Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The battle against ignorance goes on

These days, even checking a copy of the Seattle Times at a newsstand to find out about the day’s weather (I certainly won’t pay 75 cents for the “privilege”) can be an exercise in disgust. Of course, I wouldn’t expect to see a story about how the 13-year-old Latina, Astrid Valdivia, was “accidentally” shot in the back and killed by multiple gunshots from police fire (and it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that the two cops were also wounded by “friendly fire”). However, I would expect to see what I did see: More screaming headlines about the brown menace in the state. The reporter whose name I didn’t mention in my “vermin” post last week, Lornett Turnbull, and the Times remind me of Seattle’s “Anti-Crime” black-shirts, who even after being caught on video beating on a “suspect,” instead of taking a breath, stepping back and re-evaluating, go into a huff and take a step forward, and deliver another beating.

There has been so much misinformation about the illegal immigration problem that it is clear that racism and prejudice is the driving factor in all this. Illegal immigrants are taking jobs; illegal immigrants are exhausting social services; illegal immigrants don't pay taxes. All of these claims are either vastly overstated or outright false and provided without a hint of context, particularly in regard to the state of flux that certain sectors of the economy and labor market have always been subjected to. It seems that it is more useful to supply the populace with scapegoats instead placing the blame squarely on an incompetent and partisan politics and an unvisionary voting populace. It is also interesting to note that although the Pew Foundation claimed that their analysis of the 2010 Census suggests that there was a 35 percent increase in the number of illegal immigrants in the state—230,000—over the past three years, this is contradicted by the Foundation’s own “fact sheet” in 2007, which estimated that there were 250,000 illegal immigrants in the state in 2006, as well as by the GAO study that estimated that there were 280,000 illegal immigrants in the state that same year (the Pew Foundation, by the way, also estimates that ¼ of illegal immigrants come from countries outside of Latin America). Meanwhile, last fall the Associated Press examined government records to determine if, considering the down economy, that “natives” were applying for farm work in greater numbers. This proved not to be the case; even in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where unemployment was nearly 16 percent, getting the “natives” interested was a tough sell. Across the state, 80 percent of farm work could not be filled by U.S. citizens; even regarding the few who did accept the work, as one grower complained, it was difficult keeping them on the job, and “we had people asking for time off after they had just started. Some were actually planting the plants upside down." The AP also had trouble extracting information from the U.S. Labor Department about the application of the H2A work visa program, whose records are apparently not open to public scrutiny, but would likely confirm the difficulty growers have in using the system.

Meanwhile, an examination of the National Agriculture Workers Survey, the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey and the Farm Labor survey done by someone named Gary Huang for the Educational Resource Information Center revealed the following tidbits:

56 percent of farm workers were migrants who had travelled more than 75 miles to do crop work. 17 percent of those were “shuttle migrants” who travelled more than 75 miles between two crop jobs. 39 percent travelled to work more than 75 miles from their permanent in-state residences—and back.

Although migrant farm workers received little in employer benefits, they rarely used social services. Only one-fifth had applied for unemployment benefits in the previous two years, and not even 1 percent had applied for Social Security or disability benefits. Use of “need-based” services was also very low; despite their impoverished situation, only 17 percent applied for either government food assistance, Medicaid or other public assistance. These figures are lower than what the state claims because of the current economic situation and the fact that only those who can provide proof of legal residence can apply. Of course, people have a tendency to see one Latino face and multiply it by 10, or a hundred.

What does all of this mean? Unlike the “natives,” migrant farm workers, who may or may not be fifty percent undocumented workers, are more willing to travel the great distances necessary to actually find the work. No one is paying their “travel expenses”—such as the $2,600 being spent (yes, your tax dollars “at work”) to import every Jamaican laborer who has replaced those removed by ICE raids; of course, warm-weather Jamaicans have the added political benefit of not wishing to stay longer than necessary because of the cold weather east of the mountains—although whether they or their friends back home have any desire to come back here at all for another go is another story. The examination of the surveys also give lie to the tale that migrant workers, undocumented or not, are a burden on public services. At least for once, someone actually asked them, instead of relying on paranoid myths and stereotypical assumptions.

