Just a few weeks ago they were warning us
not to go to Mexico because we might get shot in the crossfire of the
drug war. Turns out they should have been telling us to stay home
because of something smaller and in some ways scarier than a bullet:
the swine flu.
We couldn’t have imagined that the first
place in upstate New York with a confirmed case of the virus would be
right in our back yard, at the high school in Fabius. A girl at the
school nestled in the southern hills went to Cancun with her family a
few weeks back and came down with symptoms that caused a cautious
Onondaga County Health Department and school district officials to give
the healthy kids the rest of the week off.
Hopefully the young lady will make a
full recovery and that will be the end of the story for us. But it will
not be the end of our connection to Mexico, Central America and South
America. Nor should it be. Hopefully the realization that a mutant
virus (now officially renamed 2009 H1N1 flu, so as not to offend the
pork industry) can hitchhike in a young pair of lungs all the way from
a Yucatan resort to a dairy-country classroom will serve to make us
more aware of how small our world has become and how interdependent the
north and south of America are upon one another.
If the mutant flu wasn’t scary enough,
here’s another story. The vegetable and fruit farms that supply us with
those delicious strawberries that we dream of all winter are faced with
a shortage of workers. Now, don’t panic. There are many great “U Pick
’Em” places surrounding the city. You won’t have to wince your way
through summer nibbling on those tasteless red-on-the-outside,
pale-on-the-inside excuses for strawberries that grocery stores stock
year-round. Things may be bad, but we will still have lip-puckering,
cheek-inverting local strawberries to munch on while we watch the
moving vans driving up and down the street.
It’s the farmers who have the problem.
Since the first human cases of the 2009 H1N1 flu virus emerged in
Mexico in mid-April, the process of providing visas for Mexican
immigrant workers has ground to a halt. Hundreds of workers who would
be spending the summer planting and harvesting crops in Onondaga,
Oswego, Madison and Wayne counties may instead find themselves cooling
their heels in the central Mexican states of Guanajuato or Michoacan.
Those hard workers, many of them who
come here legally every year, will be wondering how they are going to
feed their families, while their would-be employers, already reeling
from low commodity prices and a tight credit market, wonder how they
are going to get through this season without farmhands. You could
demand that they hire local workers, but look into the eyes of a farmer
and make that suggestion, and you’ll be staring at a truth that no one
likes to utter, but is nonetheless very real.
Local workers won’t do this backbreaking
work. Even in a recession. Probably not even in a depression. By and
large, farming depends on immigrant labor. Legal or illegal, it’s folks
from elsewhere who pick the crops. It’s not a bad bargain. Mexican
families get an improved standard of living, farmers here can keep
going, and we get delicious strawberries.
In construction, it’s a different story.
In March, Border Patrol agents arrested six workers employed by a
subcontractor building the new Destiny Carousel Minimum Security Prison
or whatever that thing the Wizard is constructing behind the concrete
curtain really is. The most surprising thing of all was that the
workers came from even further south of the border—Bolivia and
Argentina. They were deported pronto, and local unions continue to
protest at Carousel that the jobs on that taxpayer-subsidized project
be given to local workers.
And they are right. They would be even
more right, and perhaps even more successful, if they were to join with
local minority contractors who legitimately claim that they can’t get
their foot in the door at projects like Destiny.
If we learn anything from the swine flu,
it’s that these issues of interdependence can’t be solved unilaterally.
Just as you can’t stop the virus with a machine gun, you can’t stop
immigration by getting tough.
Try it. Actually, we just did.
In its last year in office, the Bush
administration decided to crack down and more than doubled the number
of criminal prosecutions for immigration violations. It didn’t slow
down the flow of immigrants. Instead it raised the price that smugglers
charge to bring you across the border. More recently, the number of
border crossers has gone down, not because of enforcement, but because
jobs are harder to find.
When it comes to immigration, more than
any other topic, it’s wise to remember what Bill Clinton said in a very
different context: It’s the economy, stupid.