Not too long ago, I spent a summer harvest at a migrant worker camp in Maine, reporting a story for GQ. After a week or so, I got sick of the rice and beans at the camp, so I decided to go for some lobster rolls in Milbridge, the nearest town. Hector and Miguel, two of the workers, agreed to join me. They had come from Mexico to work sugarcane and green beans in Florida, and then had traveled up I-95 to Maine with a carload of others to rake blueberries in the hot purple barrens.
Milbridge is a tiny coastal town like so many in Maine -- a church steeple, a bed-and-breakfast, pink petunias in pots on porches -- and tourists on their way to Acadia National Park easily stumbled into it. The camp with the migrant workers was five minutes down the road. Eight men to a bunk, outdoor plumbing, laundry hanging from the branches of the birch trees, kids rocking babies to sleep while parents collapsed after working all day in the heat. The disconnect between the two worlds hit me hard each time I went in one and out the other.
"It's good money here," Hector said. "Right here, I'm gonna tell you, you can take four grand home in one month."
With a national unemployment rate at 9.1 percent, anyone could point to these guys and say they should go home and give America back its jobs. Washington County, where the blueberry barrens are located, has the highest unemployment rate in Maine, 10.1 percent.
But the locals don't rake. That quaint community tradition died out about a generation ago. "Every year I try to hire locals," a crew chief in the barrens told me one morning "This year I had six who signed up. They lasted a week. They said it was too hot. And then I have these people from Mexico asking for more work. More."
The fiery rhetoric about immigration is, of course, heating up as we enter election season, and in Washington the consensus seems to be that getting rid of the people from Mexico is simply the right thing to do. Obama has already deported more than one million illegal immigrants; at this rate he will have sent home more in one term than George W. Bush did in two.
We talk about building the wall, about increasing the number of border security guards, about manned surveillance drones, and we hear about more states like Arizona enacting even tighter laws designed to stop the invasion of illegal immigration from Mexico. So much shouting over so many years seems to have created a mythology too complete for even facts to alter.
The fact is there is no invasion. New census data analyzed by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center shows that the number of people leaving Mexico for the U.S. has declined by a convincing 60 percent since 2006. The growth of our Hispanic population is now driven by births, not immigration.
Babies. Is that what we're so afraid of?
I wonder if we'll ever admit to what we're really talking about here, and when a real conversation about race in America will happen.
When we got to the restaurant, I worried that Hector and Miguel would stick out and that the locals in their skirts and lobster bibs would stare or maybe even lean away. But by now people in Maine are used to the influx of Hispanics during blueberry season, and no one seemed to even notice us.
We ordered beer. We got to talking about family, and Miguel kept calling Hector "Pedro."
"Wait, is it Hector or Pedro?" I asked. Hector reached into his pocket and pulled out his green card.
"See, it says 'Hector,'" he said. "I have other papers that say it, too."
"A green card is yellow," Miguel pointed out. "I don't know why they call it green."
"They were salmon-colored for a while," Hector said. "The government keeps changing the colors."
The going rate in the streets of Boston was $100 for the whole identity package: green card, Social Security number, driver's license. It was unsettling to hear how easy it was, but so was the notion that people had to lie and cheat and hide in order to do the work Americans have refused to do, or are too busy to do, or can't seem to get themselves interested in doing.
"In two years I will have enough money and I will go home," Hector told me. He wired his money to his family in Mexico. He would return to them whenever he had earned enough. "I miss my wife," he said. "I miss my country."
That was the other thing: Quite a few of the migrants I met didn't even want to be here. They were grateful for the work, exceedingly grateful for the money, but other than that, America wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
The lobster rolls were huge, fat pink meat cascading off beds of piping hot bread, and when the waitress put them in front of us she said, "Enjoy!"