Here in the United States we like to eat fruits and vegetables, but we don’t like to pick them. Grains are harvested by machines, but produce is mostly hand-picked. American farmers can’t get Americans to do this work, so we are dependent on workers from poorer countries.
Theoretically, there’s a wage for which Americans would pick apples. No one knows what that wage is, nor does anyone know what an apple would cost if it was picked at that wage. We would find these things out right quick if American farmers had no alternative to American apple-pickers. Because there are migrant workers to be hired, any American apple-grower who decided to run the experiment of paying enough to hire American pickers would be committing market suicide. How much would those apples cost? A lot more than all the other apples. They’d get composted.
So, as a society, we are happier depending on migrant workers than we would be running the Americans-only experiment. But there is nothing in human nature that prevents us from hating or fearing those we depend on. We have this dance we do, year-in year-out, in which we let some migrants in legally, on terms that put a named employer in a position of supreme power — if a worker gets fired, he or she is automatically an illegal subject to deportation — but these programs don’t nearly cover the demand, so in order to have fresh fruits and vegetables we need many, many undocumented workers.
The disconnect between law and appetite here calls the prohibition era to mind. All alcohol was illegal, but obviously people still wanted to drink. To the extent that law enforcement did its job zealously and efficiently, the result was widespread discontent. The stakes are higher here, though: alcohol is nice, but life without fruits and vegetables is medically problematic.
The undocumented workers who pick our produce are, by another name, illegal aliens. Yikes! Even before a Donald Trump opines that “They’re rapists,” you can see that all is not well here. We can’t live without them, but…
It seems to me that the people who need to be in touch with this tension between the law and what we want are the people who decide what — and who — is legal or not. In that spirit, here is a suggestion for how we might keep it at least a little bit real between our legislators and the world they legislate.
Legislatures are not factories; they are often closed (“not in session”). During one of the many weeks our federal legislators are not legislating, they should pick produce alongside whoever else is picking produce in their state or district. We won’t expect them to do it for free; they will be paid the prevailing wage in addition to their federal salary. And we won’t expect them to bunk with the regular workers on the farm, as many do; they can go home at night to their houses in affluent neighborhoods.
Then again, picking produce is really for people in their prime, or for people who, whatever their age, are physically strong. This does not describe our legislators, for the most part, so they can send their offspring instead. If they have no offspring who are willing to pick produce for a week on their behalf, they can reach out to extended family, friends, anybody they know. Politicians are “people people,” aren’t they? From their wide circles of friends and supporters, they just need to find one American citizen who is willing to pick produce for a week and tell the legislator (and anyone else they want to tell) about the experience.
Legislators who are unwilling or unable to pick produce for a week or find an American citizen who is willing to do so on their behalf should be excluded from any vote or debate related to immigration policy or agriculture during the year in which they come up empty. These deliberations should be undertaken by people who have a clue, or who have a traceable connection to someone who has a clue.
Eric Kuhn lives in Middletown.