Monday, October 17, 2016

Treat migrant farm workers as your neighbors

A few weeks back I was shopping with my family at a local grocery store. It happened to be payday for a local farm or two as 20 migrant workers from Jamaica were there cashing their checks and buying their necessities.

While the store workers treated them with the utmost care and respect as they would any customer, the “regular” customers did not. There was a palpable discomfort or fear over the workers being there, with the local residents shopping with a sense of urgency, guarded caution, and spiteful glances.

If I was noticing the ire being cast their way, I know for sure the Jamaicans were, too, and, worse yet, they had to be feeling it.

This was not the first time, nor will it be the last, that I’ve seen migrant workers treated poorly.

It’s disgusting. Is that any way to treat our neighbors?

Yes, our neighbors.

For 2 to 10 months out of the year, longer than many snowbirds, these gentlemen from afar are living in our communities in quality housing provided for them by their employers. They travel our roads, share our parks and shop our stores.

And, most importantly, they provide services that Americans won’t.

They are here because, even in a bad economy, able-bodied American men won’t come off lifestyles of public assistance or parental benevolence to pick fruits and vegetables. A job that pays $12 to $15 per hour goes wanting and has to be outsourced to workers from another country because we’ve created a society that believes farm work is just too hard, unacceptable, and something fitting a lesser people. People have to work with their hands and get dirty? Pshaw!

Luckily for all of us, the migrant workers don’t have that pitiful view. They see the value in honest work and physical labor and show something that decades ago we once considered to be “the American work ethic.”

Because they do what we once did and what we won’t do now, we aren’t starving. They bust their butts to put healthy, nice-looking produce -- things that farm machinery can’t pick or sort -- in our stores. Ironically, the very same people who looked at the Jamaicans with ire were buying the fresh goods that those men had picked days earlier.

Who knows where the disdain for them comes from: Is it because they look and sound different from most of us, or is guilt by association because of a deserved narrative against illegal aliens (which these men aren’t) who do bad things (which these men don’t) in our southern border states?

Almost all migrant farm workers in Niagara County are here legally, holding H-2A visas which allow them to be here up to 10 months at a time. When they are not here, they are back home reveling in the rewards of their hard work – that is, seeing their families living in humble homes and going to better schools that are atypical to the dead end squalor of their homeland. They are doing back breaking work to ensure that their kids aren’t and to help them rise out of a second- or third-world existence.

That’s commendable work. That’s commendable fathering.

Yet, why do we only want them to have some shadowy existence, almost off the grid, out of sight and out of mind, while they are here toiling and making good on their promises to their families?

We should be treating them as we would anyone who lives and works in our towns and villages. Not only do they deserve a passing smile at the grocery store, but they should be invited and welcomed with open arms to our churches and community events. They should made to feel like they belong.

They might be part-time neighbors, but they are good neighbors, hardworking souls who by their very nature represent the ethos that once defined the greatness of America.  


From the 17 October 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers 

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