Hispanic farmworkers harvest strawberries at a farm April 28, 2006 in Carlsbad, Calif. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
Updated: April 29, 2013 2:15AM
In the mid-1950s my father started traveling from Mexico to the U.S. for the same reason millions of others have done so: to find work.
He became a migrant worker, toiling in the hot sun, often in pesticide- and fertilizer-soaked farm fields. He picked potatoes in Idaho, tomatoes in Delta, Ohio, and cotton in Texas. There were stops in Tennessee, Oklahoma and Utah.
Decades later, he still had earnings — if you could call them that — from one job. They were a few silver dollars he kept in a small metal box. The coins were produced in the late 1800s.
A farmer somewhere along the way told my father and other migrant workers he couldn’t really pay them for their work. But hang on to these rare coins, he urged them, because they are going to be worth a lot.
In the early 1990s I took those coins to a collector who told me they weren’t worth much at all, maybe about $10.
For years I couldn’t bring myself to tell my dad they were virtually worthless, that he had been ripped off by a farm owner doubling as a con artist. When I finally did, he shrugged. I wanted to sob.
To this day conditions are no better for many who essentially become indentured servants to farmers who lack a conscience. There is a population of migrants who consistently work and live in deplorable conditions and receive dirt pay. Most can’t speak up because they are undocumented, and farmers threaten them with deportation.
This month, the government levied paltry penalties against two South Carolina tobacco farming conglomerates associated with Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds for unlawful conditions for migrants. A labor contractor who underpaid the workers also was penalized.
But let’s face it: Most of the crooks don’t get caught. And they only make life tougher for farmers who follow the law when it comes to hiring, housing and paying migrants.
As an immigration bill is debated in Congress, provisions are needed to protect migrant workers. They are suppliers in our food chain we can’t do without.
These laborers do work that Americans decline to line up for. The state of Georgia found that out in 2011 when, amid tough state-imposed immigration laws, farmers watched chunks of their fruit and vegetable crops — worth $140 million — rot because harvest crews made up of undocumented migrants refused to enter the state.
“We need a reliable work force,” said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. “In 2011 we knew we had 10,000 open positions for harvesters. Very few Georgia residents wanted to do the work.”
The Senate immigration bill calls for undocumented farm workers to receive blue cards, which would lead to green residency cards in five years and citizenship in 10. These workers have earned at least this much. The House should not balk on this.
Permanent residency would give farm workers the ultimate leverage against dishonest farmers: they could walk away.
My father eventually did that, but I believe the work still killed him.
When he was dying of stomach cancer, doctors told me it was caused by environmental factors.
They asked if he had been a heavy drinker. No.
Did he smoke? No.
Did he eat smoked or cured meats and fish? Rarely.
The only other possible cause, one doctor said, was exposure to pesticides and fertilizers.
There you have it.