It is 11:30 at night on our farm in the West, in a part of Colorado I’d rather not identify, and we are trying to get our grain corn harvested before a storm hits us hard.
I am running the combine, and Paco is in the tractor next to me, with his 3-year-old son sleeping on his lap. He has the boy this evening, because his wife, Lupe, is working the night shift, cleaning office buildings in town.
It is slow-going because part of the corn was laid over by a strong wind. Paco looks up at the corn streaming into the cart and smiles as if to say, “Don’t worry; things are going pretty good.”
Paco and Lupe are like many of the immigrants that people who work in agriculture have come to know over the years. Ask anyone who works the farms in the eastern Coachella Valley, and they’ll tell you the immigrants are almost all hard-working and positive, quick learners, willing to do what it takes to get the job done, and glad to have the job.
There are millions of workers like them, keeping not only agriculture but also food processing, construction, landscaping, hotels, restaurants and nursing homes functioning. It is hard to drive through the rural landscape and not see them at work. Just look around.
Like the majority of “undocumented workers,” they do the work most of us don’t want to do and don’t want our kids to do, either. They are not the terrifying, violent gang members President Donald Trump talks about and would have us believe are everywhere. But this administration now classifies all undocumented immigrants as criminals, even if all they have done is purchase an illegal permanent resident or Social Security card. Workers who obtain these readily available documents do so in order to get work and keep their employers off the hook.
These workers cross the border into the United States without legal documents because the immigration system—which has not been updated in 28 years—is broken. It has become almost impossible to get an H-2A visa (granted for temporary work, usually agricultural) or a green card (proof the process of becoming a permanent resident is under way) due to the cost, waiting time and limited number issued. The legal immigration system satisfies only about 4 percent of the needs of agriculture, for example.
Far from being a burden, the immigrants we know pay their way—and more. A 2016 study by the New American Economy, an immigration reform group, showed that undocumented immigrants in Colorado earned $3 billion, of which $114 million went to state and local taxes, while $199 million went to federal taxes. Immigrants also contribute to entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, though they seldom receive any benefits from them. Also, because they tend to be of working age, immigrants are 25 percent more likely to be employed than the general population. Many have been members of their communities for years and have children who are U.S. citizens.
The immigration discussion is currently focused on the fate of the young people called Dreamers, and the families who have been separated at the border—so the larger issue of a broken immigration system receives far less attention.
But this is what we need: A guest-worker program and a pathway to citizenship for longstanding members of our communities. And we need to stop deporting the heads of households who are already in the workforce. We also need to think about what would happen to our national economy if we suddenly deported 7 million to 9 million immigrants—all of them a crucial part of our workforce.
In the farm and ranch country where I live, politically diverse groups like the Farm Bureau, Farmers Union and Colorado Livestock Association, as well as my own County Ag Advisory Board, have all taken policy positions that call for comprehensive immigration reform. Yet public discussion about needed reform seems surprisingly timid and lacking in advocacy.
If you live in rural America, shouldn’t you be willing to stand up and fight for the help you need to work the land? Let’s tell the world that we need immigrants working on our places or at our processing facilities if we’re going to survive. It’s past time to cowboy up and do what’s right, even if it means accepting the stigma involved in visibly and vocally standing up for good people like Paco and Lupe.
We know these folks will be there for us and all the other farms and businesses that depend on them. So we’ve got to talk about the kind of immigration reform that allows them to work for us legally and with dignity.
George Wallace is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He has ranched and farmed in the West all his life.