The U.S. government and U.S. society gain much from migrant laborers and give little back beyond criminalization, stress, suffering and death. This dishonest relationship must change.
- Seth M. Holmes
Antonio Gutierrez was working at a local deli when the light fixture came crashing down on his arm, tearing open a bloody gash that remains to this day an unevenly-healed scar across his arm. The 17-year-old boy received no compensation for the injury, and displayed a certain pride when I asked him how long it took for him to recover. "It's nothing. Los mexicanos son muy duros (Mexicans are very strong)," he said.
The seemingly isolated incident connects to a disturbing national trend. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Hispanic worker deaths have risen by more than 76% since 1992, while the overall number of worker deaths have actually declined. Although growth of the Hispanic population in the workforce partly accounts for the discrepancy, lack of training, poor communication skills, and exploitation of undocumented workers all exacerbate the situation.
According to Raj Nayak of the California-based National Employment Law Project, undocumented workers are less inclined to join a union, which helps protect workers, or protest when conditions seem dangerous. The statistics also correspond to anthropologist Seth M. Holmes' 2004 work, "Oxacans Like to Work Bent Over," on undocumented berry-pickers in California. Holmes' analysis discribes the naturalization of suffering among migrant workers, and its internalization as a form of ethnic pride. In an eloquent and piercing observation of Californian berry fields, Holmes writes: "The migrant labor camp looks like chains of rusted tin-roofed tool sheds lined up within a few feet of each other and have been mistaken for small chicken coops in long rows." Such abusive conditions must end, and it needs to begin with bringing undocumented immigrants out of the shadows.