Thursday, October 6, 2011

What doesn't get said

There's an AP article by Phillip Rawls on some negative effects on Alabama's economy that's been unleashed by Alabama's harsh new immigration law. What interests me in the article are the things Rawls doesn't say. He writes, for instance:
Intended to force illegal workers out of jobs, it is also driving away many construction workers, roofers and field hands in the country legally who do backbreaking jobs that Americans generally won't.

The vacancies have created a void that will surely deal a blow to the state's economy and could slow the rebuilding of Tuscaloosa and other tornado-damaged cities.

Employers believe they can carry on because of the dismal economy, but when things do turn around, they worry there won't be anyone around to hire. Many legal Hispanic workers are fleeing the state because their family and friends don't have the proper papers and they fear they will be jailed.

Rick Pate, the owner of a commercial landscaping company in Montgomery, lost two of his most experienced workers, who were in the country legally. He spent thousands of dollars training them to install irrigation systems at places like the Hyundai plant.

"They just feel like there is a negative atmosphere for them here. They don't feel welcome. I don't begrudge them. I'd feel nervous, too," Pate said.
Presumably we are supposed to understand (though Rawls never says it explicitly) that most Hispanics in Alabama are now living in serious (and reasonable) fear of imminent harassment--which is to say, of being locked up "indefinitely." This isn't hysteria, which is one way the article could be glossed, since people who are detained on "suspicion of being in the country illegally" (that's all it takes to be arrested, you see) are supposed to be released when "documentation" is produced. But anyone with any exposure to the US's detention policies of immigrants will know that merely having documentation won't necessarily achieve their release. (A lawyer would help, of course. But how many immigrants working minimum-wage or sub-minimum wage jobs will have access to lawyers?) That Rawls never even hints at the nightmarish realities of US immigration (and even general prison) policies and its exemption from adhering to due process allows the ordinary complacent reader to judge people "legally" living in the US who still fear detention as irrational and ignorant (when of course their fear is a sign of just how closely in touch with reality they are).

But of course that's not all that's implied but not stated in this article. Then there's this:
Legislators said the law would help legal residents suffering from nearly 10 percent unemployment.

One of the bill's authors, Republican Sen. Scott Beason, said he expected short-term problems, but he has received "thank you" calls from two people who replaced illegal immigrants who fled their jobs. Beason predicts that trickle will become a rush.

"We have the best law in the country and I stand by what we've done," Beason said.

Some farmers disagreed.

On Chandler Mountain in north Alabama, tomato farmer Lana Boatwright said only eight of the 48 Hispanic workers she needed for harvest showed up after the law took effect. Those who did were frightened.

"My husband and I take them to the grocery store at night and shop for them because they are afraid they will be arrested," she said.

Farmer Chad Smith said his family farm stands to lose up to $150,000 because there are not enough workers to pick tomatoes spoiling in the fields.

"We will be lucky to be in business next year," he said.
What is unstated here is that the reason farmers stand to lose big is that they probably pay poverty-level wages for body-breaking work, without benefits, and probably under sweat-shop working conditions. When people loudly claim that it's the backbreaking nature of the work that "Americans" are unwilling to perform, what they really mean is that most US citizens tend to avoid working at poverty wages if it's at all possible, more especially when it's the kind of work likely to inflict pain and even long-term damage on their bodies. (Agricultural workers have the highest rates of incurring long-term damage, because most farmers use pesticides.)

The reason I've assumed that anti-immigrant sentiment is almost 100% due to racism is because everyone knows (though they don't like to admit it to themselves or anyone else) that the food we eat would be a lot more expensive without immigrant-- particularly undocumented immigrant-- labor. In this clash between racism and the wish for cheap fruits and vegetables (and clothing, too, since some of the few clothing manufacturers that actually make their product in the US employ contractors who run sweatshops), the resulting cognitive dissonance usually resolves itself by erasing consciousness of the connection between lower prices and immigrant labor, just as when employers talk about being bereft of workers, they're talking about workers who are willing to work for substandard wages.

I guess the politicians are hoping that more US citizens will be willing to work for the same pay as undocumented workers. But of course they can't actually say that in so many words.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

Living in Nicaragua makes the whole anti-immigration hysteria look just plain stupid, and my last job in the US was for the Secure Borders Initiative, which was a boondoggle for Boeing.