The recent compromise immigration bill, has me thinking about a life experience that illustrates one of the arguments getting bandied back-and-forth these days.
Back when I was growing up in Hillsboro, Oregon, every summer started with strawberry picking. It was a rite-of-passage for kids my age. I think from when I was eight to fourteen I would get up every morning around 4:30 am, eat a breakfast made by mom and then my brother and I walked a few blocks where we caught a bus to take us out to the fields.
We would pick berries until early afternoon where it was simply too hot to continue, then we’d get bused back to our neighborhoods. If we were lucky, the sprinklers in Bagley Park were on and we’d just run through them, trying to cool off. We were stone filthy, caked with mud, sweat and berries.
My hands were stained red for over two months of the year. We got paid something like a buck a “flat” which is, I think, ten of those little green plastic containers you buy in the grocery store. If I was lucky (I was a so-so picker), I might make in excess of a hundred bucks in June. I don’t think I ever cleared two-hundred.
We picked the strawberries using our fingernails to separate them from their stems. These berries were not bound for stores to look pretty for your summer barbeques. They were bound for the Birds-Eye processing plant where they were prepared and frozen for sale later during the year. But picking them that way put a lot of berry juice on you, and that’s why the stain never completely went away.
The bathrooms were outhouses (not Porta-Potties) and the conditions were just about intolerable. Except that we did tolerate them because that’s what our community did. Every summer the kids were sent out to bring in the strawberries and then, later, the green beans. It’s just the way it was. Almost everybody I know picked.
To this day, there are times when eating a strawberry brings back so many memories that it’s like opening a time capsule. The first was the actual taste of a strawberry. We could eat all we wanted but that perk wore a little thin very quickly. Then there was the soundtrack of crappy AM transistor radios playing British Invasion rock. Plus, we did learn what it meant to earn a dollar by doing this. I also got in my first and only fist-fight in that berry field with a kid named Scott Burkhardt. Mostly, though, I got my hands dirty.
The end of this came in the 1970s when federal rules banished grade-schoolers from the fields. State regulators then demanded that farmers keep detailed records and take payroll deductions. Guess what happened next? Here’s the answer, according to the Salem-based Statesman-Journal:
By the 1980s, farmers had all but stopped hiring minors and switched to professional, who could pick fast enough to earn minimum wage or better. Some former strawberry growers say the fulltime farm workers, many of them migrants, were far more proficient pickers than children. But many also say the government crackdown on using local schoolchildren to pick berries put a crimp in the labor supply.
These days, Hillsboro is part of the Silicon “Forest” what with the arrival of high-tech companies like Intel and Hewlitt-Packard. The kids don’t pick the berries anymore. As the article states, for a while that was done by seasonal workers — I honestly don’t know how many of them were illegal, but I bet plenty of them were. Oregon still has some significant acreage devoted to strawberries — not like it used to — and they’re not being picked by American kids anymore. CLICK HERE for an article that explains how they are being picked in America today.
The rotten core of the strawberry industry — one that growers refuse to acknowledge or for which they disclaim any responsibility — is that the harvest is totally dependent upon a coercive and corrupt labor system that is not unlike indentured slavery. About three-quarters of the approximately 30,000-35,000 farm workers who move into the Willamette Valley for the strawberry harvest are recruited through a labor contracting system that exploits the continuing economic deterioration of rural Mexico. A majority of the workers arrive directly from Mexico (mostly from the traditional “sending” region of Central Mexico but increasingly from the heavily indigenous southern state of Oaxaca) or via California where they have worked its earlier strawberry harvest. A substantial number, many without legal documents, come from year-round residency on the West Coast. Additionally, a sizable minority are local “settled out” residents, some with and some without legal documents. The general characteristics of the migrant labor force — the majority without legal documents, being hundreds or thousands of miles from their family support networks, not being conversant in English (or, in some cases, Spanish), and having no viable alternative job options — make it extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
So, yes, I can say, for a fact, that there are some jobs that Americans don’t/won’t do anymore. Strawberry picking in the Pacific Northwest appears to be one of them.
As for the solution to the immigration situation, that’s hard to say. But I can’t understand why this issue is being portrayed as “either/or.” It is possible to favor controlling our borders so that we know who is in our own country and recognizing that life these days requires we figure out how to pay the people who do the work we want done, and treat them officially, either as citizens or visitors or guest workers.
All I know is that the people who are picking those berries these days are doing hard work for not a lot of money. Every time I have a strawberry shortcake in the summer, I remember…
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