Opinion/Editorial/Commentary

Tom Rivers: A Murder Shows Humanity at its Worst

From TheDailyNewsOnline.com, Tom Rivers, 10 Nov 2011.

I knew they were reeling with each new damning revelation about the brutal murder in Albion.

The entire Latino community would be condemned by one man’s savage attack on a stranger. If you want evidence of the racist venom, check media sites with articles about the murder. I won’t repeat the ethnic slurs. Writers are attacking farmworkers and the farmers who employ “illegals.”

I’ve become friends with many farmworkers and Mexican-Americans. I’m proud of that. They’re easy to like. I’ve met many of the workers through my job as the agricultural reporter for this newspaper. I know others because my kids go to school with their kids. We live in the same community.

I knew this would be a story that would garner national interest and be used to condemn a population. Albion would be ground zero for hate.

On Monday, a day after the murder, I went on Facebook and sent a friend request to a Mexican-American I know. She accepted within a few minutes. She had already commented on her wall about the tragedy, and the reaction: “U can stop bashing and judging the rest of us by the wrong doings of others! not everyone is the same.”

The alleged killer was an undocumented farmworker who targeted a stranger in the Albion Wal-Mart, looking to steal her car so he could flee the area. It was a random, senseless act of violence, robbing the world of Kathleen Byham, who recently earned a doctorate in art history. My heart goes out to her family and friends.

I live about 2 miles from Wal-Mart. My wife had been out buying Halloween candy at the Albion Dollar General on Sunday night, a short distance from the alleged killer, who fled on foot.

When she returned, we could hear the helicopters hovering over the village. We knew something was going on and locked the doors. I assumed it was a drug deal gone bad.

The alleged killer was in our country illegally. He has a prior history of arrests and violence. He used fake papers, and worked for a local farm, owned by some of the best people I know.

I don’t have a problem saying I’m sympathetic to farmworkers, even the “illegals.” I know they are critical to farms, a $500 million business in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties. Many of our farms are labor intensive and require able-bodied workers with willpower. The cold hard truth: few local farms can find enough Americans to milk cows, plant onions, yank weeds, pick apples and cut cabbage.

I’ve tried some of these jobs and nearly crumbled from the extreme physical exertion. Some of you may remember that series on farm work in 2008, the year I lost 30 pounds laboring in the fields.

Along the way I developed a close bond with some of the farmers and farmworkers. In an adverse situation – a ferocious rainstorm while cutting cabbage, for example – you can’t help but forge strong connections with your fellow man.

The farmworkers showed me a new level of human decency. When I was on the verge of giving up in the cucumber field, the Mexican workers rallied to help me keep going, leaving piles of cucumbers in my row so I wouldn’t fall behind. They did that while sacrificing their own output.

They’ve offered me meals, invited me to family celebrations and welcomed me to their businesses. It’s hard to hear all this hate directed at “their kind.”

Last Friday I was at a farm in Kendall with a few local farmers, some ag industry leaders and a throng of reporters. Chuck Schumer was in town to talk about his plan to promote New York apples for juice. Schumer said Chinese apples couldn’t be trusted as a safe product because that country allows inorganic arsenic.

Schumer is calling on the FDA to investigate Chinese juice. He also is urging juice processors to buy New York apples that are held to a higher environmental standard.

His comments drew little reaction. The reporters were there for one reason. They wanted a reaction from Schumer about the murder in Albion.

Schumer said the country needs tamper-proof documents and a long overdue overhaul of the country’s immigration and guest-worker laws. He said farmers aren’t to blame for hiring foreigners, especially with a “willy-nilly” system that doesn’t work.

The ag community isn’t counting on an improved guest-worker plan. Farmers will likely have to keep guessing about their workers’ legal status. Farmers will hire people knowing nothing about their past.

The farm leaders believe the Albion crime and the reaction will only make it more difficult for farmers to hire legal workers because the public has been inflamed to condemn the entire population.

“This has set us back decades,” one of the industry leaders told me.

(Staff writer Tom Rivers writes a column every other week.)

Source: TheDailyNewsOnline.com, “Tom Rivers: A murder shows humanity at its worst” by Tom Rivers, 10 Nov 2011.

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