By the time you read this, we will have a new President. And in a break from the policies of his predecessor our new President Joe Biden today is announcing proposed legislation to provide a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. Many, if not most, are now and have always been “essential workers”. In particular, they feed our country: tend, harvest and process our crops. They prepare our meals and wash dishes in restaurants. Without them, our food would be unaffordable or entirely imported.
But this is not the only way our country benefits from, and depends on, “illegal immigration”. Undocumented immigrants pay into Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance and other government programs, although they are not allowed to access their benefits. The government identifies these payments as “irregular”, but keeps the money nonetheless. Immigrants shop at local businesses, pay sales tax, and pay rent to their landlords — providing funding for schools that their children, most of whom are citizens, attend. Their children grow up to make big or small contributions to our country, just like everyone else’s children.
The Covid pandemic has brought our nation’s hypocrisy into full view, as many Americans have safely worked from home while undocumented immigrants in the food industry have continued to go to work every day to feed the nation. Many of them have become sick and died as a result. Yet we still have “leaders” like Nebraska’s Governor Ricketts who stated that undocumented meatpacking workers would not qualify for the vaccine.
I am aware that a significant percentage of Americans, a majority even, are angry about people crossing our borders and working without permission. There is a very simple solution to that particular problem: create an efficient, organized system to give them permission and working papers. If they like it here and decide they want to become citizens, offer them a path. If they don’t, but they still want to work in the U.S., we should offer a way to let them do that too. In fact, we already have programs like that in border areas where Mexican citizens commute to work in the U.S. every day.
Since I have been farming, our country has had a hypocritical system which says one thing and does another. We’ve spent hundreds of billions of dollar pretending that we are trying to keep immigrants out. All the while, our leaders in both parties have known full well that we never could or would succeed. That our economy, and especially agriculture, depends entirely on them. That our Social Security system will collapse in the near-future without their children and grandchildren contributing to it. The last President to make an effort to change this bi-polar system was George W. Bush, but since then, our official hypocrisy has only worsened. It reached its height — or its nadir — during the last four years.
There is no guarantee that President Biden can generate enough support to pass a bill to reform our immigration laws. This issue has traditionally been considered one of the “3rd rails” of politics. Like many other initiatives, it would require a 2/3 majority vote in the Senate. That said, the Senate has traditionally been the place with some bi-partisan agreement on the issue. States with agricultural economies make up the majority of our nation, and every Senator from those states knows the importance of immigrants to the production of food.
California, of course, has both one of the largest populations of immigrants in the U.S., and the farm economy most dependent on them. It’s been a long time since our state had anyone as close to the top of our nation’s leadership as Vice-President Kamala Harris now is. The fact that she is a first-generation American herself makes it even more appropriate that the new administration take on this issue and help us as a nation move past the divisive and hateful rhetoric around it.