Yesterday, in the first debate between Iowa candidates for US Senate, Bruce Braley, in support of comprehensive immigration reform, stated that 30-40 percent of corn detasseling in Iowa was performed by immigrants. Initially, I wanted to fact-check this seemingly unreasonable statistic, but was surprised to find that this statistic was not only supported by robust evidence but also just barely scratched the surface of the struggles of migrant workers who work Iowa’s soil.
The statistic Braley cites reflects a broader population trend in Iowa: by 2040 the percentage of Hispanics will rise to 12 percent by 2040 from just 5.5 percent in 2010. An article in the Des Moines Register harvest of change series referenced recently in the blog pointed this fact out and also pointed out how this fits into the story of Iowa. Matt Russell, a mentor in the Practical Farmers of Iowa program, said, “It has been the story of Iowa, immigrants coming and farming, and he’s in that tradition. Getting into agriculture and owning a farm, that has historically been a great wealth-building opportunity for immigrants.” A similar article in Slate’s state by state series extrapolated on the connection between Mexico milpas and the Iowan cornfields:
“But in Mexico, the ordinary milpas—cornfields—are shrinking in size, and those people who traditionally worked them can’t make enough to survive in their villages. So they are leaving, like animals in a drought, going to the big cities to find jobs, and they are crossing the border into the U.S. because that is where most jobs are. They come to Iowa because they will be hired and work in meat-packing plants cheaply, hard, and they work in the fields cheaply, and hard. And as they walk las milpas in Iowa to do as their culture has done for thousands of years, anti-immigration ideologues bash them for spoiling what they see as a field of dreams as clean and pure as Iowa butter, as nostalgic as baseball, as all-American as Kevin Costner.”
This anti-immigration mindset is confirmed in the stories of migrant workers in Iowa who do the hard work of detasseling. Their experiences are detailed in the findings of an Iowa Watch investigative report:
- In the span of three years, one Iowa lawyer dealt with 39 migrant worker cases of wage theft, broken contracts, substandard housing, working arrangement violations
- Noé Alegria, a migrant worker since 2010 who supports five of his nine children through school, filed a lawsuit this year against Monsanto and its contractors alleging all of the violations mentioned above. Some of the workers went around and collected aluminum cans for the deposit to survive.
- Between 2008 and 2012 there were 2,519 work-related pesticide poisonings in Iowa, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.
- To magnify all these problems, legal aid organizations are unable to represent undocumented workers, Gross said, but the codes and regulations technically protect undocumented workers.
But we don’t talk about these abuses of the legal system, we don’t talk about people like Noé Alegria, and we don’t talk about how Iowa is the field of dreams for so many immigrants. Instead, our solution to any immigration problem involves this magic bullet solution we have labeled “comprehensive bipartisan immigration reform.” The current proposal’s framework includes: a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, effective employment verification system, and an improved process for admitting future workers to serve our nation’s workforce needs. This was the frame for Braley’s mention of corn detasseling – one in which immigrants are labor cogs, “workforce needs”, which are crucial for a newer, more efficient economic system. So hold these two pictures in your mind and think which one is a better starting point for policies to correct these abuses happening in Iowa now: 1) The workers to fill the gaps in our nation’s workforce needs or 2) The immigrants who try to build their own American history in its soil. There’s another choice that is linked to the Braley-Ernst campaign and it’s the contrast between someone who grew up castrating hogs on the family farm and the former trial lawyer who doesn’t think farmers who never went to law school should serve as the head of the Judiciary committee. But perhaps this distinction is a false choice. It should be clear by now that there are immigrants who need the support from farmers and the legal aid of lawyers. That should be what bipartisan and comprehensive immigration reform looks like for Iowa.