mr Heimoff,
    It is hard to understand how Americans can ignore the role of undocumented Mexican workers in our lives. It probably has to be put down to the most popular of all human activities–disapproving of somebody else.
    I append a quickie I sent to the local paper in response to a Tea Party candidate’s description of the contribution of illegal labor as,”a dirty little secret.”
    The work of undocumented Mexicans has fed Michael Erickson all his life. It has made his car work and maintained the roads it drives on. It has cleaned and maintained the buildings he spends his life in, and if he owns a recently constructed house, it has put a roof over his head.
    True enough, these guys took the job Mr Erickson wanted at the tire shop and he was forced to seek employment elsewhere, but, like the rest of us gringos, he seems to have found other work.
    It is odd though that he describes their presence as, “a dirty little secret.” True, they are dirty at the end of the day. That happens to laborers. And I guess if you compare their numbers to the National Debt their presence seems little.
    But are they a secret to anybody but Michael Erickson?
    Thanks for being nice about the wine.

  24. Two issues: 1. dealing with immigrant agric. labor is quite different from the larger problem of illegal immigration. If you don’t separate the 2, then you are not dealing honestly with the other group of illegals, comprised of the dope trade, human smuggling, sex slave trade, and other ugly behaviors. 2. A big part of the illegal immigration problem from our Latin neighbors, are the horrible governments there, lousy living conditions that are getting worse not better, corruption, drug cartels, etc. which give natives no hope of a decent life, while in the US, decency beckons. While we cannot solve those problems in any short order, maybe we should put some energy into improving this underlying problem, instead of just looking at how our ag sector benefits from the outflow from so many countries south of our border. If you really want to help these people, you have to make a very different kind of effort, that will make their native countries better places to live.

  25. Don, your comment illustrates the immense complexity of the issue. I obviously do not and cannot claim to understand it completely. What I am asking for is for the rightwing “Deport Them Now!” people to SHUT UP.

  26. Dear Stephen Hawkes, and thank you for a thoughtful comment.

  27. Dear Matt, your story touches me deeply. Yet I ask: You must have been a very young man when you underwent the experiences you describe. I also assume you had no children to support. Healthy, strong young people can undergo physical hardships in their work just fine, and they have since the dawn of time. However we are not talking (in the majority of cases) about healthy young men with no children working in the fields. We’re talking about older men and women with families to support, either back in Mexico or here in the states. So, while I can appreciate your pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps philosophy, I don’t think it’s applicable to most of the field workers. They fully understand hunger and pain and suffering. They don’t need any lessons along those lines. What they need is help from this country, and what this country needs is some way to address this issue without the xenophobia from the rightwing that seeks to get elected to office without any ideas of how to make anything better.

  28. I hate it when politics try to make issues “cute or benign” sounding.
    I don’t often respond to the blogs I follow….. others usually say things similar enough, it really doesn’t matter what I think, and they are generally things that have to do with pleasure.
    People who are not supposed to be here are illegals!
    Having said that, I don’t think they are bad, if I lived in a country as corrupt as Mexico I would break the law as well.
    These people have no hope there, and the government knows it, and does nothing to give them any hope.
    It is our greed for cheap labor and an easily exploitable populace that make all the “well no one will do it attitude”.
    Illegals diminish wages in every area. How can Americans compete with a labor force that the employers know have no recourse for abuse.
    Forget what Americans well pick or not. Illegals are cheaper to hire, employers have no issues with benefits,insurance, overtime… you get the picture.
    I live in the south and there are to many to count where illegals drive the wages of Americans down while risking getting screwed themselves due to them being here here illegally!
    Everybody thinks it is fine provided THEY aren’t the ones being screwed.
    I get where Steve and others talk about how expensive it would be for grapes…. they are in the grape business.
    So the only way for us to enjoy life is if we can screw someone else?
    I like the idea of laws,borders, and sending the companies that hire illegals to jail.
    They always talk about how many illegals are here…8 Million or 12 Million and how it would be impossible to get them to leave.
    I have the answer! Companies that hire illegals should go to jail. When there is no more work for people that shouldn’t be here they will leave.
    Then with better border security we can welcome our brothers and sisters to the south with open arms and also have a better idea who is here.
    I don’t know about you, but even if the number is smaller then 8 million…. I’m not so sure that they all are coming to pick strawberries!

