It's always tough to be an immigrant: new culture, new language, new rules. But what's it like to be an immigrant during a severe recession? And what's it like to be here without documents? There's no better place to explore this than California: it's estimated that a quarter of the nation's roughly 12 million undocumented immigrants live there.
I spent a week reporting in California, my home state for 33 years. I hung out with Mexican day laborers on a corner in East Los Angeles. I visited almond farms, cotton fields, and vineyards and spoke with men picking the crops. I met Filipino home healthcare workers â€“ the men and women who take care of our grandparents, bathing, grooming, and feeding them at the end of their lives.
Farm workers at the end of the day in the San Joaqin Valley
My rather unstartling conclusion: Times are tough for immigrants in America, especially so for the undocumented. There's not enough work. People live in fear of deportation.
I can also tell you one other thing that I didn't need to spend a week reporting to conclude: The immigration system is broken. Everybody agrees on that. Nowhere is the breakdown more apparent than in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley.
Forty years ago, Edward R. Murrow produced the television documentary "Harvest of Shame." Americans were shocked at the plight of migrant farm workers in the United States. The documentary showed large families traveling thousands of miles, following the crops. The workers lived in destitution; many were hungry, sometimes without a bed to sleep in at night. Murrow's opening words were: "This is the way the humans who harvest the food for the best-fed people in the world get hired. One farmer looked at this and said, â€˜We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.'"
Tremendous progress has been made since then. Farm workers can unionize. They have bathrooms in the fields, receive overtime and disability insurance. Those, however, are the lucky ones. It's estimated that perhaps 75 percent of the farm workers in America are here without papers. For the undocumented, exploitation is tragically all too common.
I visited several small farm communities, and couldn't help but think of Murrow's film. I've spent time in the developing world, and some of the places I saw in California didn't feel too far removed from some poor villages I've been to in Asia or Latin America. One typical farming community, Tooleville, is no more than two streets of dilapidated houses and trailers. They have no sidewalks, no parks, and for more than a decade no clean water. One of the residents I spoke with, Eunice Martinez, herself a U.S. citizen originally from Mexico, said when she's desperate and can't get bottled drinking water, she has to drink the polluted water.
These were Murrow's final words in his documentary: "The migrants have no lobby. Only an enlightened, aroused and perhaps angered public opinion can do anything about the migrants. The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do. Good night, and good luck."
A half century later, most farm workers in America still have little voice, and the immigration debate drones on summer after summer with no progress. Murrow's closing words seem more poignant than ever.