Plights of The Legal and Illegal, One in the Same?
Hot, sweaty, desperate, sick, dying, dead. Migrant workers of California have been working themselves to the bone ever since the days of Steinbeck, and still do to this day. The Joad family journey may be remarkable to many of us, but for the millions still fighting for fair wages and fair conditions in the California labor force, it is the mundane and everyday and only getting more competitive.
In the Joads’ day, “Okies,” – the term many times used derogatorily to refer to the streams of migrant workers coming out of the Midwest – drove across the open plains and through arid desert in order to find work for themselves and their families. Signs entering California would read, “No Niggers or Okies,” posted on the sides of roads to dissuade prospective families with the waiting opposition and oppression ahead of them. Today, California’s Pa and Ma Joad have been replaced with migrants looking for work that go by a different name and equally demonized name, “Mexicans.”
Illegals, aliens, and illegal aliens as they are most commonly referred, come north into the California fields and construction sites from all points south in Mexico and beyond. Unlike the Joads, many of them come alone or with a close friend, sending whatever money they can back to their ailing families while others still come together as a closely-tied family unit. These men and women, numbering some 2.5 million in California and nearly 12 million nationwide, operate under a wild-west type of labor system not too dissimilar to the days of The Grapes of Wrath
. Because there is so much supply for labor, many do not have any type of regular working schedule. They wait out on corners at four in the morning looking for a scrap of a day-job any employer can throw them for a measly wage.
When it comes to feeding your family, many will resort to drastic measures. In the incident involving Casy, Tom, and a local deputy, Casy is carted off to take blame for a large fight and the ‘family’ is further fractured. This is a life not too dissimilar to those working in the U.S. illegally. When caught, existing families in America are often split up, sending one father back across the border while mother and child stay with one less income to support the lot. Many argue that because many of our present day migrant workers are committing a fundamental crime against American labor by taking jobs that could be available to American citizens; they therefore have no standing and cannot compare with the Dust Bowl, Depression era refugee. These men, women, and even children need our help.
Not one person should defend the practice of crossing our border illegally from the north or
south, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t understand and care. Our fear of the ‘other’ and of the different has scared many Americans so much that they forget the journey many of their parents and grandparents had to take in the search for jobs. Though many of the men and women of Dust Bowl era Oklahoma embarked on their journey to California as American citizens, they did so out of dire necessity, not because they were born in the United States. The advertized jobs may have well been in Mexico for how long the journey took from the Midwest to California, and it’s no coincidence that California was a ceded territory from the once sprawling Mexican state. National origin simply has no basis for discussion when your family is starving to death; anything that can be done, will be done.
These migrant workers from Mexico and elsewhere represent the Joads in all of us; they leave home for a land with promised royalties, but become victims of the system due to their absolute need of work. That necessity is what drove them and spurred many of our parents on to this great land. Out of that need, unfortunately, come abuses at the hand of bosses with complete rule and power. Unquestionably, our country cannot support tens of millions of illegal immigrants working, and many times, living under the table, but our path forward cannot be dictated by the misleading demagoguery of drug cartels, crime, and skin color. Before we can move into a reasonable debate we need to see these relative comparisons between our history, and the history of our closest neighbors.
They come out of need and stay because they have no way back. Let us help the unemployed find work in this country, but let us also understand the plight of the faceless workers of America and gain a minimum standard of rights for the people that help drive the economy for us all.