  29. Thom, thank you. You have not answered my basic question, which is, how would you propose to prevent incredible food cost inflation if your ideas were adopted into law? I keep asking and asking and nobody on the other side has an answer. If food costs explode, the U.S. economy basically collapses. If that’s the cost you’re willing to pay for deporting all the illegal farm workers, then you illustrate the old saying, Be careful what you wish for, because you may get it. In other words, be rational, not emotional, when you’re making decisions.

  30. Steve, the points are valid and I depend on these workers to run my business managing vineyards. But the fact is, the Dream Act is bad policy. Bad because it is only a band aid at best and a partial solution. I truly believe Dems and Repubs like having immigration as a political football so they can raise money and energize thier base. Neither party seems willing to do what needs to be done….a comprehensive solution that gives an opportunity for workers to enter the country “documentented” for a specific time and purpose with a guaranteed process toward citizenship provided they earn that guarantee through compliance with our laws and have proven themselves productive members of the community. When you look at the past politics, dems seem to only want open borders and repubs want the border closed. Both concepts are wrong headed.

  31. Glenn, I hear you and understand. But politics is the art of the possible, not the ideal. Right now, xenophobia is so powerful in this country (courtesy of the right wing) that anything more than a band aid is not possible. The Dream Act, in my opinion, represents something both parties can support, because its conditions are so strict, and because it relies on the basic compassion and fairness of Americans which, despite the despicable teabag hate talk, still exists.

  32. Steve,

    Perhaps a slight tangent, but I find it fascinating that the issues around labor from other countries, relating specifically to the grape harvest, isn’t just an American issue. I saw this article some months back about issues in France and that it very appropriate:

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  33. Steve (Kudos for the guts to get political) and everyone who contributed so far (thanks for healthy debate powered by great thinking).

    As a an American, who came here legally (on a student visa) but had no choice but work illegally in order to, well… eat. My story is close to Matt’s. I’d like to offer another perspective on this issue.

    This would not be an issue at all if economic times were not miserable. When things get tough, politicians get busy blaming others, and prey on nationalistic feelings. Maybe as a Jew I should be happy folk are picking on the Mexicans this time. I was worried there for a while that after the Madoff thing I may be required to wear a patch in public. Sorry for the dark humor, but I am trying to make a point.

    The real issue, IMO is that we have an unhealthy sense of entitlement in the US. We love to joke at the British who used to be an empire and then crumbled and yet we are following the same path, believing that since we are (correction: used to be) “No. 1” we automatically have the right for an easy, privileged existence surrounded by all the spoils we can think of. We have stopped making EDUCATION a priority, dummying up standardized tests so that school districts can boast improved results while spewing out generations of kids with very little understanding of the world around them and worse; generations that never experienced the thrill of real accomplishment, one that comes with real effort. We have, on some level, become a nation of victims and whiners, blaming everyone else for problems WE are responsible for.

    We often have talks about issues surrounding this in our tasting room and once the emotional part of the discussion quiets down I bring up the issue of National Service as a possible first step to right this ship in the long term. I think that if we required our children to serve 18 to 24 months in a national program after high school (be it military service, agricultural work, social work, health care work, educational work etc) and make NO EXCEPTIONS (you have to do it regardless of your social, economical or health status) we, as the “Land of Opportunity” would start to get our common sense back. Not only will a program like that help the national economy (by providing a relatively cheap and “legal” workforce), it will pay dividends forever in ensuring we raise Americans with a real sense of accomplishment and less sense of entitlement.

    At the tasting room, I get nothing but folks who agree. I wonder what you and the folks that contributed here think.

  34. Oded, I totally agree with the idea of compulsory national service. No exceptions. No millionaire’s sons excluded. I wonder why we don’t hear more of that kind of talk from politicians. Maybe it’s because, whoever raised it first, the other side would accuse them of something hideous. For example, if Obama suggested it, Sarah Palin would immediately attack him for expanding “the nanny state.” I can just hear her sarcasm.

