THE BLOG
12/02/2014 06:29 pm ET Updated Feb 01, 2015

Take Down the Walls

I stood with thousands of others near the Brandenburg Gate in the brisk autumn evening of November 9, 2014 as the balloons that had lyrically depicted the boundaries of the former brick and barbed wire of the Berlin Wall, lifted in the air. It was a poetic celebration of 25 years of freedom from the wrongful border that had divided families, neighbors, and an entire city for 28 years. We were standing not far from where President Kennedy famously said "Ich bin ein Berliner," in solidarity for those subjected to this and other oppressive regimes; we were at the same location where decades later, President Reagan spoke of change, openness, freedom and liberty.

I was there along with the multitude of celebrants because I had lived in Berlin when the wall went up. Burned into the foundation of my childhood memory are images of those killed while attempting to escape the oppression of the Soviet command. I remembered the city as a gray, struggling place, not yet recovered from the devastation of World War II and in the deep grip of the Cold War. It was the very emblem of it. But in November of 2014, Berlin glowed with the exuberance of liberty, and glistened with the vigor of economic revitalization.

The Cold War was a war that was never declared and so was never terminated. In some ways, perhaps it is not really over; perhaps its chilly reach now extends farther than the European theatre. The Russians hastily built the Berlin Wall in 1961 in order to stop migration, to halt the exodus of professional talent and skilled workers from the Russian sector to the Allied areas in the west. In North America today, people are walled off in greater numbers than in Berlin during the Cold War, literally and symbolically. We still have physical barriers lining places along the border between the United States and Mexico, and barriers of economy and liberty that divide us even more.

In 1960, the year before barbed wire was rolled out along the streets of Berlin, Edward R. Murrow reported from Immokalee, Florida in his famous documentary "Harvest of Shame" about the conditions of farmworkers there. "These are the forgotten people," he said, "the under-protected, the under-educated, the under-clothed, the under-fed."

Things have not changed much in Immokalee in the 50 years since. The recently released documentary Food Chains chronicles the plight of farm workers there who were once held in debt bondage and conditions that were characterized as a form of modern-day slavery by former Florida US Attorney Douglas Molloy, who said in 2010 that if an American eats a tomato in winter, it was likely produced by "slavery, plain and simple."

"Think before chewing," is a slogan on a painted mural in the office of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. As carefully as we have learned to think about our food - as cautiously as we count calories, as mindful as we have become of the gallons of water it takes to make it, the miles it takes to travel to us, and the hours it takes to produce it -- when we give thanks for what arrives daily to our plates, we should include thanks to the many hands that delivered it to us.

According to a recent report from the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the food system comprises over 13 percent of the US Gross Domestic Product, but over 80 percent of the workers in the system earn low or poverty wages. Our calories are high while our food is cheap -- and cheap food depends on low wages.

When the National Labor Relations Act was enacted in 1935, farm and domestic workers were deliberately excluded, due to pressure from the south and its economic interest in maintaining the cheap labor to which it had become accustomed. Even with the reforms of 1966 that followed the civil rights movements of the time, farm workers remain excluded from the protection of overtime laws and certain minimum wage requirements.

It need not be an experience in despair to see through the food chain curtain. Consumers have a powerful voice, as shown by the success of the Fair Food Program of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which is now subscribed to by about a dozen big brand companies, including MacDonald's, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe's. The campaign, which continues to gain adherents, was chronicled in the "Food Chains" movie and in Barry Estabrook's beautifully written book, "Tomatoland." You can support Fair Trade programs -- and, you can support immigration reform.

According to the Economic Research Service of the USDA half of the people who work the fields to produce our food are undocumented immigrants, overwhelmingly from Mexico. Immigration reform would not solve all the complications of fairness in our food system, but it would be an important component. Despite an urgent call for reform throughout the agricultural system, the Republican led house was unwilling to pass the Senate's immigration reform bills of 2013. With new Senate leadership in place, legislative immigration reform is more uncertain, and President Obama's recent attempt to address aspects of it by executive order is not only understandable but a needed helping hand.

President Obama is criticized by some for saying to Congress: "Pass a bill" to advance comprehensive immigration reform. To me, his statement has the ring of "Tear down this wall."