In the 1970s, I ran a camping business in the Sierra Madre of southern Mexico. I later became a foreign correspondent in Latin America and eventually worked 12 years covering immigration issues stateside for The Palm Beach Post.
So when Donald Trump, hungry for primary-season attention, comments on the character of Mexicans coming to the United States, he is crossing the border of an issue where I’m well-traveled.
In 2003, working for The Post, I revisited Mexican villages I knew as a trail guide years before and found them radically altered. They were almost devoid of working-age men. The workers had crossed into the United States where they could make much more money.
An old friend, Alvaro Scherenberg, told me he’d had to shutter his coffee plantation — ironically called Monte Carlo — because he couldn’t find pickers to work the harvest. Indeed, on his and other plantations, red coffee berries were rotting on the vine. He told me how the labor drain operated:
“One or two guys go to the U.S. to work. Their boss sees they are hard workers and says: ‘Do you have brothers, cousins, friends back home who work like you? Tell them to come. I’ll give them work.’ Those guys call home. More workers leave.”
Scherenberg told me the outflow got so bad that in the closest town, San Francisco, which had only one communal phone in city hall, the mayor snipped the cord and locked the phone in his desk. It didn’t work: With the remittance money sent from the United States, locals bought cell phones. The migration continued.
As part of my reporting, I was smuggled across the Arizona desert with nine young people — eight Mexicans and a Guatemalan — all headed to the United States to work. Each told me a version of the story Scherenberg had related: A relative or friend called from the United States and said his boss needed more workers. If he risked the journey, he had a job waiting.
Back in Florida, I sought out undocumented workers, especially in agricultural towns such as Immokalee, Plant City, Quincy and Jennings. In time, many would move to better-paying jobs in construction, hospitality, restaurants, landscaping. Most of them recounted same basic story: They didn’t just cross into the United States and drift around looking for work. They were recruited.
Growers talked to me, too. In every case, they said they could find no one else to do the backbreaking job of planting and harvesting crops. The Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA), a major grower organization, admitted that, in the absence of legislation to import enough legal temporary agricultural workers, about 75 percent of Florida ag workers were illegal.
Growers are relatively candid about their reliance on illegal labor. Most other employers won’t talk about it. Neither will the U.S. government. Employers are obligated to ask a new employee for a Social Security number. They are not required to ensure it is legitimate, although that can be done in minutes. How’s that for a loophole? Most employers cover themselves legally by asking for work papers; undocumented workers simply present false documents. A wink and a nod. At year’s end, the Social Security Administration finds “no match” accounts for millions of workers. Some companies are thought to employ thousands. The SSA keeps the money undocumented workers pay in. Generally, nothing else happens.
In other words, the government knows who employs the undocumented. The Obama administration knows. So did the Bush administration. They refuse to tell the press or the public, citing privacy reasons. They prefer not to upset an apple cart that is working for those employers — for their undocumented employees.
In the meantime, some public figures play on prejudice and bash the Mexican people. Trump is only the latest and the most bombastic. “They’re bringing drugs,” he said recently. “They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume are good people.” I guess I’ve lucked out. I’ve met more than my share of the latter group.
In demonizing Mexicans who were lured here by U.S. employers, and who barely have two nickels to rub together, Trump is giving his own entrepreneurial class a pass. Targeting the people with the least power is ineffectual, and cowardly.
Sometimes I allow myself to daydream: I see the immigration issue being laid at the doors of employers, not the workers. It would be resolved in no time, in a bipartisan fashion and, I’ll bet, with little harm to employers or the employed. But I’m not holding my breath. It’s primary season, and bashing is the order of the day.
John Lantigua is a freelance reporter and winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for his coverage of immigration issues.