From PostAndCourier.com, John E. Menditto, 6 Oct 2011.
“I could have used 300 pickers. I had 40. I burned 25 percent of my tomato crop. These people don’t cause no trouble. They just come here to work.”
These are the words of a farmer in Charleston County lamenting the lack of farm labor last summer.
It’s a refrain echoed by farmers up and down South Carolina, a state in which agribusiness accounts for 200,000 jobs, according to the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.
The farm workers are not gone entirely. There always will be migrant farm worker families brave enough and desperate enough to cross the border.
But it’s not the border you’re thinking of.
The border these families must navigate as they migrate north from Florida begins at the state lines of Alabama and Georgia and continues on into South Carolina — three states that have become self-destructively hostile to migrant farm workers and form a barrier to further work opportunities in North Carolina, Virginia and points north. Caught in the giant net cast by the governors and state legislatures of Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina are children with farm worker parents.
These are the children that our organization, the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, serves. Never an easy existence, the day-to-day experience of these children now is permeated by a crisis of fear that at any moment their parents could be taken from them.
The fear is palpable. Recently, a mom whose 2-year-old child attends one of our Head Start centers broke down in tears when I asked her to share with me her thoughts about the anti-immigrant law in South Carolina.
The mom came to the United States when she was 6. She is smart and articulate and speaks fluent English with a Southern twang. But because she lacks legal authority to work she is destined to a life of hard labor in our fields — at least until South Carolina Law S.B.20 goes into effect and she is arrested by South Carolina law enforcement, and referred to the Department of Homeland Security for possible deportation to a country she hardly remembers.
There is a simple solution to the crisis faced by this mom and thousands like her. The Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits, and Security Act is legislation that has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress since 2000. AgJOBS represents a grand compromise between the interests of farmers and farm labor.
For farm labor, individuals who can demonstrate that they have worked in agriculture and who agree to pay fines would qualify for a temporary ‘blue card’ that would give them authority to reside and work in the United States. To gain permanent citizenship, these individuals would have to continue to labor in our fields for a minimum of three additional years. Farmers would obtain a legal, stable labor force and balanced reform of the H2A guest worker program.
Barbara Mainster, the Executive Director of Redland Christian Migrant Association, recently wrote that “some of the ugliest stains on our nation’s history resulted when one great swath of society declared open season on another.” She feared that unless people of conscience spoke up, undocumented farm workers and their American children would remain under siege to devastating effect.
I share Barbara Mainster’s sense of foreboding. So speak up we will; unsure, though, we are, as to whether anyone in Congress is listening.
John E. Menditto is the interim chief executive officer of East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, which operates child care centers for migrant and seasonal farm worker families in eight states.