Not so long ago, the migrant farm workers would arrive at the farms almost unseen. People not involved might not know where they came from, but who cared? They picked the crops and then were gone. While they were there outside of town, they lived in housing on the farm and were transported to shopping centers in special migrant worker buses, and so they were kept mostly apart from the town and its life. They came, they picked, they moved on.
We needed them, and we need them still today. But regulations and inspections made housing them on the farms expensive and bothersome, and so now they must find shelter in the town, making it harder for them to live in the shadows and easier for landlords to exploit them. They don’t disappear at night. They are people with needs, families, and the physical presence among us that makes some in the town nervous. They speak another language, look different, and seem to have a lot of children who have entered the town’s schools. They used to come from Puerto Rico and so were U.S. citizens, but now they come from southern Mexico, from places with names that sound strange like Oaxaca, Puebla, and Chiapas. Others come from Central America, from dangerous places. They look different to eyes trained to see northern European as normal and minds trained to regard normal as right and proper, different as alien and wrong.
Why are they here? And why are they still visible after sunset? And in town with us? Why don’t they speak English? What are they saying about us when we hear their Spanish in “our” supermarkets, banks, and shops? Are they taking jobs away from Americans? Radio ranters and some politicians are calling them a horde of invaders.
Send them all home! Make them go away! Build high fences and keep them out! They’re “illegals”! which is an non-word used to criminalize people themselves, but “undocumented immigrants” sounds too neutral and “politically correct” to the ears of the fearful and resentful threatened by the lingering recession and frustrated by the new globalized economy that has slammed in their faces the door to the American dream, as we have called it so long. Now many Americans who thought they were middle class find themselves saying, “So long,” to that dream.
But what does simplism have to do with the fears and resentments? Aren’t we really talking about bigotry and xenophobia, antipathy toward strangers who come into our sheltered world from outside? Yes, we are talking about bigotry and xenophobia, but defending against the ugliness of those terms requires rationalizing the antipathy toward the outsiders who have come in, and simplism provides the means for that rationalizing.
Last night, I listened to Congressman Steve King of Iowa extol “the rule of law” he says was smashed by President Ronald Reagan when he granted amnesty to people who had entered the United States illegally. In Congressman King’s eyes, that one act of self-interested, practical leniency shattered the foundations of our country, leaving our whole system in ruins. Invading a country, Iraq, that had not attacked us did not, for him apparently, even chip the rule of law. Letting hugely profitable corporations get away with paying no taxes apparently does no damage to the rule of law even though it hurts the nation and its people. Enabling Wall Street gamblers to fleece all of us and investors to pillage our public school systems apparently does no harm because the laws needed to cover such harmful actions get passed when the beneficiaries of the harm want them passed. But those poor among us who pick our food are now made the very embodiment of lawlessness, the personifications of illegality and national ruin.
Why do they come? They come because we want them here for our use. They come because they can no longer support themselves and their families in the lands they leave to risk their lives crossing our southern border. Some come because their home countries have become too dangerous, and they don’t want their children killed, enslaved, enlisted into gangs, or forced into prostitution. The new economic conditions favor the rich among us while enabling many of us to maintain the illusion of being middle class because we can buy stuff on the cheap made by exploited labor. Those new economic conditions do not favor Americans who have lost their jobs, had their unions broken, or been forced to work more and more for less and less; neither do they favor the poor in Mexico’s southern states or in Central America.
The situation is complex. Just the economics of it are complex, and the human complexities of it are many, varied, and often heartbreaking. But simplism follows the lead of people such as Congressman King in reducing all the complexities, hopes, dreams, and tragedies of the human situation to a hypocritical reverence for the rule of law. Then people sold on the simplism bellow, “What part of illegal do you not understand?”
Here simplism functions as it does often to guard against empathy and compassion, its two great enemies that get in the way of selfishness, fear, and prejudice by calling their self-justifications into question. As long as simplism is kept in place, what’s to understand? Keep it simple, stupid. It’s the rule of law, stupid. They’re not people but an invading horde of illegals, stupid. For those who have taken refuge in simplism, complexities seem evasions of the simple facts, the plain truth, the tell-it-like-it-is honesty to which simplism pretends.
The history of immigration into the United States and the history of migrant labor are complex, varied, sometimes heroic, often tragic, and always human. To this day, the story of migrant labor is one of courage, wage theft, hope, fear, contempt, love, and violation, but simplism doesn’t want to hear it. Complex truth has its way of confusing our conclusions and inviting us to care about people we’d rather not.