  35. Steve,

    Thank you for your comment, and it is true that I did not have a family to support, and thought about it from that angle about and hour after I hit “submit comment”. And I do have compassion for those with families. I also have compassion for all the people currently doing farm labor. My pain and suffering comments were directed at people who want jobs, can’t find any, but still won’t work the farm labor jobs when they are available. In the current economy i find much anger towards those who tell me that I am “lucky” to have a job, it undermines all the hard work that I (and those like me) have put in.
    My guess is that there is no easy answers out there, but I do know for certain that we cannot have different rules for every different class or distinction of person. The amount of grapes I picked or vines I pruned wasn’t dependent on the size of the family I or the guy next to me had to support. Citizen or Illegal alike.
    The variety of facets this single blog post has raised shows the difficulty in solving this “problem”.
    It is interesting that I find my eyes opened in a wine blog, I guess it just goes to show that you are a great writer, and that there are so many voices to be heard.

  36. Ron Saikowski says:

    There is a “Catch 22” here. If you legalize the status of the workers, then they will want the same levels of wages and benefits as others. If they do not get those wages and benefits, then there is the problem of them going on strike when the grapes need to be harvested. The immigration issue is a very ponderous issue with no easy solution.

    The Feds have promised to patrol for employers hiring non-documented workers so vineyard owners and winery owners will need to be aware of this evolving situation under President Obama’s Presidency. There is no easy solution!

  37. Ron, there have been almost no instances of vineyard workers going on strike. They did some years ago at Charles Krug, but that issue was resolved. The workers just want to be able to do their work, maintain their good relationships with winery owners and managers, and see that their kids lead better lives. So if I were you, I wouldn’t worry too much about vineyard workers going on strike and depriving you of wine.

  38. This is an incredibly difficult and complex subject, but within it there are a few undeniable truths. They should be the starting point for conversation.

    1. Americans, given a choice between “Made in America” and saving $1, will choose the latter darned near every time. If you don’t believe it, try opening a “Made in America” store across the street from a Wal-Mart. Offer equivalent products at higher prices, guaranteed to be made in America, by American workers, by American-owned companies. Good luck with that.

    2. American workers will not do excrutiatingly hard (i.e. agricultural) or extraordinarily dangerous (i.e. meat packing) work for minimum wage.

    3. If we paid a higher wage, Americans would purchase lower-priced agricultural products from other countries. See 1, above.

    4. The result would be the utter destruction of the American agricultural industry.

    5. America, as a country, makes money on undocumented workers,* particularly those with fake papers. Why? The employer pays into, and takes from their paycheck, their Social Security, Unemployment, Medicare, etc., but they can’t receive it. In effect, it is a gift to the federal coffers.

    6. We are no more able to process and deport 11 million people than we are able to instantly raise the reading level every fourth grader in America to a standard that doesn’t make the Germans laugh out loud. Anybody saying otherwise is a demagogue.

    7. It is actually possible for a government to do more than one thing at a time. That means that any time any politician says “we should secure the borders first,” you should ignore him. He is pursuing a political agenda, not a solution.

    8. The only way to resolve the problem with unlawful immigration is to go after employers, not workers. You will know the government is serious when CEOs go to prison.

    9. 8, above, will never happen. The corporate interests that finance our politics give lip-service to the “illegal immigration” argument, when their only long-term goal is short-term profits, over and over again. That means keeping wages down, and doing it with people who lack a voice works very well.

    10. Everybody involved in the discussion should be forced to write book reports on “The Jungle,” by Upton Sinclar, and “The Grapes of Wrath,” by John Steinbeck.

    *”Undocumented worker” vs. “Illegals.” People cannot be illegal. Actions are illegal. Further, unlawful immigration is not a crime, hence it is not, as most people understand the term, “illegal.” It is not punishable by time in prison, but by deportation, a purely civil act.

  39. Thanks for this, Steve.
    This subject is so complicated and so much of the argument is misinformed. If I widen the perspective, the question seems to be; is there enough to go around? Some of us think there is enough to share. Some of us are afraid there isn’t.
    Not that it would be easy to accomplish around the gridlock, but I like the idea of a Guest Worker program that’s actually useable (so agriculture workers can go home and not have to stay and take construction jobs), AND better labor laws (so workers can’t be easily exploited).

  40. Wendy, I like the idea of a guest worker program too. I don’t know why it hasn’t happened yet. Everything about this issue has become so politicized.

  41. Steve-
    Bravo for bringing attention to such a hot topic in the US but more specifically here in CA.
    I think people really forget how important these farm workers are to the wines we drink. Winemakers love to tout that wines are made in the vineyards but often fail to remember who works in the vineyards.

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