It’s hard to find reliably information about the Jamaicans, but one “on the spot” reporter for Fox, Dan Springer, found them on the Gebbers Farm. Despite the recent ICE raids, it still employs 700 guest workers from Mexico, along with 300 Jamaicans. The transportation costs of the Mexicans was virtually nil, but it cost nearly $800,000 to import the Jamaicans on the government dime; it is estimated that there are 4,000 Jamaican guest workers in the country, even in states like Michigan which have always been hard-hit by unemployment. Because these workers are virtually being forced on certain employers, it costs the government at least $10,000,000 to foot the tab each year to ship them in, and ship them out. Springer noted that despite a wage of $11-an-hour and pay incentives, it was virtually impossible to find “native” labor to fill these positions; he also noted that the Jamaicans couldn’t wait to get home before the snow started flying. As for their work habits, no one is speaking to that. If all the Mexicans were replaced by Jamaicans, it would cost you, Mr. and Ms. Taxpayer, $2.6 million just for Gebbers’ labor needs before even one apple was picked.

In Turnbull’s story (which is more paranoid, racist propaganda than reasoned thinking), it was noted that the state is also targeting legal immigrants, although I doubt she has the Jamaicans in mind—or the Eastern European and African immigrants I see working at the airport. For one vendor, ¾ of its work force is from Africa, most of the rest from Europe. I was surprised to learn that they earn $2-an-hour more to start than what my company offers—although I know that one airport employment agency has a website extolling the virtues of such workers, mainly by pointing out that there is a government and private business fund available to help subsidize their wages. Why would the government do this? To keep them off the public dole; spending a little prevents spending a lot—even if it means a ”native” doesn’t get the job.

But this is all humdrum stuff; aren’t you here to beat-up on “Mexicans?” While I respect Thom Hartmann—who tell us that he has the “Number One Progressive Radio Show” in the country—when I used to listen to his show I was continually frustrated when he kept blaming “Mexicans” for low wages and no jobs, as if he had never heard of China, Southeast Asia or India. The fact is that immigrant labor (especially “illegal” labor) is keeping the prices of the necessities of life low for the rest of us to afford. Raising wages to what a lazy person thinks is sufficient to get off his duff, particularly in industries like agriculture and textiles, means that the cost of the products would go beyond what the low-wage person can afford without availing themselves to charity. Raising the wages of laborers in these occupations would be nice, but then we must ask the question do these wage increases outdistance the subsequent rise in cost of food and clothing, especially in occupations where wages are not raised? If so, then I can see the point; if not, then what is your point? Rising prices also means that people will inevitably gravitate toward cheaper foreign-made goods. This country has always had this problem; migrant farm work and sweat shops have always been notorious, and foreign suppliers even worse. So while ignorant bigots give the people who feed and clothe us their closed fist, the reality is that the economy of this country cannot be “fixed” by focusing blame on the least at fault. High paying manufacturing jobs have disappeared, but like tax cuts for the richest Americans, the question is even if we had them would people buy more food or clothing in sufficient quantities to justify higher wages in those industries? That is not entirely clear; tax cuts for the rich certainly haven’t created sufficient consumerism to create jobs. And where are all these “brains” from business colleges cooking-up new and better products and creating new and better jobs? Well, most of them are trying to make a quick buck in financial gambling casinos.

As an aside, I was listening to a sports radio station when the subject of the Washington State student section at a recent game chanting “No means no” and calling an unnamed UW player a rapist came-up. Some people noted that the investigation into the case was still going on and people are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. Afterwards, UW play-by-play announcer Bob Rondeau was asked about the chanting, and he pointed out that Husky fans had little to grumble about. He recalled how former Oregon basketball coach Ernie Kent was greeted by fans in Washington with sombreros and “Mexican” songs after a rumor leaked out that he allegedly had taken a woman to Mexico in order to have an “affair,” which Rondeau regarded as classless. He might also have remembered Stanford’s Chris Hernandez being exposed to taunts and abusive treatment by UW students chanting “Hernaaaaaandez! We’re in your head!” Hernandez was thought to allow this treatment to get into his head, which only excited fans on. But why wouldn’t he feel “picked-on?” After all, there are few Latino players in basketball, and fewer still attending UW, which is why the antics are so despicable. They think it is safe to stereotype people they don’t have any contact with or deign to even acknowledge.

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