The last pickup truck pulled away from the parking lot, and the men settled back onto the folding chairs of the little cottage in central San Jose where they wait for offers of day labor. The morning rush was over; nothing to do now but wait until after lunch, when a few more contractors and landscapers might stop by looking for a couple of strong backs for the afternoon.
It was a crisp autumn morning, just three weeks before Californians were to vote on Proposition 187, a measure that some hoped - and others feared - might call a halt to the nightly march of undocumented immigrants across the border from Mexico. Even so, the dozen or so men in the cottage - mojados, wets, illegals, every single one - were surprised that a visitor wanted to talk about 187.
"It doesn't have much to do with us," said Jose Guadalupe, who at 64 years old has crossed the border more times than he can count over the past four decades. "The immigrants have always been here, and they always will be, come what may. We'll come by water, or land, or whatever." The other men nodded in agreement.
But suppose, the visitor said, suppose the Americans built a fence all along the border that was 50 feet tall.
"Not high enough," interjected Guadalupe.
OK, OK, 100 feet high, or 200 feet, or a thousand - however tall it would have to be to really plug that border. What would happen then? The men contemplated this idea in bemused silence. "Well," Guadalupe finally replied in a grave voice, "probably then the Americans would have to put black people back into slavery. Because we're the ones who work in all the fields here, picking lettuce and tomatoes and avocados. Americans don't do it. Unless you guys get people from Japan and Russia, who else is going to do it?"
So far, no American politician has been willing to say that if stopping illegal immigration requires repealing the 13th Amendment, then by God that's what we need to do. But just about anything else goes. National ID cards, computerized federal databases, doctors arresting their patients on the operating table, requirmng teachers to rat on their students and encouraging the students to rat on their parents, pitching newborn babies back across the border: The Cold War had nothing on this new battle against immigration.
In fact, Bill Clinton last August officially declared that pulling up the national gangplanks now takes precedence over the final skirmishes of the Cold War. He asked Fidel Castro (in return for what under-the-table promises, we still don't know) to put Cuba's secret police to work stopping Cuban refugees from coming to the United States on rafts. It is as if West Germany, as the Berlin Wall was collapsing, had offered a bounty to East German border guards for every fleeing refugee they could gun down.
Although Proposition 187 and Clinton's creation of prison camps for Haitian and Cuban refugees have put the battle against illegal immigrants in the spotlight, legal immigrants are scarcely more popular. Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, the newly triumphant Republican Party's most influential voice on immigration, has promised to introduce a bill slashing the number of legal immigrants 25 percent. And that makes him an immigration dove. Last year a House bill that would cut the number of legal immigrants by 65 percent immediately and 85 percent in the long run attracted 73 co-sponsors from both parties, the single most popular immigration measure introduced during the past Congress. Said Pat Buchanan, the bill's principal champion: "If Republican leaders are frightened by political correctness from doing this, then it is a sign of what is endemic in the Republican Party; it won't touch an issue that somebody may say is evil and hard-hearted."
The most peculiar thing about Buchanan's comment is the implication that it's "politically correct" to support immigration. Quite the contrary: The fashion across the political spectrum, from the tree-huggers at the Sierra Club to Rush Limbaugh's pugnacious "ditto-heads," is to hammer away at immigrants. They steal our jobs. They use up our national resources. They dilute our culture. The timid few who demur are almost universally scorned as ivory-tower knuckleheads who mistake poetry for policy. They aren't out there in the real world. They don't "focus on the immigration influx in practice, as opposed to libertarian theory," as National Review acidly puts it.
But if there's anyone who's neglecting the real world, it's the people who want to cut immigration. Because they don't answer Jose Guadalupe's question. Once we've gotten rid of the immigrants, who is going to pick the lettuce and tomatoes?
A little agricultural math exercise: Of the million or so people who make up the full-time farm work force in the United States - those who work 100 days or more a year - the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 60 percent are foreign-born. (Some labor specialists say as many as half a million may be illegal aliens, the scourge of the scourge to anti-immigrationists.)
Their average wage is around $6.00 an hour. How much would it cost to find native-born Americans to replace them in the fields? Let's say $12 an hour, which most agriculture experts think is a very conservative estimate. That means wages will jump 100 percent.
Multiply the doubling of wages times 20 percent, since economists say labor costs represent about one-fifth of food prices. Assuming that demand holds constant, what it all adds up to is a 40 percent increase in the cost of farm produce. If America's 68 million households spend an average of $10 a week on fruits and vegetables, that's $272 million a week (or, if you prefer, $14.1 billion a year) as the price we pay for running immigrants out of just one small sector of the U.S. economy.
Not that it would work.
"It's not just money that keeps Americans out of those fields," argues Libby Whitley, an agricultural labor consultant who until recently was a labor specialist with the American Farm Bureau Federation. "I don't know what journalists make. But let's say it's $100,000 a year. OK, I'll give you a nice raise. I'll pay you $110,000 a year to be a migrant farm worker.
"But you'll leave your friends and family. You'll live in a house trailer in an orchard, do your cooking in a group kitchen. And the job will only last for three months. Will you do it?...
"It's not just the pay, it's the nature of the work. It's outdoors, it's often in unpleasant weather, it's physical, it's hard. It hurts your back. It's short term. And you can't even guarantee tenure of work. If there's a bad freeze or a hailstorm just as a crop is ready to be picked, you're not guaranteed anything. You go home empty-handed. That's the nature of nature. And that's the nature of farm work."
Throughout most of American history, there's only been one group willing to consistently take on that kind of labor: Recent immigrants. People with little education, few skills, and only a smattering of English, but who bring broad backs and the conviction that they're building a better life for their families. (There was, of course, one group of people who kept working in fields for generations after they arrived in America. The people Jose Guadalupe made reference to: slaves.)
Whitley has seen them on farms all over the country: the Mexicans toiling in the avocado and watermelon fields in California, the Jamaicans cutting cane and picking apples in the South, Haitians roaming Florida's citrus orchards, the Hmong tribesmen from Laos working in Minnesota dairy farms. "I even visited one county in upstate New York - I'm not going to tell you which one, because they don't need any trouble with INS - where the work force was predominantly illegal Polish immigrants," she says. "They didn't have much education and they didn't speak much English. So they did what immigrants have always done - they went and picked cabbage."
The crops and the skin tones of the people picking them may change from region to region, but Whitley says one thing is always constant: The immigrants are hard workers.
"You will not find many of the farmers I know bashing the foreign worker population," she says. "They will tell you quite honestly that they're excellent workers and decent people. Most farmers will tell you immigrants have a strong commitment to the work ethic. In fact, I'm always trying to hush farmers because they talk...