Bodies on the Border: My Response

What are your thoughts on immigration reform? Have you given this issue much of your time lately?

Shared above is a heartbreaking photojournalism piece from The New York Times. I was given the link to this documentary as a part of an assignment for a sociology class I'm taking this semester on food and society, and in the nine or so minutes that it took me to watch this film, I've been more moved to think and act critically on this issue than I have in the last nine years since I turned 18-years-old, and became a registered voter in the state of Colorado. All the talk in this year's midterm election cycle, all the ad campaigns, all the debates - they don't hold a candle, in my opinion, to the effectiveness of this documentary in communicating the pressing nature of immigration reform.

95% of the approximate 3-5 million U.S. agricultural farm workers, authorized and unauthorized, are from Mexico. Many of them average only $15,000-17,000 a year for their families, which is well below the poverty line, and are subjected to atrocious working conditions that are physically unsafe. While they work in a commodity chain that directly impacts our daily lives, as we are eating the food they harvest, process, etc., they're continuously exposed to harmful chemical pesticides and herbicides, intolerable heat, verbal abuse, and sexual assault, just to name a few, all the while being denied access to health care and other federal labor protections.

Because we eat the food they work to bring to our tables, this is an issue that we participate in everyday, every time we raise a fork or spoon to our lips, whether we like it or not.

This semester's work has me thinking a lot about the social mechanisms that are systemic causes of these realities. After decades of increased border patrol, anti-immigration legislation, and recalcitrant visa processing structures, why in the world are these people continuously trying to illicitly cross the border into a country that pays them poorly, offers little protection for their safety or overall health, and is often times racist and nativist towards them? The only answer I'm left with is - they must be desperate.

And who is causing the desperation?

The answer to this questions if, of course, complex. There is not one single person or party or country to blame. However, given the close-proximity of the U.S. to Mexico, as well as our former foreign policy gestures towards our southern neighbor such as the Bracero program, NAFTA, and structural adjustment programs, we have a huge responsibility to solve this issue.

I cannot help but think that the fact that we continuously extract labor from the vulnerable while keeping labor reproduction externalized is a purposeful mechanism in place to benefit the wealthy agrifood corporations that keep a firm cost-price grip on our nation's farmers and farm laborers. 

It always seems to come back to the profit imperative, doesn't it?

All analyzation aside, before I go, I want to mention that this documentary caused an intense emotional response in me. My former sociology professor, Dr. Lawrence Holcomb of Gordon College, always stressed to me how vital it is that we recognize our emotions when we are learning. Though the normative response is to compartmentalize the four aspects of our selves - mind, body, soul, and spirit - it can be detrimental to our comprehension and our ability to think critically if we separate our emotions from our intellectual capacities. If something makes us angry or sad or joyful, that strongly effects our beliefs, decisions and choices.

This video made me very sad and very angry, but it also left me hopeful. The fact that there are people who are working to communicate the stories of these atrocities to the masses, that there are individuals working to identify the bodies, that gives me hope that all is not lost, and that there is still good work to be done. It makes me feel like I can still make a difference. I wouldn't have been able to cope several years ago with the emotions that this video brought up in me if I hadn't been mentored by Dr. Holcomb to recognize, respect and reflect on my emotional responses to challenging educational material. I'm guessing this video might have caused an emotional reaction in you, too. I hope that instead of leaving you dismayed, it gives you positive energy to act in support of change for immigration reform.


Recommended reading:

Mixtec migrants in California agriculture: A new cycle of poverty by Carol Zabin et al. 1993.

"Nine Stories" from Immigrant America: A Portrait by Alejandro Portes and Ruben G. Rumbaut. 2006.

Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States by Seth Holmes. 2013.

"New jobs, new workers, and new inequalities: Explaining employers' roles in occupational segregation by nativity and race," from Social Problems 60 (3), 281-301, by Jill Harrison and Sarah Lloyd. 2013.

Anne Taylor