07/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Choices We Have to Make

The two biggest issues in the news of late are financial reform and immigration. Talk about contrasts: the richest and most powerful in society vs. the most outcast and oppressed. It is easy to figure out which side to be on.

I can't help reading the emails of 'Fabulous Fab' and the testimony of the Goldman Sachs guys, and think of stories I read about immigrants like this powerful piece from Jill Richardson:

He grew up in Mexico, growing corn, peppers, onions, and other crops on his family's land. But after NAFTA passed, the corn in the grocery store became cheap. So cheap that it was cheaper than the corn his family produced. He couldn't sell his corn anymore, unless he sold it at a loss. Without a way to support his family, he had to come to America to work.

Others, he said, went to the cities in Mexico to work. But there, in the factories and sweatshops (often owned by foreign corporations), they still couldn't make enough to support their families. So they came to the United States too. None of them wanted to. They didn't want to leave their families, their friends, their culture, their way of life, and everything they knew. They had no choice.

Now, he lives in Immokalee, FL along with countless other farmworkers. Some are undocumented but many are here legally. This can happen to anyone, he said. Even slavery can happen to anyone - not just undocumented workers. In Immokalee, there have been several cases of modern day slavery in which farmworkers were threatened at gunpoint and held in captivity, forced to work in the fields. But even those who aren't slaves live in harsh conditions in Immokalee.

The workers all live within a 9 square block radius, surrounding a parking lot where they look for work before dawn each day. They live close to the parking lot because they can't afford any form of transportation besides walking or perhaps a bike. And because all of the workers need to live within these 9 square blocks, housing prices are high even though the housing conditions are horrific. One worker will share a rundown trailer with 7 to 14 others.

I've heard their description of their daily lives before, so he didn't repeat it. They wake up at 4am to go to the parking lot, where buses arrive representing each of the farms that employ farmworkers. The farmers aren't given regular jobs, so they don't know if they will have work ever day. The reason why they don't have regular jobs, he thinks, is so the employers can make the workers compete in a race to the bottom. The worker who is willing to work in the most degrading conditions for the least pay will be selected to work.

The buses choose their workers for the day, and then drive up to 2 hours away to the fields. There, the workers wait for the dew to dry (although they are not paid for their time as they do this) and then get to work picking tomatoes. They are paid according to the number of 35 lb buckets they fill with tomatoes. A worker must pick 2 tons of tomatoes to make $50 in a day. Real wages for this work have not risen in years. However, the number of employers has gone down as the farms consolidated, and I believe he told me that the price the farmers are paid for the tomatoes (out of which they pay their workers) has gone down.

I asked if the workers work on crops other than tomatoes. Oh yes, he said. Onions, watermelons, lettuce, citrus, potatoes, all kinds of crops. "And are the workers exposed to pesticides?" I asked. "Do they get sick?" Oh yes, he said. But it doesn't do them any good to run a campaign against the pesticides. Even if the pesticides were gone, the overall system of exploitation would still be in place.

At the end of the day, the workers have spent 14 hours working for little money and only to go home (lousy and crowded though their housing may be) and prepare to do it all again. On holidays, he told me, everyone leaves Immokalee to visit family but the farmworkers stay. He said it's as if everyone understands that the farmworkers don't have a right to go be with their families for holidays. And yet the abundance on everyone's family table at Thanksgiving is due to the work of the farmworkers. How ironic is it that the very people who produce our food can't afford food themselves?

You read stories like this man's, and it makes articles like the one that appeared in the WaPo over the weekend all the more appalling: the legislative debate on immigration keeps moving to the right. That is with eight more Democratic Senators than when immigration reform was last debated in 2007, 22 more Democratic House members, and the numbers of Latinos an ever higher share of the electorate. Democrats need to pull themselves together, do the right thing, and then confidently sell what they have done to the American people, not give in to the fear mongering.

Our government needs to decide which side it is on: 'Fabulous Fab' or the hardworking immigrants trying to support their family. We know that the conservative view is to be on the side of Fab: selfishness is a virtue, greed is good, the invisible hand, let the lions eat the weak, and all that. They want to cut Fab's taxes and get government out of his way so that he can get the market to do its magic. Conservatives believe that if we just let 'Fabulous Fab' do his fabulous thing, all our economic problems will be solved. He is a true hero of America for them, and God forbid if we tax him or regulate him or prosecute him for fraud.

Some of us, though, believe that government's better role is to be on the side of the homeowners who lost their homes and the workers who lost their jobs because of Fab's greed. And, yes, it should be on the side of that immigrant worker in Florida who lost everything he had in Mexico because of what we did on NAFTA, and now is here working 14 hours a day for $50 a day (if he's lucky).

If our government sides with Fabulous Fab over that immigrant in Immokalee, something is seriously wrong. I don't expect Republicans to understand that: Fabulous Fab is the superman of their Ayn Rand fantasy lives. But I do expect Democrats to get this choice right.

Cross-posted at

You can read all of my work on financial reform, health care and other topics at my home blog,

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