Picking fruit and vegetables is a crummy job that Americans aren’t exactly eager to do. Not at any wage.
Yet recently, in a tragedy set against the backdrop of the lush farmland of Central California, a husband and wife were on their way to do a couple of those crummy jobs – when instead they wound up at the morgue.
The farm workers were 35-year-old Santo Hilario Garcia and 33-year-old Marcelina Garcia Profecto. One fateful day last week, Garcia came out of his house before 7 a.m. and got behind the wheel of an SUV, with Profecto beside him. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents spotted Garcia and concluded that he fit the description of a suspect they were after. So they trailed him and pulled him over. As the agents exited their vehicle, Garcia panicked and sped away. The SUV slid off the road, flipped over and crashed into a power pole. The couple died at the scene.
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Two other details: First, at home, the couple left behind six children who are now orphans. A half dozen kids will grow up without parents, maybe wind up in foster care.
And second, this dreadful story could have been avoided if the ICE agents were better at their jobs. You see, they made a mistake. They weren’t after Garcia, only someone who looked like him.
That’s understandable. In these dark days of fear and loathing, all Latino immigrants look alike.
You hear anti-immigrant pundits on television talking about how farmers want “open borders” so they can keep wages low and exploit immigrants while denying jobs to Americans. It’s one of those colossally ignorant statements that comes from city folks who think that milk comes from the supermarket.
With unemployment in California at a mere 4 percent, most of the folks who want to work are working. Meanwhile, those who don’t want to work have the whole day free to call into talk radio shows and complain about how there are no jobs.
A fast-food restaurant near my house needs workers and it is offering $11 per hour, the state’s minimum wage.
In San Diego County, an avocado farmer insists he can do better and that his workers can earn as much as $15 per hour. In Fresno County, a citrus farmer tells me that he is paying workers $22 per hour to pick mandarin oranges.
These gentlemen and other growers make up California’s agriculture industry, which brings in $45 billion annually. Neither has ever had an American come up to them and ask for a job picking fruit.
California – which has the world’s sixth largest economy – couldn’t survive without farming. And farming would vanish without illegal immigrant labor.
Hatred and heated rhetoric doesn’t bring in the harvest.
I didn’t read this story in a book. I saw it with my eyes. I was born and raised in Central California. That is my home. The people there – who are often looked down on by clueless sophisticates in San Francisco and Los Angeles – are my people.
And, where immigration is concerned, my people live in the real world. Unlike the folks in Rust Belt states like Ohio and Pennsylvania who want to curl up in the fetal position and wait out the global economy by relying on Trump administration tariffs on steel and aluminum, the people in Central California are too busy working to stop and listen to those who say there is no work.
In fact, the state’s farmers are so productive, and their industry so efficient, that they grow more than half of the produce in the United States and still have a surplus to sell overseas. So if countries like Canada, Mexico, South Korea and Brazil – which make up more than half of steel imports into the United States – retaliate against Trump’s tariffs, agricultural exports could wind up taking the brunt of the punishment.
Back to the tragedy, I know what you’re thinking. But don’t speak to me about blame. Parents are not perfect. Like ICE agents, they make mistakes. These parents made the mistake of living in the country illegally. Then they made the additional – and fatal – mistake of fleeing from law enforcement officers. And for those mistakes, they paid a very high price.
Still, when confronted by heartbreaking stories like these, Americans can’t get so focused on legality that we lose sight of our humanity. That is, if we want to continue to claim to be a civilized people.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.